Random Game Time! Guardians vs. Royals
OK, it's time for The Joe Blogs Random Game, a new series that I am starting because, you know, why not? Here’s the deal — at random times I will write at random length about a random game featuring random teams. And …
Actually, there’s no “And …” That’s the whole deal. I’m working on a way to have Brilliant Readers choose the random games I write about (making them a bit less than random, I suppose).
What will these Random Game essays be like? Well, you already know — they’re going to go wherever my goofy mind goes. So, for example, this first game between Cleveland and Kansas City might lead to thoughts about Carlos Baerga, Clint Hurdle, bullpen cars, words that rhyme with “Guardian”* or my thoughts on the latest HBO episode of “Winning Time.”
Who even knows where this will take us? It will be like going to a game with me. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying that’s what it will be like. For the time being I’ll be sticking to baseball, but who knows, we might even try this with some other sports.
*The only word that I feel confident rhyming with Guardian is “Picardian,” which would refer to doing something the way that “Star Trek”’s Jean-Luc Picard does it. I suppose you could go with Gardian, which is to make a baseball move that reminds people of something that longtime manager Ron Gardenhire might have done. But that’s too confusing.
Cleveland at Kansas City
Date: April 11, 2022
Starting pitchers: Aaron Civale vs. Carlos Hernandez
Gametime: 2:10 Central
OK, I’m warming up for the game by watching some pitching highlights of Japanese sensation Roki Sasaki. Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s quite right to call Sasaki a “pitching prospect,” because the word “prospect” suggests he has not yet arrived. And he HAS arrived, he’s pitching in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, a major league surely, and on Sunday he threw a 19-strikeout perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes. That’s not a “prospect.”
But, if we’re using “prospect” to refer to MLB — and if Sasaki is interested in playing in the U.S. — well, then, he might just be the best pitching prospect in Major League Baseball history. I know that might sound like overkill, but I don’t think it is. I mean, who was the best pitching prospect in baseball history? Well, you could go back to Lefty Grove and Bob Feller, if you want, but over the last, say 50 years, the best pitching prospects probably go something like this:
Don’t hold me to that, I spent about 45 seconds compiling that list. But I’ll bet that’s fairly close, with, maybe, Josh Beckett and Ben McDonald and a few others like that sprinkled in.
Well, Sasaki is probably a better MLB prospect than any of them, including Strasburg. He commands a 100-mph fastball. And he’s 20. His split-fingered fastball falls through a trap door. He has a plus slider and a change-up that he doesn’t seem to throw much but backs up impressively when he does. And he’s 20. And he just threw that 19-strikeout perfect game where he fanned Orix’s 3-4-5 hitters all nine times he faced them. And, again, he’s 20.
I think a major league team would pay a bajillion-shmillion-jillion dollars to get him.
Oh, hey, looks like Kansas City’s Carlos Hernandez has now taken his supreme fastball to the mound for the first pitch of our game. Time to get started!
All right, there’s a fascinating at-bat between Carlos Hernandez and Franmil Reyes in the first inning that I want to talk about. Hernandez came out with a rather startling inability to throw his 98-mph fastball anywhere near home plate. That, as you veteran baseball observers will note, can have a detrimental effect on pitching success. After giving up a dribbler infield single to Myles Straw and then walking the unsinkable Steven Kwan (on four pitches) and Jose Ramirez (on five), Hernandez faces Reyes with the bases loaded.
There’s something both jarring and thrilling about watching 6-foot-4, 245-pound Carlos Hernandez face off against 6-foot-5, 265-pound Franmil Reyes. You just didn’t get that sort of heavyweight matchup when I was young. There were no 6-foot-4, 245-pound pitchers in baseball then — none, seriously: From 1970 to 1990, the only pitchers of that height and heft were Buddy Harris (37 innings), Chuck Malone (7 innings) and Stefan Wever (3 innings). It would be a while before the CC Sabathias and Carl Pavanos roamed the earth.
And over those same two decades, there were literally zero hitters the size of Franmil Reyes. Zero. You had to wait until the late 1990s, when the wonderful Calvin Pickering showed up, followed thereafter by mammoth men like Adam Dunn, Brad Eldred, Kyle Blanks and the delightfully nicknamed Kennys Vargas, who was called Little Papi even though he was much larger than Big Papi.
Point is, this is something quite new, watching giants go at each other, Godzilla vs. Mothra, and these two men have the power to match their size. Hernandez throws a 98-mph fastball up and out of the zone for Ball 1 — he clearly has no ability at the moment to get his fastball down in the zone. He then throws a nasty slider that Reyes tentatively reaches for and misses, Strike 1. Hernandez, seeing how helpless Reyes looked on the slider, throws him another one, this time well out of the zone, and Reyes waves weakly at it for Strike 2.
So, now, you know three things:
Carlos Hernandez cannot throw his fastball for strikes.
Franmil Reyes looks utterly defenseless against the slider.
Franmil, all his life, has been a dead-red hitter. Like Butch Heddo from “Rookie of the Year,” he eats fastballs for breakfast (and, based on his 265 pounds, for lunch too). Franmil, in Spanish, actually means: “Destroys fastballs.”*
*It does not.
Obviously, you know what happens next, right?
Or not. Hernandez decides to throw his best fastball. Why? No idea. Maybe he fell for one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well-known, as Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre points out is this: Never try to fool a fastball hitter by throwing them a fastball.
Hernandez’s fastball was 99 mph, up in the zone, and Reyes hit it so hard that you half-expected the astral form of the ball to come out of its physical form, like in “Doctor Strange.” Statcast™ clocked the exit velocity at 110 mph, which is the wind line between a Category 2 and Category 3 hurricane.
As it turns out, Reyes’s luck wasn’t great, as the ball rocketed to Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, who turned it into a double play. I certainly hope there wasn’t anyone in the Royals dugout who, because of that, thought, “Yeah, fastball was the right pitch to throw there.”
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Today, Monday, April 11, is a baseball anniversary. Exactly 42 years ago — can it possibly be 42 years? — Super Joe Charboneau played in his first big-league game for the then Cleveland Indians. That game was in Anaheim, Opening Day, and Charboneau homered off a pitcher named Dave Frost, who was a giant in his own day (6-foot-6, 236 pounds!).
In my view as a Clevelander and devoted Charboneau Scholar, April 11 is not actually the key date in the career of Super Joe. What is? Well, there are choices. It could be the March day in Mexico when a baseball fan stabbed him with a Bic pen*. It also could be the day he first tried to open a beer bottle with his eye socket or tried to pull a tooth using a vice.
*After that, Charboneau offered to do commercials for Bic saying that he was living proof that Bic pens can write through blood.
But I would say there are actually two other dates to choose from. There’s April 19, 1980. That was the day of Cleveland’s home opener. More than 61,000 fans came to the game — Cleveland always could draw on Opening Day (there were 11,000 or so the next day). Understand, nobody had any expectations for the team then, and 1980 was a miserable year in general, what with the Iranian hostages and long gas lines and double-digit inflation and “The Six Million Dollar Man” getting canceled and “The Piña Colada Song” going to No. 1 and everybody making Cleveland jokes.
And here was the Cleveland savior, Super Joe (sometimes called Joltin’ Joe, and sometimes called Bazooka Joe, and sometimes called just Joe), a rookie who dyed his hair different colors and broke his nose so many times that he could drink beer through it. In that home opener, he walked (and was caught stealing), doubled and scored the tying run, homered off the wonderfully named Tom Buskey and drove in another run with a single. That made him three-for-three with two runs and two RBIs, he lifted his season batting average over .300, and two punk rockers in the crowd, Don Kriss and Stan Bloch, in a stupor of beer and joy, wrote a song.
Who’s the newest guy in town?
Go Joe Charboneau!
Turns the ballpark upside down!
Go Joe Charboneau!
OK, no, Cole Porter or Prince it wasn’t. But for that summer, it was our jam. It played on the radio all the time as our Super Joe hit, um, moderately well.
The second date would be July 3, 1980. That particular game might have been the crescendo of my entire Cleveland baseball childhood. Cleveland had a losing record, but the Yankees were in town, and more than 73,000 fans packed old Municipal Stadium. Cleveland’s Wayne Garland, who had long been declared a bust after the team signed him to a big-money deal back in ’77*, started and had his best game, throwing a two-hit shutout. Miguel Dilone, who had been a utility outfielder and pinch-runner for years, raised his average to .368.
*Garland was probably best known for buying an air conditioning unit for the team clubhouse because the team would not pay for one.
And mostly, Super Joe delivered with three hits and four RBIs, Cleveland won 7-0, and for just a moment all was right with the world.
I think we all knew, even as the summer was going on, that the magic wouldn’t last. It seemed like in those days, fads came and went so fast, you couldn’t even keep up. For a while, there was a comedian whose whole bit was that you could call him Ray, or you could call him Jay, but you didn’t have to call him Johnson. He was big, but probably not quite as big as Foster Brooks, whose entire thing was his uncanny ability to act drunk. For a while, people would say to each other “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” For a while, a lady was super famous just for asking, “Where’s the beef?”
You knew those things wouldn’t go on forever, and neither would Super Joe. He did win the 1980 Rookie of the Year Award, though, in retrospect, it probably could have gone to any number of other people, particularly White Sox pitcher Britt Burns. Then came the injuries and the slumps and Charboneau only played in 70 big-league games after his glorious rookie season. Yes, he was a shooting star. But he brought us so much joy.
Not to bring things down, but I was talking with someone the other day who remains unmoved by Bobby Witt Jr.’s many talents. Witt is, at this very moment, as big a prospect as anyone in baseball, and that means he’s experiencing what you might call the Unbearable Burden of Unlimited Expectations. I wrote a little bit about this with Alex Gordon a few days ago, but maybe it’s best to put it this way:
What do you think would happen if you gave Kansas City fans a “Let’s Make a Deal” offer for Bobby Witt Jr’s future? Behind Curtain No. 1 is Alex Gordon’s career. Behind Curtain No. 2 is unknown?
How many people would take Gordon’s career?
And let’s make this clear: Alex Gordon was hella good. He played in the big leagues for 14 years. He hit 357 doubles and 190 home runs. He posted 34.5 WAR. He won seven Gold Gloves and made three All-Star teams. That’s not just a good career, it’s a terrific one. I feel pretty certain that if I had written “The Baseball 700*” Alex Gordon would have been in it.
*Don’t tempt me,
But right now, almost nobody would take Gordon’s career for Bobby Witt. The kid’s potential is too big for that. He could be so much greater.
I’m not in any way a doubter, by the way: I’m a huge Bobby Witt Jr. believer. I would take Curtain No. 2 as well. I see the five-tool talents, the defensive brilliance, the sense he has for the game, he’s still only 21, I’m all in. But, I think it’s important to say, as Eleanor Roosevelt or Family Circus’ Bill Keane or Master Oogway from “Kung Fu Panda” said: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.
In other words, we don’t know with Witt. We can’t know. I will tell you that I talked with someone whose baseball opinion I value, someone who would very much like to see Witt Jr. succeed. He harbors serious doubts. “Too many swings and misses,” is how he puts it.
It is true that Witt struck out a lot in the minor leagues.
“He’ll adjust,” I say.
“Maybe,” the doubter counters.
On Monday, I could see the doubter’s point. Witt looked a bit overmatched. He struck out three times — once on a slider up in the zone, once on a split-fingered fastball that dropped well below the zone, and once on a slider that seemed to be hanging a bit. It’s just one game, and there will be so many more, but it’s a good reminder that nothing is promised. Witt has already made a defensive play for the ages, and he’s already displayed his gap power and speed, and there’s a wonderful energy about him.
But Bobby Witt’s adventure is only just beginning.
Before getting to Steven Kwan — you know Steven Kwan is coming — let’s talk for a moment about how odd it is that every baseball stadium is different. We all know this to be true, it has always been true of baseball, but as fans we all kind of just take it for granted and rarely even think about it.
Just take a look at the bottom of the third inning, with the Royals down 2-0.
— Whit Merrifield grounds a ball up the middle for a single. RUNNER ON 1ST, 0 OUTS.
— Witt hits a sharp grounder to shortstop, it might have been a double play but Cleveland second baseman Andres Gimenez loses the ball in the exchange. RUNNER ON 1st, 1 OUT.
— Andrew Benintendi walks. RUNNERS ON 1st and 2nd, 1 OUT.
— Salvador Perez hits a line drive single to score Merrifield. RUNNERS ON 1st and 2nd, 1 OUT, 1 RUN SCORED.
— Carlos Santana flies out to right, Benintendi tags. RUNNERS ON 1st and 3rd, 2 OUTS, 1 RUN SCORED.
— Hunter Dozier flies out to left. END OF INNING, 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors.
Pretty straightforward, right? Well, yes and no.
The last two outs did look straightforward; they were relatively bland front-of-the-warning-track outs in Kansas City. But in a larger sense, both were blasts, Santana’s fly ball in particular — 391 feet, according to Statcast™. That would have been a home run in 15 parks across baseball, including at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Dozier’s ball wasn’t hit as far at 344 feet, but it would have been a homer in Houston and off the Green Monster in Boston at a minimum.
Same pitch. Same swing. Totally different result. In Kansas City, it seemed that Cleveland starter Aaron Civale did his job by getting those two guys to fly out. In other parks, Santana would have smashed a three-run homer and Dozier would have hit a double, and Civale would have been pulled from the game and asked what went wrong.
Like I say, we all know this … but it is actually kind of funny if you think about it. There are no NFL fields that are 94 or 106 yards, and no basketball arenas where the goals are 9.5 feet high, and all the NHL rinks are exactly 200 x 85 feet. There are certainly subtle differences everywhere — lighting, sound, quality of the surface, etc. — but in baseball you’re simply playing a different game in Kansas City than you are in Cleveland than you are in Colorado than you are in San Diego.
I asked Mike Schur what he thinks about this, and he said that he thinks it’s one of baseball’s greatest charms that every stadium is different. I agree, but pointed out that if the opposite were true — if every ballpark were exactly the game — I doubt anyone would suggest making them all different.
“That’s the point, though,” he responded. “It’s this weird, baked-in thing that would never be allowed now. It makes the game feel real and lived in.”
I really, really wish something could be done about all the pitching changes. I know there are other people who think about this too, though I must say that most of them seem concerned about the TIME IT TAKES to make a pitching change. I get it, but honestly the time is not my concern.
My problem is that there are simply too many pitchers to make the game cohesive.
Yes, my problem with the constant pitching changes is … the pitching changes themselves. I get that this is a textbook example of “old man yells at cloud,” but I honestly think the game no longer flows like it did, and that is at least as big an issue as the slow pace. Baseball has become like a Russian novel with so many characters that you can no longer tell one from another.
Here’s how I see it: Baseball, at its core, is a battle between pitcher and hitter. That’s what the game became some 140 or 150 years ago, when pitchers were no longer content to just pitch the ball underhand and let batters put the ball in play. They wanted a larger say, and they started putting spins on the ball and using their wrists to make the baseballs go faster, and then the rules were changed and they were allowed to throw any way they wanted, and then the rules were changed again as the mound was moved back to 60 feet, 6 inches, and then in an entirely new way, the game was afoot.
I think the game is still, at its most basic, that battle between pitcher and hitter. But it isn’t now. Because the pitcher constantly changes. A baseball game now is like watching a movie where our hero starts out as Luke Skywalker then becomes Jules Winnfield then becomes Indiana Jones then becomes Rick Blaine then becomes Regina George then becomes Marty McFly then becomes Mulan then becomes Number 5. Who even knows what that movie is about in the end?
I mean, there were 14 pitchers used in this game. Fourteen! True, it’s early in the season, but that’s certainly not atypical. Last season, there were 666 games — yes, I get the reference — where each team used at least five pitchers in a game.
In this one, Civale lasted 3 1/3 innings. Hernández lasted 4 1/3 innings. Then, for the next two or so hours, a pitcher was changed, on average, every 10 minutes. For Kansas City, it went from Snider to Coleman to Brentz to Staumont to Barlow to Clarke and Payamps. For Cleveland, it went from Stephan to Allen to Shaw to Sandlin to Clase. You can look up the first names.
And when it’s a parade like that, how can you get invested in any individual pitcher? How can you follow any storyline? You can’t. Investment is not the point now. Options are the point now. The instant one pitcher with a 97-mph fastball shows even the slightest weakness, there’s the hook and another pitcher with a 97-mph fastball comes in.
I realize we can’t go back to the days when starters threw seven or eight or nine innings pretty much every night and you only needed one or two relievers to finish the job, if that many. The game has changed too much. But, in my mind, we have let it go much too far, we’re losing so much of the storytelling and marvelous tension of watching a pitcher we care about face a hitter we care about.
“You don’t have squat tonight,” pitching coach Dave Duncan told Tom Seaver on the day that Tom Terrific was going for his 300th win.
“Dave, you know that, and I know that,” Seaver said. And then he pointed at the Yankees dugout. “But they don’t know that. And by the time they realize it, I’ll figure something out.”
I know it may sound like an old man yelling at clouds … but I miss that a lot. I miss watching pitchers try to get through with less than their best stuff. I miss recognizing most of the pitchers who enter the game when the score is close. I miss baseball games that flowed more without the constant interruption of taking out and bringing in yet another pitcher.
But, I do think in this I am rowing against the tide. Many baseball fans really rebel against any and all change. When you tell them it would be great to come up with rules that prevent teams from making mid-inning pitching changes or limit the number of pitchers they’re allowed to use, many will bristle, say that goes against the spirit of the game, talk about how that would diminish strategies or create more pitcher injuries or make the games even longer.
On Twitter, I did a quick poll asking if people would consider a rule that disallowed all mid-inning pitching changes except for injuries. I mean, who likes mid-inning pitching changes?
Well, apparently a lot of people: More than two-thirds of the people responded with “Hate it,” and offered countless reasons why such a rule could never work and would make the game worse. Many found the very suggestion to be offensive.
In other words, more than two-thirds of the people prefer mid-inning pitching changes to new rules. So, yeah, I’m definitely paddling against the tide.
OK, let’s talk a little bit about Steven Kwan. He was a fifth-round pick four years ago out of Oregon State, and in the minor leagues, he managed to do some interesting things without ever really getting noticed. The main interesting thing he did was he almost never struck out. In almost 1,000 minor league plate appearances, he struck out just 87 times, while walking 100. He also was ranked as the top defensive outfielder in the Cleveland system by Baseball America, and he stole a few bases, and heck, last season he even slugged .527.
Even so, he has never been viewed as a prospect. Why not? Well, it begins with his size — he’s listed at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, though he’s likely neither of those. And his tools don’t impress. Little power. Some speed, but he’s not a Brett Butler-like burner. His arm is only so-so.
This year, though, Kwan went to spring training and in 16 games he was pretty electric — he hit .469 and did not strike out even once. That’s 34 plate appearances without a strikeout. So Kwan was the Guardians’ starting rightfielder on Opening Day, and he went 1 for 2 with two walks.
The next day he was in leftfield, and he went two-for-three with one walk.
On the third day, he went five-for-five, was hit by a pitch and scored four runs.
That meant coming into Monday’s game, he was hitting .800 and had reached base eight straight times. After he drew a walk in the first inning, his on-base percentage was .867, leading my friend Anthony Castrovince to Tweet this:
Sam Dykstra @SamDykstraMiLBSteven Kwan OBP update: .867
We’ll allow it, Anthony, but only because of these extraordinary circumstances.
Before the day was over, Kwan walked again and also hit a three-run triple that put the game on ice. By day’s end, he was hitting .692 and had set a major league record by reaching base 15 times in his first four big-league games.
And he still has not struck out. In fact, if I have this right, he has not swung and missed at a pitch yet this season. He almost did on Monday, but it was ruled a checked swing.
Now, obviously, this cannot keep up … but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did? I mentioned Brett Butler for a reason; he has largely been forgotten, perhaps because of the name. There’s a significantly more famous Brett Butler (the actress who played in “Grace Under Fire”), and there was a race car driver named Brett Butler for a while, and the name also sounds like Rhett Butler from “Gone with the Wind.”
But Baseball Brett Butler was one heck of a player, a .290 hitter who walked a ton, stole a bunch of bases, scored a bunch of runs, bunted like few others, and led the league in triples four times. He was a limited outfielder with a below-average arm, and over his almost 10,000-plate-appearance career, he hit as many home runs as Jose Bautista hit in 2010 (54).
Still, he was a 50-WAR player just the same, because of all the things that getting on base and scoring runs mean to a team.
Could Steven Kwan do that? Can he be a Brett Butler for the modern age? I don’t know. But it has been so much fun watching Steven Kwan do his thing so far.
Final thoughts: Here was something strange — Carlos Santana, one of the slower runners in the game, was involved in not one but TWO challenged calls on the bases. On one, they called him out on a force play at second base and it looked like he might have been safe (it was a weird play where Kwan dropped a fly ball and Straw forced out Santana at second). On the other, they called him safe at first and it looked like he might have been out. In the end, naturally, Santana was called out on both plays. …. Andrew Benintendi is looking really good. He went three-for-three with a homer but more than that he just looked assured out there, like he’s figured something out. Remember he was the best prospect in baseball not so long ago. He had the Bobby Witt expectations. He has been good but, inevitably, disappointing to those who anticipated greatness. But maybe there’s something more coming. … The Guardians played a super-shift on Adalberto Mondesi, with three guys on the right side of the infield and nobody anywhere near third base. I’m often skeptical about the strategy of bunting against the shift, but not in Mondesi’s case. He’s fast. He has a lifetime .282 on-base percentage. I would tell him to bunt EVERY SINGLE TIME until they don’t shift him like that. Seriously. Every single time.
Final score: Cleveland 10, Kansas City 7.