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Real or not? Six big-picture themes that will shape the 2018 season – SweetSpot

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The offseason dragged on forever with all the late signings. Spring training always drags on too long. Where I live, we’ve been hammered by a series of Nor’easters. It’s safe to say Opening Day has never felt like it has arrived at a better time. With the season about to kick off, here is a rundown of some of the big-picture issues to watch:

The ball

From 2014 to 2015, home runs across the majors increased 17.3 percent. From 2015 to 2016, home runs jumped another 14.3 percent. In 2017, they increased 8.8 percent, resulting in a record 6,105 home runs — a 46 percent increase over three seasons and an average of 64 more home runs per team than in 2014. Independent investigations have shown that the ball, while remaining within MLB regulations, has changed (not necessarily intentionally), helping to fuel this power surge. As a result, Major League Baseball will standardize how all 30 clubs store baseballs in 2018. As first reported by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci in February, baseballs must be stored in an “air-conditioned and enclosed room.”

On top of that, the Diamondbacks, who play in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors, will hold their baseballs in a humidor maintained at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity. That should level out offense at Chase Field. One estimate has Chase Field’s park factor being reduced from 116 (run scoring is increased 16 percent) to 100 (a neutral park). When the Rockies shifted to a humidor in 2002, there were 96 fewer runs scored at Coors Field than in 2001, a 9 percent decrease.

Do the new guidelines mean we’ll see fewer home runs in 2018? We almost certainly will at Chase Field, but it’s unclear how standardized conditions across all 30 teams will affect home runs, given previously dissimilar storage conditions. It’s possible it will merely stem yet another increase. Maybe it will cause a sharp decline. Maybe it will have no impact whatsoever. For what it’s worth, home runs have been up slightly in spring training compared to spring training in 2017.

If home runs are harder to come by, which team is most affected? The Rays scored the highest percentage of their runs via the home run in 2017, but they have a much different roster without Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr. and Evan Longoria, who combined for 88 home runs. The Orioles have long relied on the home run. They were eighth in the AL in runs in 2017, even though they ranked 13th in on-base percentage, a one-dimensional type of attack that might struggle with fewer home runs. The Astros, on the other hand, were second in the majors with 238 home runs and first in runs but had a well-balanced offense, ranking first in batting average and fewest strikeouts, so they should field an offensive powerhouse regardless of the ball.

Six-man rotations are coming

The Angels announced that they will use a six-man rotation — in part to protect Shohei Ohtani, who pitched once a week in Japan, and in part to help protect an entire rotation of starters who have battled injuries in recent seasons. New Mets manager Mickey Calloway has suggested that his team will probably use a six-man rotation at times. The Rangers expressed the possibility of using a six-man rotation before Cole Hamels voiced his displeasure with that idea. “It’s not part of baseball. I know that’s the new analytical side of trying to reinvent the wheel, but I was brought up in the minor leagues on the five-man, and that’s what I’m designed and conditioned for,” he told reporters after a game in early March.

Maybe somebody should show Hamels the numbers. Last year, he had a 4.72 ERA in 16 starts with four days of rest and a 3.20 ERA in eight starts with five or more rest days. On regular rest, he allowed 16 home runs in 97.1 innings; on longer rest, he allowed two in 50.2 innings.

Of course, that’s a small sample and might not tell us about Hamels in 2018. Then again, in 2016, he had a 3.65 ERA in 18 starts with four days of rest and a 3.28 ERA in 14 starts with long rest. But across MLB in 2017, starters posted a 4.50 ERA on four days of rest, 4.44 on five and 4.50 on six or more.

Teams have actually been going to more rest for their starters for years — and there will be four additional scattered off days this season to provide even more rest. The Dodgers manipulated their rotation to such an extent in 2017 that they made 115 starts on five or more days of rest. The Yankees made 109 such starts. Both teams made the playoffs. The MLB average was 85 starts on long rest — a little more than half of all starts. A decade ago, the average was 74 long starts per team, and in 1997, the average was 64.

As another point of comparison, Clayton Kershaw has made 54 percent of his career starts on four days of rest. Greg Maddux made 66 percent of his starts on four days of rest (and another 5 percent on three days). The idea that even your best starter pitches every fifth day has been slowly withering away for two-plus decades.

(On the other end of the spectrum, the Rays have announced a plan to use a four-man rotation for 2018, with a bullpen game scheduled for whenever the team needs a fifth starter. Manager Kevin Cash’s idea is to concentrate as many starts as possible with his top four guys, keeping them pitching every fifth day.)

The bullpen revolution will continue

Even though starters are pitching less frequently, that doesn’t mean they’re chewing up more innings when they pitch. Look at the percentage of innings thrown by starters since 2010:

2010: 67.1

2011: 67.3

2012: 66.0

2013: 65.7

2014: 66.5

2015: 65.0

2016: 63.3

2017: 61.9

This is the inevitable result of three factors: (1) The numbers that suggest starters in general fare worse the third time through the lineup; (2) More relievers throwing harder than ever; (3) The increased size of bullpens, allowing those relief innings to be distributed among seven or eight relievers.

Indeed, it’s possible that the future of pitching is not the six-man rotation but Tampa Bay’s hybrid four-man/bullpen rotation. If starters are pitching only six innings per game or maxing out at 100 pitches anyway, why not start your best pitchers every fifth day?

Either way, bullpen depth is more important than ever. Bullpens are also volatile and difficult to project. FanGraphs projects the Yankees — by a wide margin — to have the best bullpen in the majors. Nobody is going to disagree with that. The Astros are a solid No. 2, with the Indians, Cubs and Brewers rounding out the top five. Among the top playoff contenders, the Diamondbacks project as the shakiest pen, ranking 26th in value (although Cardinals fans seem worried about their bullpen).

The superteams

The Dodgers, Indians and Astros each won 100 games last season, marking the first time there were three 100-win teams since the Braves, Yankees and Giants in 2003. The Nationals won 97 games last season, the Red Sox won 93 games (and eventually signed J.D. Martinez), the Cubs won 92 games despite going 43-45 in the first half, and the Yankees won 91 games and then acquired NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to boost their 2018 outlook.

Last season, all six preseason favorites won their divisions, with four races decided in blowouts and only the AL East race undecided going into the final weekend. One reason the free-agent market unfolded the way it did this winter was the strength of these seven teams. The risk of signing free agents who offered mostly minimal upgrades wasn’t worth the money for most front offices.

Will we have the same anticlimactic division races in 2018? Once again, the AL East race between the Yankees and Red Sox appears close — though the Yankees will begin as the consensus pick — while the other five divisions feature heavy favorites. It would seem unlikely, however, that all six favorites will once again capture their divisions. That rarely happens, let alone two seasons in a row.

We can only hope that history wins again and we’ll get an upset somewhere. Good luck picking which division that will be. Maybe it’s the Twins in the AL Central or the Brewers in the NL Central or the Diamondbacks over a Dodgers team that suffers a post-World Series letdown.

The youth is still rising

The demographics of baseball continue to change, as research shows that players are peaking earlier and declining faster than they did in the steroid era. The weighted age for players has continued to drop since the early 2000s as younger players compile more positive value. Last year gave us Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Andrew Benintendi, Ian Happ, Josh Bell, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Castillo, Manuel Margot and Paul DeJong, among others. Some of the partial season standouts included Rhys Hoskins, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Josh Hader, Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers and Ozzie Albies. Judge was the old man of the group, the only player in his age-25 season.

This season promises more of the same. Ohtani will attempt to play both ways with the Angels. Although Ohtani has struggled in spring training, Braves phenom Ronald Acuna — regarded as the game’s top prospect — has been one of the best players in Florida. While Acuna will begin the season in the minors thanks to service-time manipulation, the outfielder will be up quickly — maybe even after a couple of weeks — and looks ready to make an impact at 20 years old. Other top rookies could include Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford of the Phillies, Nick Senzel and Tyler Mahle of the Reds, Lewis Brinson of the Marlins, Michael Kopech of the White Sox, Walker Buehler of the Dodgers, Kyle Tucker of the Astros and Luiz Gohara of the Braves. Some of those guys will start in the minors, but all should reach the majors at some point.

Two of the most intriguing potential rookies are sons of major leaguers, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Both are still teenagers, but it’s not out of the question that they could arrive in the majors at 19, as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout did. Both played in the Midwest League last season but are advanced enough with the bat that they could start in Double-A and push for the big leagues come August or September.

Pace of play

Ah, everyone’s favorite topic. There will be no pitch clock in 2018 — at least at the major league level — but commissioner Rob Manfred did institute some new rules to speed up the average game time. The most significant change is limiting mound visits to six per team per nine innings (not including pitching changes). Catchers such as Martin Maldonado and Willson Contreras have already said they won’t follow the rule and are willing to accept any fines levied against them, though it remains to be seen what the fines and/or punishment will be, given that specifics weren’t spelled out.

Aside from that, there were parameters set in place to speed up the action between innings, during pitching changes and with replay reviews. The pace-of-play initiative to watch, however, is at the minor league level, where Double-A and Triple-A games will use a 15-second pitch clock with no runners on base (and a clock at 20 seconds with runners on base). Call that a trial run for the big leagues. A more controversial change in the minors — though far less likely to be instituted at the major league level (at least in 2019) — was the announcement that extra-inning games will begin with a runner on second base.

Whether you love that idea or hate it, baseball will survive. It always does.

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World Series 2020 — Dodgers fans have taken over ‘neutral’ site with L.A. one win from a title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Tampa Bay Rays were the home team these past three nights. If not for their white pants, you might not have known it. Over the past three weeks, as they situated themselves inside a quasi-bubble in Texas’ metroplex, the Los Angeles Dodgers have commandeered Globe Life Field and made it their own, growing weirdly comfortable with a new ballpark that still lacks an identity. Their fans have tagged along, traveling en masse, increasingly more so as the wins have stacked up and an elusive championship has drawn closer.

In Saturday’s Game 4, after yet another highlight-reel play in the second inning, a “MOO-KIE” chant began and grew so loud that Mookie Betts himself couldn’t help but break character and crack a smile. In Sunday’s Game 5, a stadium of 11,437 people booed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts as he walked to the mound to take the baseball away from Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning.

He, uh, didn’t smile.

“I didn’t get a chance to see the boos turn to cheers, but that’s OK,” Roberts, managing a smirk, said after navigating the Dodgers through the 4-2 victory that put them one win away from a championship. “It’s passion. The fans have passion, so that’s good.”

Several prominent members of the Dodgers spent the spring worried that the coronavirus pandemic would prevent an exceedingly talented team from ever playing together. As their dominant season progressed, many of them lamented that their passionate fans couldn’t truly experience this journey with them. Then the Dodgers swept through the first two postseason rounds and Major League Baseball allowed the Texas Rangers’ home ballpark to host customers at about 25% capacity.

Loyalties seemed split throughout the National League Championship Series — but then the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Atlanta Braves, welcomed the small-market Rays and basically took over. On Sunday night, with Kershaw on the mound in a pivotal swing game, this place was practically theirs.

“It’s a home game,” Harry Bawann, 41, said. “If it wasn’t for all the sound effects trying to help Tampa out, this would be a home game.”

Bawann and his friend, Ricardo Manzanares, acquired tickets thinking they’d be watching the Dodgers with a chance to win it all. Then came Game 4’s bottom of the ninth, a two-out single from Brett Phillips, a bobble from Chris Taylor, a stumble from Randy Arozarena, a muff from Will Smith and one of the most improbable comebacks ever.

Shortly after the Dodgers finally captured their third victory 24 hours later, ticket prices for Game 6 had increased by 48% since the start of the week, according to TickPick. The average ticket price stood at $750 about five minutes before midnight on the East Coast and would undoubtedly increase from there.

Hector Razo, 40, arrived as part of a group of at least 15 Dodgers fans from Los Angeles, each of whom paid $400 to get through the door. Jeff Murillo, a 52-year-old Dodgers fan living in Houston, was joined by his wife and two kids and paid $4,000 for all of them. Nicole Estrada, 39, paid $800 for Game 3, $500 for Game 4 and was prepared to pay a lot more for Game 5.

“This whole year has been really tough on a lot of people and for the city of L.A.,” Estrada said, “and for us to come together, in another state, it’s momentous and it’s historic.”

The concourse level of Globe Life Field has become a walking gallery of Dodgers jerseys, from Betts and Kershaw to Don Drysdale and Fernando Valenzuela to Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax. One man also wore a Dodgers-themed wrestling mask. Another sported a fake beard in honor of Justin Turner. And one woman, Alen Aivazian, rocked an Elton John-inspired Dodgers jacket that was covered in Swarovski crystals and cost five figures.

David Siegel, 62, was at the game when Kirk Gibson hit his famous pinch-hit home run for the Dodgers in 1988 at Dodger Stadium but also when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs for the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium to win Game 6 in 1977. This year, of all years, he hopes to watch the Dodgers clinch a World Series title in person for the first time.

“That,” he said, “would mean everything.”

It might mean even more to Kershaw, who has spent a dozen years working diligently in pursuit of that goal and might finally achieve it in his hometown. Through two starts against the Rays, Kershaw boasts a 2.31 ERA and two wins, putting him squarely in the conversation for World Series MVP honors. For Game 5, when he gave up only two runs in 5⅔ innings and worked out of a two-on, none-out jam, he was able to accommodate an additional 10 people or so with nosebleed seats.

“This year’s been just special — weird, special, different — in a lot of ways,” Kershaw said. “I don’t wanna say it’s working out the way I want it to because being at Dodger Stadium would be awesome, too, but to get to have family and friends, to get to have as packed a house as it can be, and make it seem like it’s all Dodger fans, is very special.”

Chris Gutierrez is a 26-year-old nursing student who said he paid more than $1,000 to sit a section up on the third-base side. The three people with him are all nurses who have been working the frontlines of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 225,000 American lives, an unavoidable reality that adds a layer of discomfort to all this.

They all had initial reservations about gathering this way, but they also didn’t want to miss an opportunity to watch these Dodgers. Since then, they’ve found comfort in a Globe Life Field staff that has been exceedingly diligent about cleaning surfaces, separating large groups and forcing patrons to wear their masks.

It has helped them enjoy what’s in front of them.

“This is a piece of normality,” Gutierrez said, “and it means the world.”



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World Series 2020 — Clayton Kershaw repairs his playoff legacy with Game 5 win

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Cali Kershaw, 5, a nuclear bundle of energy, jitterbugged around the room, under the table and over it, side to side, everywhere space permitted. Her little brother Charley, 3, tried to keep up, to the point that their father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge/apology. “You guys are maniacs,” he said.

It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.

A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.

The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.

Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.

He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”

What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.

This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30⅔ innings, 23 hits, 5 walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.

The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”

Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manuel Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.

And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.

As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.

“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him might have an inverse relationship with talent but it has a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.

The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.

“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”

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Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.

For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.

This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion might have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.

Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only one without a ring.

Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.

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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw passes Justin Verlander for postseason strikeout mark

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Say what you will about Clayton Kershaw‘s performance in October, but he now holds the record for postseason strikeouts.

The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ ace moved past Justin Verlander for the all-time lead while giving up only two runs in 5⅔ innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. Kershaw struck out six batters, giving him 207 career postseason strikeouts in 189 innings. Verlander has 205 strikeouts in 187⅔ career postseason innings.

“Just means I’ve been on great teams that have gotten to go to the post season a lot,” Kershaw said after helping pitch the Dodgers to a 4-2 win and a 3-2 World Series lead. “And I have gotten to have a lot of starts in the postseason. Obviously a special opportunity.”

The Rays were threatening off Kershaw in the fourth, putting two on with none out while trailing by only a run, but Kershaw induced a shallow pop-up and recorded a strikeout, then threw out Manuel Margot as he attempted to steal home. The 32-year-old left-hander then retired the next five batters in order.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was booed by a very pro-Dodgers crowd at Globe Life Field while removing Kershaw in favor of Dustin May with two outs in the sixth, though at least part of their hostility was undoubtedly rooted in Roberts’ pitching decisions from Game 4.

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