ST. LOUIS — First off, let’s get this out of the way. Mike Shildt didn’t bat when the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of their division-clinching victory over the Braves. He didn’t have any at-bats in the first two games of the NLCS as the Cardinals totaled just four hits and one run in losing both games at home — with that lone run coming off a defensive miscue.
So despite a well-pitched game from Miles Mikolas in Game 1 and an almost-brilliant effort from Adam Wainwright in Game 2, the Cardinals are in a hole big enough it might take the Arch to span across its breadth: Teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home are 3-22 in those series in postseason history.
There was a sense of quiet frustration in the Cardinals clubhouse after Saturday’s 3-1 loss when Max Scherzer struck out 11 in seven innings, a game that was 1-0 in favor of the Nationals until they scratched across two late runs off Wainwright in the eighth inning. There was also the sense that, hey, that is what a pitcher like Scherzer can do when he’s on.
“They’re really attacking you,” second baseman Kolten Wong said of Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, “not really giving you anything to hit and (they) stay off the middle of the plate. You’re going to tend to chase because you understand you’re going to be put in a hole right away. You end up swinging at pitches you might not in the regular season.”
Wong’s analysis holds to an extent. The Cardinals had a chase rate — swinging on pitches outside of the strike zone — of 28.4 percent in the regular season and 31.7 percent in these two games. On pitches early in the count — 0-0, 0-1 or 1-0 — their chasing is up from 19.5 percent to 21.6 percent. Still, that’s only a few pitches over the course of the game, although given the nature of baseball, a few pitches can turn a game around.
So it’s mostly about great pitching so far from the Nationals and the inconsistency of the St. Louis offense. “We’re working on it, we’re just getting beat,” Matt Carpenter said. “They’re going out there and executing what they throw, but something like that can change in an inning. You saw what we able to do in Game 5 in Atlanta.”
The beauty of the postseason lies in the intensity of the each game, that urgency that doesn’t exist over 162 games in the regular season. That’s also what makes watching the games so enjoyable from our perch in Second-Guessing Land. Every manager’s every decision gets analyzed and broken down. Which gets us back to Shildt, the second-year Cardinals skipper.
There are three big picture questions to bring up.
1. Did Shildt leave Wainwright in too long?
In his start against the Braves in the NLDS, Wainwright took a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning. But he tired and the Braves loaded the bases with a base hit and two walks before Shildt finally removed him after a season-high 120 pitches. Andrew Miller managed to escape the bases-loaded jam (although the Cardinals would lose the 1-0 lead in the ninth).
On Saturday, Wainwright was once again terrific heading into the eighth, allowing only a Michael Taylor home run and sitting at just 83 pitches. With one out, pinch-hitter Matt Adams lined a base hit off the base of the wall in right-center. The top of the order was now up for the fourth time. Also, the shadows that had played ticks on batters all day had now grown past the pitcher’s mound.
Wainwright had some bad luck. Trea Turner blooped a hit into center field, a ball with an expected batting average of .090. Still, there were now two runners on and just one out. “I wasn’t tired at all, wasn’t losing command or anything,” Wainwright said.
He stayed in the game to face Adam Eaton. “My last at-bat was the first time I actually saw the ball the whole way,” Eaton said. “The shadows were extremely difficult. You saw Kolten Wong have two check swings and barreled both of them up. You just saw some really bad swings and bad counts.”
Maybe a different pitcher would have made a difference. Who knows. Eaton battled for seven pitches and hit a 3-2 curveball past a diving Paul Goldschmidt and down the right-field line for a two-run double. It was a two-hopper, but Eaton struck it well — 102.7 mph with a hit probability of .730. “I got a ground ball, he just got good wood on it and put it in the right place,” Wainwright said. “That’s what I’m down about right now. Wish I could have put a zero up there in the eighth.”
Shildt could have brought in a lefty to face Eaton. “I understand that,” Shildt said afterwards. “What goes into it, [Wainwright’s] got 11 strikeouts, is still hitting his spots. I think he probably made two mistakes, the one to Taylor, cutter, got the ball up the patch, put a swing on it. But then you looked at the Turner at-bat and he bloops one in. Then you look at the Eaton at-bat, I thought he was going to be able to execute.”
There’s no doubt Wainwright was throwing well. These aren’t easy decisions. I’m not even saying Shildt made the wrong move. But facing a lineup a fourth time through the order is a tough ask of any pitcher. Shildt has done it twice now with Wainwright and both times had to end up pulling his starter with runners on base.
2. The lineup
Look, the Cardinals would have needed Stan Musial and Mark McGwire in there and that still may not have been enough. Maybe it was just two rough games against two good starters.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season. The offense at times has been hit or miss for this group,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and stretches where we just pour it on. Hopefully, we have one we pour it on the next couple of days.”
Indeed, after posting a .797 OPS in April, the Cardinals struggled for much of May and June (hitting .232 in May and .223 in June). The offense was more consistent in the second half, but other than that 10-run outburst against the Braves has struggled in their seven playoff games, getting shut out twice and scoring one run two other times.
Yadier Molina is batting fifth and he came up with a runner on first and one out in the seventh against Scherzer and grounded into a double play. He had the two clutch RBIs in Game 4 of the NLDS, but he’s hitting .115 without an extra-base hit in the seven playoff games and that two-RBI game is the only postseason game he’s registered an RBI in his past 19. He’s not a power threat and he grounds into a lot of double plays. I get that there’s the feeling if anybody will rescue the Cardinals, it’s Yadi, but maybe he should move down in the order.
Of course, it’s not easy sitting in Shildt’s chair. Do you stick with what got you here? Do you overreact to a small sample size? Do you play Jose Martinez in right field in Game 3 because he had a couple good at-bats the past two games? Shildt said he hasn’t had time to think about lineup changes, but didn’t rule out the possibility. “There would be some contemplation about how we move forward and how we look to compete,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if we did something different,” Carpenter said, adding that he doesn’t write out the lineup cards. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
3. The intentional walks
Shildt issued another, to Anthony Rendon after the Eaton double (and bringing in Miller to face Juan Soto). Miller got out of the eighth, so no harm, no foul. Sabermetricians generally frown on the intentional walk — it’s worth noting that A.J. Hinch of the Astros didn’t issue one all season — but Shildt has now issued seven of them in the postseason. One of those, to Brian McCann in the ninth inning of Game 3 against the Braves, came back to bite the Cardinals big-time.
The free passes are something to keep in mind as the series move back east. They can easily blow up and lead to a crooked number on the scoreboard.
Anyway, that’s where we stand. The Cardinals need to hit and keep on pitching well. Jack Flaherty will be ready to go in Game 3. No worries, Wong says. “We’re right at home. Right at home. We’re not going to worry about it. We’ve been in this situation this whole year, people counting us out, getting booed. We’ve been constantly coming back, fighting and ready to go.”
How the coronavirus is forever changing the way MLB connects to fans
IT BEGAN WITH the hype video that was supposed to introduce the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers on Opening Day. Organist Dieter Ruehle followed by playing the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from his home piano. Third baseman Justin Turner, closer Kenley Jansen and manager Dave Roberts shared updates on their suddenly monotonous lives. Comedian George Lopez cracked jokes at the Houston Astros‘ expense and country musician Brad Paisley wore a Dodgers sweatshirt that described the team as “2017 World Series Champs.”
Along the way, the Dodgers’ first live Zoom event provided its fair share of predictable glitches — ringing cellphones, awkward silences and buffering videos, one of which distorted an uplifting message from Vin Scully. Joe Davis, the Dodgers’ play-by-play voice pressed into virtual hosting duty, cringed through some of the technical difficulties. He thought social media would be as unforgiving as usual. He was wrong.
“The people appreciated whatever we were able to do, even if the video was skipping a little bit, or there were audio issues, or somebody dropped out at some point,” Davis said. “The general sense was that it was like, ‘So what?’ There was an appreciation, it seems like, from the fans that there was something baseball-related to be able to cling onto and distract them for a night.”
The Dodgers initially planned to host 1,000 fans at their first “Zoom Party” on April 27. They ultimately opened it up to 11,000 people. Over the next couple of weeks, the guest list increased to 12,000 and then 15,000, proving two key points about this unimaginable period: Teams are trying anything and everything to fill a massive void amid the coronavirus pandemic, and their fans are here for it — a dynamic that could change the fan-engagement experience forever.
There have been re-airings of old postseason games, broadcaster calls of home movies, training tips from coaches, bedtime stories from players and bracket-style tournaments for items such as jerseys and bobbleheads, all in an effort to create content in a time when baseball’s main content pipeline — live games — has shut off.
Ryan Zimmerman interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, a diehard fan of the Washington Nationals. Miami Marlins catcher Francisco Cervelli taught viewers how to make focaccia. Kansas City Royals director of behavioral science Ryan Maid hosted “Mindfulness Mondays” to provide tips on living in the moment. The Cleveland Indians offered instructions for creating games out of items in one’s sock drawer. And former Astros infielder Geoff Blum hosted a series called “Feel Good Stories For The Heart” in hopes of providing some much-needed positivity.
Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association also teamed up to create an MLB The Show Players League, where big leaguers went head-to-head in video game matchups that were livestreamed on Twitch and broadcast on television during the virtual playoffs, culminating in a final showdown between Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell and Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito that aired on ESPN.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) March 30, 2020
“We want to give everybody sort of a relief from what’s going on, and if we can help them and we can entertain them, we’ve succeeded,” Dodgers chief marketing officer Lon Rosen said of his own team’s strategy. “We’re in a really difficult time right now. We all feel like we’re gonna come out the other end and life will come back to some normalcy, but until then, we wanna make sure that we’re connected to our fans and our fans are connected to us. And that’s our mission.”
In pursuit of that, the Dodgers arranged for their director of player performance, Brandon McDaniel, to guide fans through in-home workouts twice a week. They handed a smartphone to Ellen Kershaw so that she could record her husband, Clayton, flipping pancakes and playing Pop-A-Shot. And they utilized Ross Stripling, their agreeable right-handed pitcher, for an interview series with some of his teammates. Davis himself has hosted his own cooking show and also started a podcast with his broadcast partner, Orel Hershiser. The response floored him.
“We’ve had multiple people tell us that it brought them to tears to hear us, multiple people tell us that it’s the best part of their week when that comes out, and their favorite thing during the quarantine,” Davis said of the podcast, called “Off Air.” “Man, we’re just trying to have a fun conversation. We started it realizing the void that everybody was feeling with no baseball, but I don’t think we fully appreciated how big that void was.”
MARCO GONZALES LEFT Arizona shortly after MLB effectively closed spring training complexes on March 15. He hopped in the car with his wife and their dog and drove 1,400 miles to his home near T-Mobile Park, returning to Seattle — the country’s first coronavirus epicenter — for the first time in more than a month.
Gonzales, the left-hander announced as the Seattle Mariners‘ Opening Day starter less than a week earlier, was struck by how a bustling city could feel so desolate. Parks were empty, traffic was nonexistent, stores had shuttered, and the few people he saw, usually at the local supermarket, dressed as if they were “going into surgery.” The anxiety was palpable, omnipresent, and it helped spur Gonzales into action. He donated blood, partnered with a local hunger-relief agency and stepped outside of his comfort zone to help entertain a populace desperate for levity.
The latter morphed into a weekly interview podcast called “Inside Corner,” which Gonzales co-hosts alongside Mariners broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith through the team’s YouTube channel. Catcher Tom Murphy and fellow starters Taijuan Walker and Justin Dunn have made up the first three guests. Murphy spoke from his dining room, which features a 400-pound black bear he snagged on a hunting trip. Dunn, now 6-foot-2, revealed he was shorter than his 4-foot-11 grandmother when he entered high school. Walker estimated owning 400 pairs of sneakers.
“I miss baseball, I miss that interaction with my teammates,” Gonzales said. “And I think the goal of this, ultimately, is for fans to get to know us a little bit better away from the field, and to feel like they’re a little more connected to us.”
It’s part of an ironic twist in all this — a time that is keeping fans from baseball is also allowing them, in some respects, to feel more connected to those who play it. During the season, their time is precious. During the offseason, their time is sacred. But now athletes are stuck at home waiting this out, with unkempt hair and a dwindling supply of toilet paper, just like the rest of us, their money and their fame irrelevant. To pass the time, many have offered rare glimpses into their personal lives and have seemingly become more willing to reveal their true personalities. Gonzales has acted as a willing tour guide.
“The guys that I’ve dealt with, they want people to get to know them as people,” Gonzales said. “Because a lot of times when we’re on the field, we’re in a mindset, we’re in a mentality, that is rare to us as a person. We’re in a competitive, testosterone-driven mindset, whereas right now, when we’re stuck at home, and we have a chance to talk to each other, it’s a lot different communication. And I think that people will hopefully see that.”
Our video editor has been itching to make a hype video. 💥🤯⚾🔥🙌‼️💯
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) April 28, 2020
Kevin Martinez has been overseeing the Mariners’ marketing efforts for the past quarter-century. Four days after MLB suspended its season, Martinez led a meeting that served as a brainstorming session for how the team could pivot in its content strategy and fill an unprecedented void in a reeling city. Martinez saw it as “an opportunity to innovate and think differently.”
“Seattle has been one of the most affected by this, and one of the first for sure,” Gonzales said. “We’re trying to get behind the notion that we’ll be one of the first to overcome it and really show the rest of the country what it looks like. Right now, all we can do is try to fill everybody up with some optimism, put some good content out there, and try to just give people that hope that we’re gonna get back to normal as soon as we can.”
— Red Sox (@RedSox) March 24, 2020
BY NATURE OF their status in local communities, sports teams can often serve as information hubs for regions. The Boston Red Sox, for example, represent the baseball team for all six states in the New England region, making Twitter — where the team has more than 6.1 million followers — an ideal platform to distribute factually verified information regarding the pandemic. Kelsey Doherty, senior manager of digital media for the Red Sox, says the team has kept in touch with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the State House to stay up to date on the best official safety measures.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking every time I put out any of that messaging, because especially early on, things were changing so rapidly about what was or wasn’t good for you or how you’re supposed to go about things,” Doherty said. “We were linking a lot to the Mass Department of Public Health, but we’re also trying to put the Red Sox spin on it. This weekend we put out, ‘How far is 6 feet really?’ And it’s like, ‘It’s one Rafael Devers away.'”
The Red Sox are far from the only team to use its social media accounts to pitch in. Zimmerman’s interview with Fauci, via the Nats’ Facebook page, delved into plans for slowly and safely restarting the economy. The Colorado Rockies are one club that sponsored a mask-making project, reaching out online to distribute free team-branded masks to front-line workers. New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit connected with medical staff at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. The Baltimore Orioles have been holding Phone Call Fridays, when members of the team check in on fans and first responders.
There have been other notable effects. With no games on the calendar for the near future, each team’s social media account now represents the primary connection clubs have with fans on a daily basis. Typically at this point in the regular season, an internationally iconic team like the Yankees is focused on building hype around the club, selling individual game tickets and targeting tourists who might be coming into New York. Stephi Blank, senior manager of digital and social strategy for the Yankees, says the pandemic has flipped the team’s social focus upside down.
“Especially when thinking about targeting individual game ticket buyers, tourism in New York City is something that is a massive industry, and talking with our colleagues at Broadway and others, you see that so much of the individual game, the individual ticket buyers, come from people who are outside of New York who don’t live there,” Blank said. “That had been a big focus of ours prior to this, but New York has been the epicenter, and we’ve been focusing a lot more on our local fans.”
With no team to root for or games to play, teams are reframing their social media presence to think about fandom as a lifestyle.
“It’s new territory,” Doherty said. “I always joke that I am so grateful that I work in sports because our content can change day to day based on a win or a loss or who had a big night, and now suddenly I’m in this unchartered territory and everyone in sports is, where it’s like suddenly we aren’t dependent on that and we’re dependent on our history, the lifestyle, the fan base and the culture around the team.”
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) May 20, 2020
THE LACK OF day-to-day, game-centric content leaves more room to experiment. The Yankees have dabbled in more player personality-driven content, posting intentionally lo-fi workout videos from the likes of Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino, shot in vertical video on an iPhone. Yankees head of communications Jason Zillo says the lack of wins and losses allowed baseball’s most traditional brand to let loose and have some fun.
“[Player-personality content] is not only a neat concept, but I think this has legs to live long beyond the pandemic,” Zillo said. “The thing that constantly is a push and a pull during a baseball season is that games matter so much. And you have to temper ‘fun’ things up against the fact that every day, there’s a game that you’re trying to win at all costs. There has to be a measure of caution. If you’ve lost six of eight games, my first mindset isn’t, ‘Let’s do something fun.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s kind of scale back and then when we’ve won six of eight, then maybe we can push more of the fun stuff.'”
Baseball is unique among sports in its challenge of creating inclusive, compelling social media content. The schedule is arduous — nearly every single day, often for about 10 hours, from the middle of February until at least the end of September — and the culture can often feel repressive. Marketers have mostly found players to be less motivated to promote themselves, both because of the volume of their workload and the guaranteed nature of their contracts. Teams, in some respects, have taken a relatively conservative approach on their digital platforms.
But maybe that’ll be different now.
“It has been a challenging time,” Martinez, the Mariners’ senior VP of marketing, said, “but it’s been a time for innovation, and a great opportunity to create fans with our players in ways we haven’t explored before.”
While baseball has been slow to adapt to the new age of social media, the pandemic plopped a mirror in front of many teams. Many took that as an opportunity to try something new — and have seen it bear fruit.
“You hear a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life saying, ‘Use this time to get better at something,'” Zillo said. “I think baseball, as a whole, has, when it comes to looking under different rocks, now, is really using social media and all of its tentacles to reach as many fans as possible.”
Tim Kurkjian Baseball Fix – Babe Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams
You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 1935, Babe Ruth hit the final home run of his career.
That day in Pittsburgh, Ruth didn’t just hit home run No. 714. He also hit 712 and 713. His final three home runs came in the same game. He would play five more games, going 0-for-9; he was 40, he was fat, he was done. He retired as, at least statistically, the greatest player ever, a man whose power saved the game in the wake of the Black Sox scandal.
The game was reeling in 1920, but Ruth brought it back with tape-measure homers and overwhelming charisma. He became the first player to glamorize the home run, hitting 54 that season, more than the next three home run hitters in the American League combined. Still, critics said he’d never hit that many again. In 1921, maybe the greatest season by any player ever, Ruth hit 59, with 177 runs scored, 168 RBIs and a 1.359 OPS.
“There’s only one greatest player ever,” said Paul Richards, who spent 55 years in the game, “and it’s Babe Ruth.”
Ruth was the first to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 homers in a season. In 1921, he hit his 137th home run, passing Roger Connor as the all-time home run king: the next 577 only added to his record. When he retired with 714 home runs, no one in the game had half that many. In certain seasons, he hit more home runs than complete teams, from 1926 to 1932, he out-homered the Washington Senators, 343-327. Ruth finished with a career slugging percentage of .690. No active player has ever had a single-season slugging percentage of .690.
But Ruth was more than a slugger even though movies made about him depict him as a non-athletic clown; they turned the greatest player of all time into a cartoon character. Ruth was a great athlete. He was a great basketball player, quick and agile for a big man, He could run; he had 136 triples, more than any active player, and 130 more than Mark McGwire. Plus, Ruth was the best left-handed pitcher in the AL when he decided to become only a hitter. Ruth’s record for scoreless innings (29⅔) in World Series play lasted nearly 42 years. Ruth still has as many career shutouts as Pedro Martinez (17).
The final homer of his career that day in Pittsburgh was the first one ever to clear the right-field roof in the 26-year-old history of Forbes Field, a fitting finale to an amazing career. In 1982, I asked Burt Hawkins, a baseball writer who covered the game starting in the 1920s, to name the best player ever.
“Buddy boy,” he said, “I’ll take Babe Ruth, and you can have the next three.”
Other baseball notes for May 25
In 1981, the Rangers’ Bill Stein made it seven hits in seven consecutive at-bats as a pinch hitter.
In 1982, I saw Rangers manager Don Zimmer give Stein the hit-and-run with the bases loaded, the only time I’ve ever seen that call made. It did not end very well.
In 1935, author W.P. Kinsella was born. His brilliant book led to the making of the movie “Field of Dreams.” So many great lines and scenes. No, Ray, it was you.
In 1966, Dave Hollins was born. He was a good player, a good third baseman, but in 1993, he had an injured elbow. Of course, he played through it. But he had trouble making the throw to second on the double play. So, the Phillies turned two 5-4-3 double plays that year. And they won the pennant.
In 1979, pitcher Chris Young was born. Good pitcher, brilliant guy, great guy. And the tallest player (6-foot-10) in major league history to hit a triple.
Who MLB’s most valuable players of the 2020s will be
Usually, the ol’ ZiPS projection system gets a much-needed break at this time of the season. After all, there are actual games of baseball to talk about. Except with the 2020 season significantly delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, all the games, at least of the MLB variety, are purely theoretical ones.
So why not look into future MLB seasons, which will consist of 162 games and a surfeit of toilet paper and hand sanitizer? One of the things I’ve tweaked in the ZiPS model the past few years is getting future MVP probabilities. Obviously, these can only envision the presence of current players; there’s no projection system (or person) alive who really knows if 14-year-old Jimmy who toilet-papered their house last Halloween will be a six-WAR phenom in 2028.
So, who will win the most MVP awards over the 2020s? It’s still a bit of a different question than who the best player will be; while the year-end awards are far closer to what advanced metrics say than they were even 10-15 years ago, things like Triple Crown stats do still have some sway among a good chunk of the voters.
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