JWIB Is Back!

Welcome back to Joe’s Week In Baseball — JWIB — my baseball rundown for the week. We’re bringing this back for the final couple weeks of the season and the playoffs … it will probably appear more than once per week during the postseason.

Starting next week, JWIB will be for paid subscribers only. I hope you enjoy this free version. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, Sept. 19

Goodbye, Padres

Well, that happened in a hurry. On Aug. 10, the San Diego Padres beat the Miami Marlins 6-4 and moved to 66-49 for the season. They were basically locked into the second wild-card spot, 4 1/2 games ahead of the Reds who, let’s be honest, seemed to be playing over their heads.

I’m not sure that the Padres were exactly HAPPY in this situation — after a couple of very active offseasons, they certainly wanted to be competing with the Dodgers for the division title — but, you know, they still seemed a near-sure bet for the postseason, and with a top-three rotation of Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell, they figured to be a handful in October.

And then the team absolutely fell apart.

They lost eight of their next nine games and fell a couple games behind stubborn Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot. But, again, this is a star-studded team, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, Jake Cronenworth is having a good year, Eric Hosmer and Tommy Pham and Wil Myers all have a pedigree. Surely, they would rise back up.

In a word: No.

The Padres just got swept by the Cardinals, who I’m sure we’ll get to later. Saturday night was an absolute fiasco as they blew a two-run lead, and there was some sort of shouting match between Machado and Tatis. Today’s game wasn’t any better, as the Cardinals scored five in the first — Padres starter Jake Arrieta got one out — and held on from there.

That was the Padres’ eighth loss in 10 games. They are now tied with the Phillies, 3 1/2 games back in the race for the second wild-card.

What the heck happened?

It’s not actually clear what happened other than the team stopped getting on base (they’ve been shut out three times this month and scored just one run twice more) and they stopped pitching too (the league is slugging .484 against the Padres this month). And, obviously, it’s not great when players are screaming at each other.

It sure seems like a team-wide collapse.

When things started to go bad back in August, I wondered if the Padres might fire manager Jayce Tingler, not because that’s deserved but because that’s what often happens when the bottom rather suddenly falls out and a team still has postseason dreams. You fire the manager and try to light a fire before it’s too late.

Well, now it’s too late to jumpstart anything. The Padres are finishing the season by playing their final 12 games against the Giants, Braves and Dodgers. Bleak is probably too bright a word to use.

So, I expect Tingler will finish out the year and then be the heart of the off-season autopsy. I doubt he will survive, but looking at the way the Padres have disappointed, I’m not sure his firing will solve whatever it is that ails this team.

Monday, Sept. 20

Soto Soto Good

Can we talk for a minute about the awesomeness that is Juan Soto?

On Sept. 5, Soto accomplished something extraordinary. It probably didn’t seem that way — he went one-for-four with a walk in a 13-6 loss to the New York Mets.

But with that walk, Soto has now walked more times than he has struck out over his career.

This used to be table stakes for most of the great players — most Hall of Fame hitters in the first 100 years of baseball walked more than they struck out. Joe DiMaggio famously had almost as many home runs (361) as strikeouts (369). Joe Sewell had a 7-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Even Mickey Mantle, who struck out a lot for his day, walked more often.

There were some players in the 1990s and 2000s — Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Barry Bonds obviously, Gary Sheffield — who continued this trend even as strikeouts began to really climb. From 2001 to 2011, Albert Pujols walked 975 times and struck out just 704 — and in every single year over that span, he walked more than he struck out.

Alas, the last decade has taken a heavy, heavy toll on Pujols’ career numbers. Not only has his career batting average dropped below .300 (he was hitting .328 when he left St. Louis) but he has also now struck out more than he has walked for his career. It’s super-duper close at this moment — 1,345 walks, 1,346 strikeouts — so there’s still a shot.

But the reality is that in the last few years, strikeouts have skyrocketed so high that it’s really almost impossible for any hitter, even the greatest of them, to walk more than they strike out. Since 2013, here is the complete list of players with more than 1,000 plate appearances who have walked more than they have struck out.

  1. Juan Soto

  2. Um, anyone?

  3. Anyone?

  4. Bueller?

Yeah, that’s right: It’s Juan Soto and only Juan Soto. I mean, you look at the greatest hitters over that time:

— Mike Trout (minus-350)

— Freddie Freeman (minus-534)

— Paul Goldschmidt (minus-563)

Even Joey Votto, who probably dominated the strike zone more than any player of his era, has struck out almost 200 more times than he walked.

But Soto is … well, freakish. He started out normally enough — in his rookie year, he walked 79 times and struck out 99. In his second year, he whiffed 132 times. That’s what a young slugger looks like in today’s game.

But over the last two seasons, he has become a hitter unlike any other in the game. Here’s a stat for you: On June 29, he was hitting .273 with nine home runs, and he was walking about as often as he struck out, which is impressive enough.

Since then? He’s hitting .359/.520/.624 with 17 home runs.

And … are you ready?

Wait for it.

He has walked 81 times in 73 games. He has struck out 39.

What is this witchcraft? While so much of the attention turns to the wonders of Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — and, make no mistake, people should pay attention to them — we have a guy in Washington doing the impossible against 100-mph fastballs and exploding sliders and changeups with Barry Sanders moves. You can’t walk more than you strike out in 2021. You just can’t.

And he does.

I wonder about Juan Soto’s future. The Nationals are now abysmal and they don’t seem especially committed to turning that around. The vibes I’m getting from Washington suggest that they’re probably not going to dish out however many hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to keep Juan Soto, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they listen to trade offers sooner rather than later. It could get messy.

In the meantime, the guy just keeps on doing amazing things. Tonight? Yeah, no big deal, Soto went one-for-three, walked three times, didn’t strike out, scored a couple of runs. Also the Nationals lost. It might be like that for a while.

Tuesday, Sept. 21

Cardinals win again. Of course.

I’ve long enjoyed a fun back and forth with Cardinals fans; anyway, I thought it was fun. Cardinals fans didn’t all appreciate me poking fun at the whole “best fans in the game” thing or the pure and unadulterated awfulness of St. Louis pizza or my remark one year that the city flower of St. Louis was probably an orange cone since they pretty much blocked every path.

Well, hey, I was columnist for The Kansas City Star then … and it’s simply a job requirement for Kansas City columnists to lash out against St. Louis.

But the truth is, I’ve long dreaded the St. Louis Cardinals for more or less the same reason that I’ve long dreaded the New York Yankees: They’ve got some sort of black magic going that makes them feel inevitable.

I do realize that it has been 10 years since the Cardinals actually won the World Series … but they’re ALWAYS good. Always. This century, they’ve had one losing season, 2007. They’ve made the playoffs 14 of the 21 seasons. They’re just always good.

But here’s the maddening part for non-Cardinals fans (and, I’m sure, the thrilling part for Cards fans) — they seem to do it with a different cast of characters every year. I mean, the Yankees are always the Yankees — lately that means Aaron Judge and Giancarlo and D.J. LeMahieu, you know the cast.

But the Cardinals? No idea. It’s a new guy every year. That’s not even an exaggeration. Here are the WAR leaders for the Cardinals since Albert Pujols left town.

This year: Tyler O’Neill (I mean, no offense, but, who?)*

2020: Paul Goldschmidt (Wait, isn’t he a Diamondback?)

2019: Jack Flaherty

2018: Miles Mikolas (a 29-year-old guy who hadn’t played in the majors in four years)

2017: Tommy Pham

2016: Carlos Martinez

2015: Jason Heyward

2014: Adam Wainwright (the same Adam Wainwright who is pitching well now?)

2013: Matt Carpenter

2012: Yadier Molina (made the All-Star team again this year)

Different guy. Every year.

*I actually know who Tyler O’Neill is — he’s the scariest looking dude in baseball. Guy’s got muscles on top of muscles; he looks like he spends the offseason tearing trees out of the ground.

This year’s Cardinals are not actually very good — at the moment, they only have a +7 run differential. They’re 11th in the league in runs scored. They’re eighth in the league in ERA. The ageless Adam Wainwright is the only pitcher on the entire team to have thrown more than 102 innings.

But they’re the Cardinals, and it will probably all work out. It usually does for those guys.

The averageness of Marcus Semien

It has been an odd career, hasn’t it? Marcus Semien was the Chicago White Sox’s sixth-round pick back in 2011. The thing that was so striking about the early Semien scouting reports was how often they used the word “average” in describing him. Average speed. Average arm strength. Average athlete. Average power. Average average average … it probably isn't the best word to hear when listening to scout talk.

Then again: A player who is average at every part of the game can make a lot of money in the big leagues. The White Sox called him to the big leagues in 2013 and he was up and down for a couple of years before Chicago shipped him to Oakland in the deal that brought Jeff Samardzija to Chicago.

That probably wasn’t the best deal the White Sox ever made.

It was a return home for Semien, who had grown up in Berkley and went to college at Cal, and he said that he would do anything he could just to play for the team he had grown up watching. A’s general manager Billy Beane had more confidence than that.

“He’s going to get the opportunity to play every day,” Beane said.

And so he did, playing 152 games at shortstop in 2015 and 159 games at short in 2016. By the defensive numbers, he was an average shortstop. By his OPS+, he was an average hitter. On the bases, he was an average base stealer. It was staggering how right those scouts were.

Then came 2019 … and everything flipped. That year hit hit .285/.369/.522 with 33 homers and 123 runs scored. He played excellent shortstop. He finished third in the MVP voting. Nobody seemed to have any idea where it all came from. Yes, at different times he had shown the ability to hit with some power and play above-average defense, but to put it all together like that … it was pretty stunning.

Then, in the shortened season last year, he hit just .223, slugging .374, and the A’s let him go to Toronto.

Wow, that was a mistake.

Oakland shortstop Elvis Andrus: .243/.291/.321, 3 homers, subpar defense, 0.4 WAR.

Toronto second baseman Marcus Semien: .268/.340/.541, 41 homers, 109 runs, 97 RBIs, superb defense, 15 of 16 stolen bases, 6.9 WAR.

It’s quite incredible: Semien is a superstar again. He’s an MVP candidate again.

And it’s a testament to how hard work, dedication and a powerful sense of the game can turn “average” into “superstar.”

Wednesday, Sept. 23

Good Friend Kyle

On July 29, the New York Yankees traded for Anthony Rizzo in what was seen as a pretty big deal. The Yankees were floundering at the time — they lost to Tampa Bay 14-0 that day and were just five games over .500.

On the same day, the Boston Red Sox, in a much-less publicized deal, traded for Kyle Schwarber.

I was utterly convinced — and wrote at the time — that Schwarber would have the bigger impact. My logic was simple: I think Kyle Schwarber at 28 is a much better hitter than Anthony Rizzo is at 31. You wouldn’t think those three years would mean as much as they do, but there are countless examples that show there’s a chasm between 28 and 31.

Ken Griffey Jr. at 28 played 161 games, slugged .611 and hit 56 homers.
Ken Griffey Jr. at 31 played 111 games, slugged .433 and hit 22 homers.

Albert Pujols at 28 hit .357/.462/.653.
Albert Pujols at 31 lost 58 points of batting average, 96 points of OBP and more than 100 points of slugging.

Frank Thomas at 28 hit .349/.359/.626 with 40 homers.
Frank Thomas at 31 missed 25 games, slugged .471 and hit 15 homers.

Anthony Rendon at 28 hit .308 with a league-leading 44 doubles.
Anthony Rendon is 31 this year and he was hitting .240 when he was lost for the season with a hip injury.

This isn’t ALWAYS true, obviously. There are plenty of players who are as good at 31 as they were at 28 or, in some cases, even better. But it’s mostly true. Rizzo has seemed to me one of those players who just will not be the same player on the other side of 30; this is the hard part of getting older. And Schwarber at 28, I think, has a lot of juice left in that bat.

Anyway, that was my prediction and for a couple of weeks it looked absolutely ridiculous. Rizzo joined New York and for the first week was otherworldly. He homered in his first two games, drove in runs in his first six games, and there’s no question he jump-started a comatose Yankees team. Even though he missed some time with COVID, and definitively cooled down after his hot start, the Yankees won 15 of the first 16 games he played.

Schwarber, meanwhile, didn’t even play the first two weeks after the trade because of an injury. He didn’t hit a home run until almost a month after the deal.

But you know what? When you bet on age, you will usually win.

Anthony Rizzo with the Yankees: .254/.352/.420, 18 RBIs and 26 runs in 40 games.

Kyle Schwarber with the Red Sox: .297/.431/.541, 17 RBIs and 29 runs in 32 games.

Schwarber homered twice today in the Red Sox mashing of the Mets, and though it looked bleak for a while, Boston is now leading the wild-card race in the American League by a couple of games. Obviously, this weekend’s series with the Yankees at Fenway Park will be crucial — our pal Mike Schur is already losing his mind about it — but I honestly feel better at this point with Kyle Schwarber hitting second than I do with Anthony Rizzo in New York.

The Dodgers lose the pennant?

OK, so whoever loses out in the National League West, whether it’s the Dodgers or Giants, will surely be the greatest wild-card team in the history of baseball. It’s a short history; the wild card only goes back to 1995.

Here’s how that looks:

1995 wild cards: Yankees (79-55) and Rockies (79-77)

1996 wild cards: Orioles (88-74) and Dodgers (90-72)

1997 wild cards: Yankees (96-66) and Marlins (92-70)
— You could certainly argue that those Yankees were the best wild-card team ever — a 96-win team in the middle of a dynasty — but it was the Marlins who won the World Series.

1998 wild cards: Red Sox (92-70) and Cubs (90-73)

1999 wild cards: Red Sox (94-68) and Mets (97-66)

2000 wild cards: Mariners (91-71) and Mets (94-68)
— Those Mets became the second wild-card team to reach the World Series.

2001 wild cards: Athletics (102-60) and Cardinals (93-69)
— The Moneyball A’s were the first 100-win wild-card team.

2002 wild cards: Angels (99-63) and Giants (95-66)
— Our first wild-card matchup in the World Series.

2003 wild cards: Red Sox (95-67) and Marlins (91-71)
— Again, you could argue the Red Sox teams of that era were the best wild-card teams ever; next year that team broke the Red Sox curse. And again, it was the ’03 Marlins who won the World Series.

2004 wild cards: Red Sox (98-64) and Astros (92-70)
— And these are the Idiot Red Sox who finally won it all.

2005 wild cards: Red Sox (95-67) and Astros (89-73)
— For a while, there seemed to always be a wild-card team in the World Series; this time it was the Astros who lost to Chicago.

2006 wild cards: Tiger (95-67) and Dodgers (88-74)
— And it happened again with the Tigers reaching the World Series and losing to St. Louis.

2007 wild cards: Yankees (94-68) and Rockies (90-73)
— And again. Rockies lost to Boston in the World Series.

2008 wild cards: Red Sox (95-67) and Brewers (90-72)

2009 wild cards: Red Sox (95-67) and Rockies (92-70)
— I have no memory whatsoever of that 2009 Rockies team.

2010 wild cards: Yankees (95-67) and Braves (91-71)

2011 wild cards: Rays (91-71) and Cardinals (90-72)
— In the original version of this, I mistakenly wrote that the Giants won the wildcard that year which is crazy because obviously that 2011 Cardinals team famously won it all.

2012 wild cards: Orioles (93-69) vs. Rangers (93-69); Cardinals (88-74) vs. Braves (94-68)
— This is when the four-team wild-card system began.

2013 wild cards: Cleveland (92-70) vs. Rays (92-71); Pirates (94-68) vs. Reds (90-72).

2014 wild cards: Royals (89-73) vs. A’s (88-74); Giants (88-74) vs. Pirates (88-74)
— After, what, six years of no wild-card teams reaching the World Series, we had another wild-card matchup with the Giants and Royals. A great series, as it turned out.

2015 wild cards: Astros (86-76) vs. Yankees (87-75); Cubs (97-65) vs. Pirates (98-64)
— Those were two really good wild-card teams in the National League, and the Cubs got a complete-game shutout from one of the hottest pitchers in the history of baseball, the 1995 version of Jake Arrieta.

2016 wild cards: Blue Jays (89-72) vs. Orioles (89-73); Giants (87-75) vs. Mets (87-75)

2017 wild cards: Yankees (91-71) vs. Twins (85-77); Diamondbacks (93-69) vs. Rockies (87-75)
— Just seeing the Yankees-Twins matchup makes me so very sad.

2018 wild cards: Yankees (100-62) vs. A’s (97-65); Rockies (91-72) vs. Cubs (95-68)
— The Yankees became the second 100-win wild-card team. I also have no memory of this Rockies team.

2019 wild cards: Rays (96-66) vs. A’s (97-65); Nationals (93-69) vs. Brewers (89-73).
— You will remember that this Nationals team went on a crazy run and won the World Series.

2020 wild cards: Basically everybody.

I’m not entirely sure what good came from going through this year-by-year, but I feel pretty confident in saying that either the Dodgers or the Giants will be the best wild-card team ever. That is looking more and more like the Dodgers, by the way. They lost to the Rockies today (ugh) and they are two back with 10 games to play.

This Dodgers team is, unquestionably in my mind, the best team in baseball. They have an absolutely ridiculous plus-245 run differential, easily the best in baseball, and this means that their expected record is actually five wins better than their actual stellar record of 97-55. They will win more than 100 games this year and they’re UNDERPERFORMING.

Why are they underperforming? That’s easy: They’re 23-24 in one-run games and a stunning 5-13 in extra-inning games. It’s probably fair to say the Dodgers do not like the zombie runner rule.

Still, they’re winning at a pace that should have them in first place … except the Giants stubbornly refuse to lose games. How about this: Since May 1, the Dodgers were in first place for JUST ONE DAY. In that stretch, they had a stretch when they won nine of 10 games. They had a different stretch when they won 13 of 14. They had a nine-game winning streak back at the beginning of July.

The Giants don’t care. They’re a bunch of 30-something hitters banging home runs and a bunch of Kevin Gausmans and Anthony DeSciafanis getting outs and they seem utterly immune to the laws of gravity, perhaps because, like Bugs Bunny, they never studied law.