Baseball Things, June 3
Baseball Thing 1: Baseball's Newest Star
San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic is one of the most famous baseball cities in the world. The population is a little less than 200,000 -- roughly the same as Huntsville or Akron -- and yet, over the years, more than 100 major league players were born there and many more grew up around there.
For a time, you might remember, San Pedro was known as the city of shortstops: Sports Illustrated's Steve Wulf did a story about the town more than 30 years ago called "Standing Tall At Short." This was where Ton Fernandez and Mariano Duncan and Rafael Ramirez and Manny Lee and Julio Franco and Rafael Belliard and Jose Uribe grew up.
"It's very much like the United States in the 1930s, during the Depression," my friend Art Stewart, then the Royals scouting director, told Wulf. "Those were sad times, but they produced great ballplayers because baseball was one of the only escapes."
San Pedro was always about more than just shortstops, of course. Two of the great hitters of the 1980s, Pedro Guerrero and George Bell, came from San Pedro. Later, there was Sammy Sosa. The best player to ever come out of the San Pedro is probably second-baseman Robinson Cano.
But, at its soul, San Pedro de Macrois is still that City of Shortstops. And the latest to animate the game: Minnesota's brilliant Jorge Polanco.
He is, in so many ways, the archetype of the San Pedro story. The Twins signed him on the day he turned 16; they outbid the Yankees to get him. What made his signing so interesting is that it wasn't the big news. The BIG news was that the Twins also signed Polanco's childhood friend Miguel Sano, who was perhaps the most sought after amateur baseball player in the world. It's unclear if the Twins signed Polanco in part so they could get Sano, but for years Polanco was rarely mentioned in stories EXCEPT as Sano's childhood friend.
Sano was a Baseball America Top 100 prospect in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Polanco BARELY broke into the Top 100 in 2016 -- he was ranked 99th.
Polanco was an odd talent. He was fast, but he couldn't steal bases. He was a better fit at second base, but the Twins needed him to play short. He gained so much weight, so fast that his whole body type seemed to change overnight -- nobody quite knew what he was. A slap hitter? A gap hitter? A power hitter? He made it to the big leagues for a handful of games in 2014 and 2015, became a regular in 2017 and was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Stanozolol in 2018.
In a recent post, I talked some about the Improver Skill. It's the toughest skill for a baseball scout to evaluate but, in many ways, it's the most important. Does a player have what the various tools necessary to get better and better? And what are those tools anyway?
With Polanco, you saw various keywords used in all of his scouting reports: "Quiet." "Intelligent." "Coachable." "Driven." "Strong makeup."
These sorts of descriptions offer no guarantee for success, obviously, but they're not a bad place to start.
And what we've seen with Polanco is that he just gets better and better. At the moment, he's hitting .338/.405/.584, and all three of those splits are way up. He leads the American League in hits, extra-base hits, and offensive WAR and is top 5 in average, OPS, doubles, triples runs created. He's a fascinating defensive player in that his range is well below average and yet he somehow still plays a solid shortstop. He's an MVP candidate.
And the Twins, not incidentally, are in first place and have won 40 of their first 58 games for the best record in the league.
This Twins team is so fun right now. They are mashing home runs at a record pace, it's crazy seeing C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Eddie Rosario, and Max Kepler turn into Murderer's Row. Mitch Garver went through a stretch where he homered more or less every time he swung the bat. Byron Buxton is doing electrifying Byron Buxton things. That rotation is pitching well (more on Jake Odorizzi coming) and the bullpen has been terrific.
And Polanco is bringing it all together. It's only a third of a season, but wow is he fun to watch right now.
Baseball Thing 2: The Reds Enigma
The Cincinnati Reds are in last place in the National League Central. That's probably not a surprise. But the Reds have scored 36 more runs than they've allowed so far this year, which suggests they should actually be battling for first.
So what gives? It's pretty simple, really: The Reds are 12-21 in games decided by two runs or less, the worst record in the National League. And they're 8-1 in games decided by six runs or more, the best record in all of baseball.
Their season so far can probably be summed up by their closer, Rafael Iglesias, who has been a good pitcher for the last three seasons and is pitching about as well as he usually does. He has only given up nine runs this year. But they have come at inopportune times.
On April 1, he came into a tie game against the Brewers and gave up back-to-back doubles. That was a loss.
Five days later, he came into a tie game against the Pirates, pitched two scoreless innings, then gave up a run in the 10th. That was a loss.
On April 14 against the Dodgers, he came into a game with the Reds leading by a run. He walked David Freese and gave up a walk-off homer to Joc Pederson.
Two weeks later against the Mets, he came into a tie game and gave up a double, single and sac fly to lose.
Two days later, against the Giants, he was given a one-run lead and coughed up the tying homer to Stephen Vogt. The Reds went on to lose that game.
Two days after that, tie game against the Giants, and gave up a two-run homer to Brandon Crawford to lose.
Those are eight of the nine runs he's allowed all season. Six losses.
And six losses is the difference between the Reds actual record and their projected Pythagorean record based on runs scored and allowed.
Baseball Thing 3: Giolito!
I watched Lucas Giolito a lot last season. I watched him because I was bewildered how a guy many scouts called the best pitching prospect had turned into a batting practice punching bag. I mean sometimes you will see a prospect struggle and you see the talent but see that something is holding him back -- maybe it's command or an inability to get the slider over for strikes or tipping pitches or something.
Lucas Giolito didn't seem to do anything well. His fastball was low 90s. His curveball was batter dessert. He couldn't find the plate, he gave up bombs, and every time he took a step forward (he pitched a good game against Tampa Bay in early August), he followed it up with 10 steps backward (he gave up seven runs his next time out against the Yankees).
I did not expect Giolito to ever pan out after that season.
And this year, he has been fantastic -- every bit the phenom that scouts were talking about when he was 20. It's been amazing. Giolito might be my Cy Young leader (him or Verlander). He's been that good.
What's he doing now? Well, there are a few things. One, his velocity is up significantly. His low-90s fastball is now a mid-90s fastball. What's so interesting about that is going into last season, Giolito talked a lot about how he wasn't concerning himself with velocity. He and his pitching coach talked about forgetting velocity and focusing on location instead.
I can't help but wonder if the whole "I'm not going to worry about velocity" spiel sounds a whole lot better than it actually is. After all, Giolito became one of the game's top prospects by throwing really hard.
It's unclear why he lost velocity in the first place, but now he's throwing harder again (and with a significantly higher spin rate). There are obvious benefits (batters slugged .524 on his four-seamer last year, this year it's down 200 points). There are also less obvious ones -- his change-up is a more devastating pitch. He's throwing the change-up much more this year, and batters are hitting .127 against it.
Add in that his slider, which was always supposed to be his wipeout pitch, is now wiping out batters, particularly right-handed batters. They can't hit it.
Giolito it 8-1 with a 2.54 ERA, a league-leading 2.63 FIP, he's striking out 10 batters per nine innings (he came into this year averaging 6.4 Ks per nine), his walks are down, he has been absolutely terrific. I've thought for a while that if Michael Kopech had not gotten hurt, the White Sox might have been a real surprise team in 2019. As it is, the White Sox are a little bit of a surprise even without Kopech, and if Giolito has figured things out, well, look out below, Chicago could be building something very special.
Baseball Thing 4: No! Yes! Lorenzo Cain!
A few years ago, I made the point that Lo Cain in Hebrew translates to "No! Yes!" Well, Lo means "No," and yes would actually be spelled "Ken" but it can be pronounced "Cain," and anyway, it's the perfect language for the way Lorenzo Cain plays defense.
How many times has a baseball been hit into a gap, a fan screams "No!" Lo Cain chases it down, and the fan screams "Yes!"
Jon Heyman reminded everyone via Twitter and Lorenzo Cain has not won a Gold Glove. How absurd is that? They started giving out Gold Gloves in 1957. Lorenzo Cain is the greatest defensive player in the Gold Glove era to have not won a Gold Glove. Frankly, it's an embarrassment to the award.
Or is it? It's worth a closer look.
First, let's make the point that Cain really is one of the greatest defensive centerfielders in baseball history.
By WAR Runs Fielding:
Andruw Jones, 235
Willie Mays, 185
Jimmy Piersall, 182
Paul Blair, 174
Devon White, 133
Lorenzo Cain, 127
Kevin Kiermeier, 127
Willie Wilson, 108
Kenny Lofton, 108
Willie Davis, 104
Now, you may or may not agree with the numbers or the order, but you have to admit that that's a pretty strong list of amazing defensive centerfielders -- and they are followed by Garry Maddox, Curt Flood, Chet Lemon, Tris Speaker, I mean, all-time great defenders. Other than a surprisingly low ranking for Joe DiMaggio (45th -- none of the DiMaggios rank that high), the players more or less match the expectation.
In other words, it's a near certainty that Cain is really THAT good -- and yet, he keeps getting overlooked for the Gold Glove. What gives?
Well, take a look: In 2017 and 2018, he deserved the award. But he was beaten out by Ender Inciarte, who is a fantastic defensive centerfielder in his own right and ALSO deserved the award. I think they should have given it to Cain both years, but it's pretty close. In fact, it was pretty much a toss-up either time.
In double fact, if Cain had won those two Gold Gloves and someone had beaten out Inciarte in 2016 as well, HE would be one of the greatest centerfielders to have not won a Gold Glove.
In 2016, Cain missed a bunch of the season with injury and only played 72 games in center. Kiermaier won the Gold Glove. Kiermaier, as you can see by the list above, is one of the greatest centerfielders in baseball history too.
In 2015, Cain had his best defensive year as a centerfielder. He was incredible, a huge reason that the Royals won the World Series. How did he not win it that year? Well, it went to Kiermaier, who had perhaps the greatest defensive season in baseball history. Kiermaier was an unbelievable 42 runs above average in 2015. It was Ted Williams' .400 season. It was Roger Maris' 61 homer season. You HAD to give Kiermaier the award that year.
In 2014, Cain was unbelievable defensively ... but he wasn't really a centerfielder. He played 93 games in center and 77 games in right. That WAS the year that the voters gave Gold Gloves to Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, and Cain should have won it at either position over those two. But because he was a hybrid, the voters just missed him.
In 2013, Cain became a regular player for the first time, and he played only 115 games, and yes he was a defensive force but you can't really blame anyone for not noticing it yet.
In other words, the fact that Lo Cain has not won a Gold Glove sounds worse than it is. Yes, he should have won multiple Gold Gloves. I responded to Heyman's tweet by saying that they should name the Gold Gloves after Cain. But when you look more closely, you do understand how it happened.
Baseball Thing 5: Our Rundown of Interesting Stuff
-- Mike Minor is 5-4 with a 2.74 ERA and a 3.44 FIP. Solid. Not mind-blowing. And yet, he leads American League pitchers in bWAR. Why? It's that weird defensive adjustment again. Minor has not allowed an unearned run, the batting average on balls in play against him is about league average, and yet he's getting a huge adjustment for pitching in front of a bad Rangers defense.
-- We should have a weird Joey Gallo stat every week. You might know that when Gallo connects with the baseball, he's hitting exactly .500. But this week's weird stat is that he has one more single (18) than home runs (17). If he can turn that around, he will become the first player in baseball history to have three qualifying seasons with more homers than singles.
Barry Bonds, 2001, 73 homers, 49 singles
Mark McGwire, 1998, 70 homers, 61 singles
McGwire, 1999, 65 homers, 58 singles
Gallo, 2017, 41 homers, 32 singles
Gallo, 2018, 40 homers, 38 singles
New Philly Jay Bruce so far this year has 14 homers and 10 singles.
-- The Pirates will not soon recover from that terrible Chris Archer trade. Look: Austin Meadows was the first outfielder taken in the 2013 draft and out of high school, no less. He immediately dominated the minors, moving up into the top 50 prospects in baseball after just one year. He then became the Pirates No. 2 prospect behind Tyler Glasnow -- both of them were Top 25 prospects before the 2017 season. That's just two years ago. Glasnow and Meadows were the exciting future of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
And the Pirates traded BOTH OF THEM to Tampa Bay for ... CHRIS ARCHER? How in the WORLD did they think that was going to work out?
It has worked out very, very badly. Archer is 30 and pretty close to unpitchable. Meadows is putting up an MVP type season. He leads the AL in batting average at .357, and he's slugging .656 with 12 homers in 41 games. Glasnow is hurt though there are signs of him returning in July. Before he got hurt, he was 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA, a 2.24 FIP and a .910 WHIP.
The trade didn't get terrible negative Pirates attention at the time for a couple of reasons. The Pirates seemed to be trying to contend by getting Archer for the stretch run -- people love when teams go for it. Archer's reputation was probably better than his performance. Glasnow and Meadows had been kicking around as prospects for so long that many had grown bored by their potential.
But looking back, that deal was ill-advised at the time. And it is turning into one of those deals that will shape the future of two franchises.
-- The Royals are all kinds of terrible, but shortstop Adalberto Mondesi is developing into one of the most exciting players in baseball. He currently leads the league in triples and stolen bases, he's a good defensive shortstop with terrific range. He and second baseman Whit Merrifield do make it fun to watch the team play, and then you can throw in third baseman Hunter Dozier, who is hitting .314/.398/.589 with 11 home runs.
This team, for various reasons, is about as bad as any of those terrible Royals teams of the mid-2000s. But they do have many more interesting players to watch.
-- Cody Bellinger.
Batting average: First
On-base percentage: First
Slugging percentage: First
Total bases: First
Runs created: First
Runs scored: Second
Home Runs: Second
Extra-base hits: Second
-- Josh Hader has 57 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings as he attempts to become the first pitcher to strike out two batters per inning over a whole season. In 2015, Washington Nationals reliever Rafael Martin did strike out 25 batters in 12 1/3 innings, but that's not really enough innings pitched.
The closest to the magical two strikeouts per inning was Aroldis Chapman in 2014 -- he struck out 106 batters in 54 innings. Craig Kimbrel has come close a couple of times, Kenley Jansen in 2010 struck out 96 in 53 innings. But no one has done it. Hader has a real shot.
-- I so dig the story of San Diego's Kirby Yates. He's 32, has kicked around baseball for a decade, wasn't drafted, was purchased twice, was waived twice, and in his 30s he developed this split-fingered fastball that basically makes him unhittable. He leads the National League in saves, he has allowed three runs all year, he has struck out 45 batters in 26 innings.
I wondered if the split-fingered fastball revolution was over. You might remember how it dominated the late 1970s (after Bruce Sutter popularized it) through the 1980s. Mike Scott was a replacement level pitcher until he turned 30 and perfected his split-fingered fastball and then he won a Cy Young Award. There are others who were transformed -- at least briefly -- by a crazy splitter. Roger Clemens famously made it his dominant pitch when he had his renaissance.
But the pitch has proven to be difficult to perfect and maintain in more recent times; hitters began beating it mostly by ignoring it. For the splitter to work well, you have to be able to also throw a good fastball that looks like it. Otherwise, all your pitchers dive into the dirt and hitters just lay off.
Yates' split-fingered fastball is everything -- by the numbers, by the video, by the view from behind the plate, that pitch just disappears -- and he is leading a wave split-fingered relievers like Hector Neris, Touki Toussaint and Junior Guerra.