Ten Baseball Things
Every now and again here at JoeBlogs, we’re going to give you “Ten Baseball Things,” which is exactly what it sounds like — a digest of baseball stuff that’s going on so that you can keep up with the game without exerting too much energy.
Thing 1: Toronto’s Kevin Gausman is having an absurd season
When the Blue Jays signed the 31-year-old Gausman, they seemed to be taking a pretty big chance. Gausman had once been a mega-prospect with the Baltimore Orioles, but even the most casual of baseball fans know that being a mega-pitching-prospect with the Baltimore Orioles is not unlike being the Spinal Tap drummer.
And, sure enough, Gausman did not pan out with the Orioles. They traded him to Atlanta, who soon after waived him, then he signed with Cincinnati, who soon after let him go, and then he signed a one-year deal with San Francisco and pitched well enough in the COVID season to sign another one-year deal with the Giants in 2021.
Then last year, he was pretty terrific, leading the league in starts, posting a 147 ERA+ and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting. The Blue Jays believed. They gave Gausman a monster, five-year, $110 million deal. Their reasoning? Gausman, GM Ross Atkins said, had a “remarkable record thus far as a professional, as a teammate and as a human being.”
In other words: They bet on his character.
And it sure seems to be paying off. You look up now, as the MLB.com headline says, he’s pitching at Cy Young level … literally. His core numbers are excellent — in five starts, he has struck out 41 batters in 31 2/3 innings, he had a 2.27 ERA, and an 0.979 WHIP. All that’s good. But what makes this a literal Cy Young season is that so far he has not walked a single batter or given up a single home run.
And the last person to begin a season with five consecutive starts without allowing either a home run or a walk was, yes, Cy Young himself.
Thing 2: Offense might be perking up, but the balls are still Generalissimo Francisco Franco dead.
Batters hit .231 in the month of April — the lowest batting average for any month since the Year of the Pitcher, 1968.
But, we do need to put this in context — this was an odd April because of the lockout. The season started late and spring training was shortened. I’m not sure how much this affected everything, but the batting average has been climbing as of the last week or two. On Sunday, with every team playing, batters hit .259. Thirteen of the 30 teams had double-digit hits.
That might not sound like much, but it’s pretty atypical of where baseball has been the last few years. Batters have not hit .259 for a season in more than a decade. Hits were definitely up.
At the same time, batters hit just 27 home runs on Sunday, fewer than one per team, and they only hit that many because of a wild, six-homer game in Arizona and because the Phillies are a slow-pitch softball team and they hit four home runs. Thirteen of the 30 teams did not hit a home run on Sunday.
It is kind of fascinating to watch — I know everyone will deny it, but I can’t help but think that the deader baseballs are designed to change hitters’ mentality and incentivize them to stop swinging for the fences and to put more balls in play. That’s, at best, a simplistic way of looking at what has happened to baseball over the last few years, but let’s keep an eye on how teams do respond.
Thing 3: The Yankees might never lose again
When I did my research for the American League East Pozeroski Baseball Preview, I kept coming back to the same conclusion: The Yankees were the clear best team in the division even with the ascending Blue Jays and supersmart Rays and ever-present Red Sox. It hurt to say it, but I found it undeniable.
Then, though, the Yankees got off to a sluggish first couple of weeks, and Alan Sepinwall was sending me texts about how happy I should be because the Yankees are clearly not very good, and maybe I let my guard down. Maybe I really started thinking, “Hey, I don’t know, maybe Sepinwall’s right, maybe the Yankees are not as good as I thought they were.”
It was a trap. Of course, it was a trap.
The Yankees have not lost in almost two weeks, Anthony Rizzo is looking like the American League MVP unless Aaron Judge takes it from him, Nestor Cortez seems eager to win the Cy Young Award, the bullpen is blowing people away, and you just know that Giancarlo Stanton is going to get hot, Josh Donaldson is going to turn it on, Gerritt Cole is Gerritt Cole again, this team is looking scary.
Thing 4: Mike Trout is doing Mike Trout things but watch out for … Taylor Ward?
There is a pretty reasonable chance that you have not thought about Mike Trout even once this season. Maybe you live on the East Coast. Maybe the Angels are simply not on your radar. It’s all understandable.
Well, just so you know, Trout’s still performing his critically-acclaimed best-player-in-baseball act. He’s hitting .344/.481/.766, leading the league in slugging percentage, runs scored, OPS+ and obviously OPS …
Well, wait — if you go to Trout’s Baseball-Reference page, you will notice that his 1.247 OPS is not bolded. So, uh, he doesn’t lead the league in OPS?
Meet Taylor Ward.
Before the season started, the one thing I definitively knew about Taylor Ward was that he either was or was not Tyler Wade. The Angels made this particularly confusing when they sent a player to be named later to the Yankees for Tyler Wade back in November. At the time, though, there was a pretty good chance that the player to be named later would be Taylor Ward because there is a pretty good chance that Taylor Ward and Tyler Wade are the same person.
But no, the Angels decided to keep Taylor Ward AND Tyler Wade because the Angels live to confuse the world, and Wade is having a good season but Ward has turned into Superman. It’s staggering — in 15 games, Taylor Ward is hitting .300/.507/.764 with five home runs and as many walks as strikeouts.
On the surface, everything about this start feels like a fluke. After all, Ward is 28 years old, and in 159 big-league games entering this season, he had an 89 OPS+.
BUT … there might be something to this. I’m not saying that Ward is going to win the Triple Crown or anything like that, but I am saying that there’s some reason to believe he’s ready to come into his own. Ward was a first-round pick out of Fresno State in 2015, and he absolutely destroyed minor league pitching. In 2018, playing in Mobile and Salt Lake City, he hit .349/.446/.531. The next year, he slugged .584 in Salt Lake.
In the COVID season, he hit an empty .277 for the Angels, but then he went back to Salt Lake City and in 13 games hit .429 and slugged .857.
Players like this are often called Quad-A — meaning they’re too good for Class AAA and not good enough for the big leagues. But I’m of the belief that the Quad-A player is pretty much a myth, and that what usually holds back great Triple-A hitters is health, defensive liabilities, poor timing and bad luck.
In other words, I think there’s a pretty good chance that — given a spot in the lineup and given good health — Taylor Ward will keep on hitting for Los Angeles/Anaheim. The Angels are in first place in the American League West, and if Ward can add big offense to a lineup with Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon, hey, maybe the Angels will stay there.
Thing 5: Mucho Mucho Machado
I talk about Mike Trout generally flying under the radar despite his insistent greatness … but that’s probably even more true of Manny Machado. The other day, during our Random Game Thread, we were talking about players in baseball who are either definitely or probably going to the Hall of Fame.
Somehow, Manny Machado’s name didn’t even come up until the discussion was over.
And I have to tell you: Manny Machado IS going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Through age 28, Machado had 45.2 WAR — squeezing neatly between Carl Yastrzemski and Duke Snider, between Ernie Banks and George Brett, between Mike Schmidt and Joe DiMaggio.
And this year, so far, he’s hitting .375/.440/.591 with a league-leading 33 hits, and he’s positioning himself nicely to win his first MVP award. Machado has finished top-five in the MVP voting three times already. He’s won two Gold Gloves, he’s still an elite defensive third baseman, he’s hit as many as 37 home runs, he’s led the league in doubles, and if you’re like me you think about him maybe twice a season.
Thing 6: The Mets threw a no-hitter on Friday … and I don’t care.
Ah, remember the days when no-hitters were big news? On Friday, the Mets threw the second no-hitter in their team history. The first one was a titanic moment because Mets fans had waited 8,019 games for their first no-no. When Johan Santana finally broke the drought (thanks in large part to an umpire calling Carlos Beltran’s shot foul even though it hit the foul line), Mets fans celebrated like crazy. Some, I’m told, even cried.
On Friday, the Mets threw their second-ever no-hitter and, I don’t mean to sound rude about it … but who cares?
I don’t. I’m sorry, I just don’t care that Tylor Megill, Drew Smith, Joely Rodriguez, Seth Lugo and Edwin Diaz combined on a six-walk no-hitter.
The magic of a no-hitter is not that one team gets no hits. That’s just a bad hitting performance. The magic is that one pitcher accomplishes the feat. The magic is that the pitcher finds a way to keep the no-hitter going even after he’s shown all his pitches, even as his stuff diminishes.
Sending five hard-throwing pitchers out there to throw a no-hitter — ending with a closer who throws 100 mph — feels sort of the opposite of magic. It feels like playing a video game on cheat mode.
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Thing 7: Kelsie Whitmore became the first woman to start in an Atlantic League game.
This happened on Sunday. Whitmore, 23, has been breaking ground all her life, being the only girl on various Little League teams, then playing for her high school, then signing to play independent baseball when she was 17 years old. She had not played softball growing up but she still became an All-America softball player at Cal State Fullerton.
And on Sunday, she started in left field and batted ninth for the Staten Island Ferryhawks in their big Atlantic League game against the Gastonia Honey Hunters meant to settle once and for all which team has the worse nickname. She went 0-for-2 and was hit by a pitch.
Thing 8: Tennessee’s Ben Joyce throws a 105.5-mph fastball.
One thing I learned a lot while working with my pal Jon Hock on the documentary “Fastball” is that radar guns are not created equally. For example, when Nolan Ryan threw his famous 100.9-mph fastball — the one that the Guinness Book of World Records listed as the fastest pitch ever thrown — the speed was registered about 10 feet in front of the batter, or some 50 feet after Ryan had thrown it.
Today’s fastball’s speed is registered the instant it leaves the hand.
So, making the adjustments, the experts in “Fastball” said that Ryan’s fastball would today be clocked at an impossible 108.5 mph.
So when University of Tennessee’s Ben Joyce was clocked at 105.5 mph on Sunday, I had two thoughts. The first was to wonder about the radar gun. And the second was to wonder about how wise it is for a college pitcher to be throwing 105 mph.
Joyce is an interesting story — he was throwing 100 mph in high school but was not drafted or recruited by Division I schools. I’m guessing he had trouble controlling the pitch and scouts knew he was a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen (and, yes, he would have the surgery in 2021). But he eventually found his way to Tennessee, and he has been absolutely lights-out in relief this season, striking out 38 in 21 innings with an 0.86 ERA. And he just set the record for the fastest college pitch ever thrown.
Thing 9: Ryan Helsley throws a 103.1-mph fastball, fastest in MLB this season.
On the same day, about 485 miles northwest in St. Louis, Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley was clocked at 103.1 mph. What made this unusual is that Helsley had never thrown a pitch that fast in his life. His fastest big-league fastball had been 101.5 mph — super fast, but 103.1 is a whole different thing. Even he looked up at the scoreboard and thought, “Wow!”
Thing 10: Lauer Power
I mentioned this in the Pozeroski Baseball Preview: The Milwaukee Brewers seem to know things about starting pitching that others don’t. Last season they did all sorts of quiet things — such as making sure their starters pitched on at least five days’ rest. There has to be more than just that, though it was just amazingly effective, as Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff broke out, each finishing top-five in the Cy Young voting.
Now see Eric Lauer. He came over from the Padres in a trade back in 2019, and he was ineffective in two starts with the Brewers in the COVID season. Last year, he did some nice things pitching both as a starter and in relief.
This year, he has been fantastic in his first four starts, striking out 34 in 23 innings, walking just five, and posting an 0.986 WHIP. So far, he’s been blowing away hitters with a mid-90s, four-seam fastball that nobody seems able to touch. Batters are swinging and missing 43.5% of the time, which is just an absurd whiff percentage for a fastball. There’s something in the water in Milwaukee.