Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order. The shape of each entry will vary from week to week, but there will always be nine. Today, we’ve got our star man batting second.
1. The Rockies draft tries to solve Coors Field.
One of my favorite questions in baseball is: How do you build a winning pitching staff in Coors Field?
The atmospheric conditions affect breaking balls in such a way that makes it more than just another hitter’s park. Fenway is a hitter’s park because it’s tiny with outfield walls like a jai alai court, while at Coors Field there’s not enough air to slow fly balls down. The architects tried to compensate with an enormous outfield, which turned out to have too much ground for three outfielders to cover, so a ton of balls that would be caught elsewhere fall in for hits.
But the real problem is that breaking balls don’t break as much. Essentially, breaking balls break due to friction — the thinner the air, the less friction, and, by extension, the less break on a curveball or slider. The obvious way to get around that is to try to get whiffs by throwing hard. Judging by the Rockies’ first two draft picks last week, that’s the way they’re going.
With a heater that runs all the way up to 102 miles an hour, no. 4 overall pick Riley Pint is hailed as the hardest-throwing high school pitcher ever. Meanwhile, no. 38 overall pick Robert Tyler, a right-hander out of the University of Georgia, throws in the high 90s, and his main secondary pitch is not a breaking ball, but a changeup. If this represents an organizational shift for Colorado rather than a coincidence, maybe we’re one step closer to figuring out how to pitch at high altitude.
2. It kinda sucks to be Mike Trout.
OK, it doesn’t really suck to be Mike Trout, who, as the best baseball player in the world, will make more than $16 million this year and more than $70 million from 2016 to 2018. Plus, he’s been a superstar for four years, and between his on-field exploits and guileless, ever-present smile, he seems to be universally liked. That’s tough to do when contrarianism makes the sports media world go round.
Still, it’s not as good to be Trout as it used to be. For the first time, fancasting this past offseason centered on the idea that it might be good for the Angels to move on from Trout.
Of course, that’s crazy: Having Trout in the fold is such a huge advantage that it seems almost literally unbelievable that a team with a big payroll, like the Angels, couldn’t make it work. But they haven’t.
At Baseball Prospectus over the offseason, Sam Miller wrote something that keeps me up at night. He went back to the 2009 draft and looked at what would have happened if every team that had a chance to take Trout had actually taken him. He discovered that most of the 23 teams that took players between Stephen Strasburg and Trout would have made at least one more playoff appearance as a result, while the Angels’ place in the standings over the past four years would have hardly changed at all. As Miller wrote, “It’s probably fair to say that the Angels have wasted Mike Trout to a degree that has almost no precedent in any major sport.”
So far in 2016, Trout’s been great (.308/.413/.540 while playing some of the best defense of his career in center field), but almost everything else has gone wrong for the Angels. Garrett Richards showed up in camp with a new changeup and looked ready to take the leap into ace territory (I picked him to finish second in Cy Young voting), but he blew out his elbow in early May. Richards and Andrew Heaney, who’d damaged his UCL a month before, are trying to rehab their injuries, but smart money’s on both missing the rest of the season, if not more. C.J. Wilson still hasn’t pitched since last July, which means he’s doing better than Jered Weaver, who has a 5.71 ERA. New shortstop Andrelton Simmons is on the DL (but close to returning), and Albert Pujols is now a DH with a league-average bat.
So when Trout took a Tommy Hunter fastball off the right hand on Sunday, I fully expected it to be a broken bone that would keep him on the shelf for two or three months:
Trout got lucky, and he was back in the lineup the next day, because he’s Mike Trout and is therefore unencumbered by the weaknesses and fragilities of what we would call a traditional human body. But unfortunately there’s only so much that Trout can transcend.
Every team deals with injuries, and even teams that border on dynasty suffer a down year here and there, but the Angels, despite having maybe the best baseball player ever, are uniquely unsuited to capitalize on his presence.
Los Angeles has the worst farm system in baseball, and $65.7 million of its $164 million payroll is tied up in Pujols, Wilson, and Weaver. Wilson and Weaver come off the books next year, but Trout is due for a $4 million raise in 2017 and a $14 million raise the year after that. Throw in incremental raises due for Simmons and various arbitration-eligible players over the next few years, and the Angels might be in only marginally better financial shape a year from now.
The Angels aren’t just one or two free agents away from being a contender, either. With Richards on the shelf, they don’t have a good big league starting pitcher, unless you count (because someone will) Hector Santiago, who made the All-Star team but finished with a 105 ERA+ last year, and whose ERA+ currently sits at 70, or Matt Shoemaker, who last posted a league-average ERA in 2014, his first full year in the big leagues. They’ve got a very good shortstop, a very good corner outfielder (in Kole Calhoun), and the best player in the game. But the next wave of good homegrown talent is probably still in amateur ball at this point, so Trout’s 10-win seasons will keep taking the Angels from 70 wins to 80, and no further.
We’re at the point where it’s probable that Trout could walk out of the Angels’ locker room on the last day of the 2020 season, after 10 years with the team, having never won a playoff game. When does that realization — that being the greatest baseball player ever hasn’t made any material difference for his team, and might not for a long time — start to wear on him? At what point does Trout start to encounter best-player-on-a-bad-team fatigue from fans and media?
In other words, if it doesn’t suck to be Mike Trout now, when does that change?
3. He takes Juan in the Uribes.
Trout might not be making an impact on the Angels, but he certainly made one on Indians third baseman Juan Uribe. For the second time in a week, Uribe went after a batted ball and ended up with a wiener in his hands.
Four innings before leaving the game, Trout hit a 106-mph screamer down the third-base line that might have become a triple if Uribe hadn’t stepped in front of it and turned two, in a manner of speaking.
Uribe is listed as day-to-day with a testicular contusion, but was in good spirits when he spoke to the media Monday.
The most amazing thing about this story is how closely it followed Draymond Green’s suspension from an NBA Finals game for turning Game 4 into Ball-Tap Friday. Between Uribe and LeBron, Cleveland is the athlete crotch capital of the world.
4. David Wright might be done.
After spending the past year battling spinal stenosis, David Wright is now considering potentially career-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. If this ends up being the end for Wright, there’s something fitting about his last major impact in the big leagues being as the veteran leader of a team that went to the World Series on the strength of its young talent.
Wright is the last holdover from the Mets team that finished just short of the World Series in 2006, and just short of the division title in 2007 and 2008. Then, during the darkest days of Wilpon-induced misery, he was everything you could possibly want from the face of a franchise, staying out of the headlines, except when the headlines were about how he was one of the best all-around players in baseball. He was such an obvious and well-liked superstar that he briefly made the Mets feel like the Yankees.
At age 33, and with his back and neck in such bad shape, the end of the line is in view whether Wright gets the surgery or not. But as great as he has been, time after time he fell just short of the kind of historical markers that would entrench him in baseball history forever — the pennant in 2006, the MVP in 2007, the title in 2015 — and because of that, he might also fall just short of the Hall of Fame.
Cooperstown or not, I only hope he’s remembered for what he was: one of the best players of the early 2000s.
5. The Win Probability Graph of the Week goes to the White Sox and the Tigers.
On Monday night, the White Sox and Tigers played a wild, four-hour, 34-minute epic that ended when Adam Eaton singled in J.B. Schuck in the bottom of the 12th. The Tigers pretty much had this one won twice; the White Sox had only a 3.4 percent chance of winning when they trailed 7–0 in the third, and only a 4.4 percent chance when they trailed 9–7 in the ninth. Avisail Garcia was the big hero when his two-out, two-strike single in the ninth tied the game, increasing Chicago’s win expectancy by 47 percentage points.
6. Francisco Lindor is trying, guys.
I absolutely adore this quote from Francisco Lindor, and I’m not sure why.
It could be that Lindor’s being candid about his past shortcomings, or that he’s so skilled that even high-level minor league baseball bored him at times. Or it could be that his previous issues with concentration caused everyone to underrate him, and, despite being hailed as a top-10 prospect and potential franchise shortstop when he was called up, Lindor could end up being even better than advertised.
7. Mickey Moniak is about to become a brand.
In discussing Philadelphia’s decision to draft Mickey Moniak no. 1 overall last week, I left out an important part of the story. Apparently — per the terms of a bet contingent on the 18-year-old going in the top 10 — a friend of his is now obliged to get Moniak’s signature tattooed on his ass.
I want to go on the record urging Moniak not to let this friend out of the bet. Moniak’s friend bet against him succeeding, and the nature and placement of the tattoo — which pretty much says, “I own your ass” — feels like a fitting punishment for that lack of faith. Besides, if you’re feeling confident enough to make a tattoo bet, you better have the integrity to follow through.
8. Starling Marté can’t stop getting hit.
Coming into Tuesday’s action, Starling Marté’s walk rate was 2.8 percent, among the lowest in the majors, but his OBP was 43 points higher than his batting average, which just didn’t look right.
Turns out, Marté’s been hit by nine pitches so far this year, tied for the league lead, but has only walked seven times, two of which were intentional. How rare is it for someone to draw more HBPs than walks? Well, the last player to do it in 300 or more plate appearances was Einar Diaz in 2003, and the last to do it in 500 or more plate appearances was Art Fletcher in 1916.
9. Throw out the throwbacks, Pittsburgh.
Speaking of the Pirates, they’ve got to stop wearing those 1979 throwbacks. I know cool baseball people are supposed to be in favor of throwbacks all the time. I’m in favor of adding color to the uniform in unconventional places — I’ve been out here defending Arizona’s uniform redesign, for crying out loud. But those caps, which resemble nothing so much as a layer cake, were wrong in 1979 and they’re wrong now.
If we want to have discussion about playing baseball in kepis or shakos, we can, but the baseball cap is supposed to conform to the shape of the human head, and the human head hasn’t been flat on top since Kid ‘n Play.
If there were a way to use a conventional cap without ruining the whole disco cosplay aspect of Pittsburgh’s throwback, I’d be all ears, but I worry that the shape of the cap is part and parcel of the uniform, so the whole thing has to go.