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. Like the first three editions, our big bat is up second.
1 Baltimore is still in first place … for now.
Operating at a terrifying 5.60 run-per-game clip, the Red Sox have the best offense in baseball, and it’s backed up by an expensive new no. 1 starter (David Price), an expensive new closer (Craig Kimbrel), and a surprising All-Star knuckleballer (Steven Wright). They’re locked in a race with the Toronto Blue Jays, who returned — save Price — all the key components of a team that I’m told lost a game in the second half of the regular season last year (I don’t remember actually seeing it happen).
Except both of those teams are fighting for second place, because the Baltimore Orioles have had a stranglehold on the AL East all year. The Orioles have spent 77 of 93 days in the division lead, never dropping below second place. Considering that the Orioles have gotten very little from Adam Jones and just about nothing from Yovani Gallardo, Baltimore’s success ought to be surprising, but while Even Year Bullshit leads to a weird Giants World Series win every other season, it also leads to a weird Orioles playoff run every other season.
Despite the hot start and magical math, Baltimore’s gone 1–4 to start July, and an Orioles division title would require Mark Trumbo continuing to hit .281, Hyun Soo Kim — whom the Orioles wanted to send back to South Korea this spring — continuing to hit .338/.423/.478, or some other equally improbable event. Plus, the Orioles trail both Toronto and Boston in run differential.
The various public projection systems share that skepticism: Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have Baltimore as the third most likely AL East team to make the playoffs, behind Boston and Toronto.
Absent a big trade or an unexpected hot streak, it’s hard to see the Orioles holding off both the Red Sox and Blue Jays until October.
2 Cleveland steamrolls the AL Central.
One afternoon this month, a group of men in Technicolor body stockings are going to ride their bikes together up a mountain highway in France, shoulder to shoulder, toward a summit finish. And then, suddenly, one of those skinny men will bounce out of his seat and just pedal away, without warning, slowly stretching out a decisive gap over his competitors because he has that extra gear and everyone else just doesn’t.
That’s pretty much what the Cleveland Indians did over the past two weeks, starting in a dead heat with the Kansas City Royals and pulling slowly, determinedly, inexorably away. After MLB’s first 14-game winning streak since Atlanta pulled that feat off in 2013 — and the first in the American League since the Moneyball A’s won 20 in a row in 2002 — Cleveland sits 7.5 games ahead of second-place Detroit. Even after losing by 16 runs on Sunday, the Indians have the best run differential in the American League. All this despite a mediocre offense (4.9 runs per game, fifth in the AL, and a 93 OPS+, 11th in the AL) that’s been hamstrung by the continued absence of star left fielder Michael Brantley, the suspension of Marlon Byrd, and pitcher-level offense from catchers Chris Giménez (.187/.235/.280) and Yan Gomes (.175/.208/.333).
One reason you don’t see double-digit winning streaks very often is that sooner or later every team has to start a crappy pitcher. Pitching is hard, and there aren’t very many guys out there who are good enough at it to become good big league starters, so even teams that we think of as having a good rotation usually have only three or four good starters.
Not the Indians. Cleveland hasn’t had to start a bad pitcher since June 7, when Cody Anderson (who wasn’t bad at all in 2015) gave up six runs to Seattle in 3.2 innings. The winning streak only ended after Trevor Bauer threw the last five innings of a 19-inning win over Toronto, forcing reliever Zach McAllister to make a spot start in a 9–6 loss the next day. And even McAllister, who lasted only one inning, has a 115 ERA+ this year and a 96 ERA+ for his career — it’s not like he’s latter-day Carlos Silva or anything.
Cleveland’s top five pitchers in innings pitched (Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Josh Tomlin) all have an ERA+ of at least 123, putting all of them in the top third of the 67 American League pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year.
Among those, Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young winner whose hard sinker turned him into the stereotypical physical, innings-eating no. 1 starter every team craves, has actually been Cleveland’s worst regular starter on a rate basis. Tomlin, who’s bounced in and out of Cleveland’s rotation his entire career, has by far the lowest walk rate of any qualified AL starter; only 2.6 percent of batters draw walks off him.
But it’s the other three guys who really make the rotation.
Bauer, Salazar, and Carrasco have all always had top-of-the-rotation stuff; it’s everything else that has been a struggle. Salazar has had trouble staying on the field, while Bauer clashed with coaches frequently, leading the Diamondbacks to give up on him 18 months after taking him third in the 2011 draft. Carrasco, the top prospect in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia all the way back in 2009, took years to establish himself as a big league starter in part because of his own attitude issues. When Cleveland started rolling out Salazar, Bauer, and Carrasco part-time in 2013, those three represented tremendous untapped potential, and maybe between them Cleveland would find one future top-of-the-rotation running buddy for Kluber.
Under pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Cleveland’s hit on all three lottery tickets, netting three of the top seven pitchers in the AL this year by ERA+. The result has been a pitching staff that Baseball Reference rates as four times as valuable as any other in the AL. The Indians have the second-best strikeout rate in the AL, and despite playing in a park that overwhelmingly favors offense, the best ERA and — in case you were worried this is all a mirage — the second-best FIP.
By combining that pitching staff with a defense that turned into one of the league’s best last year, the Indians also lead the American League in defensive efficiency, turning 70.9 percent of balls in play into outs.
Now that the Indians are overwhelming favorites to win the AL Central, you could say that the biggest challenge down the stretch will be staying healthy and continuing to build momentum toward the playoffs. Or you could side with Earl Weaver and consider that second part done.
“Momentum,” said Weaver, “is the next day’s starting pitcher.”
3 The Dodgers rotation is coming together.
While everything’s gone right for the Indians’ somewhat high-variance rotation so far, the opposite has been true for the Dodgers. Brett Anderson will miss most of the year with a back injury, Scott Kazmir’s been iffy, Alex Wood is hurt, and while the teenaged Julio Urias has shown flashes of what could be future greatness, through eight starts he’s not great just yet. And now Clayton Kershaw, who’s so good he should count for two starting pitchers on his own, is on the DL.
That’s how you wind up spending $227 million on player payroll and still end up making a panic trade for Bud Norris, who at this point in his career is roster filler, but those days are coming to an end. Before this week, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu — both precisely the kind of reliable, veteran midrotation starter the Dodgers are in such dire need of — had combined to contribute four starts and 23 innings since the start of the 2015 season. And they all came from McCarthy. But on Sunday, the Twitter superstar and sometime ballplayer struck out eight and allowed only two hits on 72 pitches over five shutout innings in his first big league appearance since he underwent Tommy John surgery last April. And tomorrow, Ryu, who’d been shelved with a shoulder injury, will make his first big league start in almost two years.
All of a sudden, when Kershaw comes back, you’ve got the best pitcher in baseball headlining a rotation of McCarthy, Kazmir, Ryu, and Kenta Maeda, whose 3.07 ERA and 23.9 percent strikeout rate indicate that he’s adjusted to North American baseball just fine. In a shock for anyone who’s watched Los Angeles collectively white-knuckle the ball over the plate four games out of five this year, that group looks pretty decent. It takes pressure off Anderson and Wood to rush back from their injuries, and it allows Urias to take his time in Triple-A. There’s still the matter of that five-game hole in the division the Dodgers have dug for themselves along the way, but the rotation is finally starting to look the way it was supposed to look all along.
4 Billy Hamilton is a delight.
I don’t care if he never winds up hitting even a little. I will always have time for Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton, if only because he can do stuff like this:
It’s not just that he’s fast; it’s how he’s fast. He walks around like he doesn’t perceive the force of gravity the way other people do, like his bones are made of carbon fiber to save weight. It’s not hard to beat David Ross and John Lackey in a footrace these days, but Hamilton stretches the bounds of possibility from a baserunning perspective.
The hyper-speed shows up on defense, too. Within the span of a few days recently, I saw Hamilton, Carlos Gómez, and Jackie Bradley Jr. play in person, and it got me thinking about how television doesn’t really convey the sheer amount of real estate a good defensive center fielder can cover when tracking down a fly ball. They say hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, but reading a gapper off the bat and running it down isn’t much easier.
5 The WPA Graph of the Week goes to the Tigers and the Rays.
The Rays went into the top of the ninth as 99.5 percent favorites to win this game, which is a fancy way of saying that if you finish eight innings with a 7–2 lead at home, you’re going to win 199 times out of 200.
Honorable mention goes to the Mets for what they did to the Marlins on Monday. Miami jumped out to a 6–0 lead in the top of the fourth, then allowed New York to score in each of its last five offensive innings to win 8–6. I’m not sure if it’s more painful to lose all at once, like Tampa did, or gradually, like the Marlins, but anyone with thoughts on the matter is welcome to write in.
6 In defense of the every-team-needs-an-All-Star rule.
I don’t have any particular takes on the All-Star Game rosters that just got released, but there’s an undercurrent of fans who wonder if, in the age of MLB.tv and SportsCenter and fantasy sports, every team needs to be represented in the Midsummer Classic anymore. I don’t think it’s a majority, but it’s a common enough sentiment that it’s worth addressing.
If we’re going to judge players’ careers in part by the number of All-Star Games they played in, then it makes sense to pick those teams on merit and nothing else, particularly since home-field advantage in the World Series now rides on the outcome of the game. And on some level, who cares about Adam Duvall or Eduardo Núñez or Odubel Herrera?
But while I think MLB could do a better job of picking teams that would market the game well — more young, up-and-coming players, fewer middle relievers, etc. — I like that every fan base has a reason to tune in. In a lost season for the Twins, it’s cool for those fans to see Núñez out there rubbing elbows with Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. The exchange goes both ways: If you’re not watching the Phillies every night, you might not know that they’ve got a center fielder with a crazy batting stance and a penchant for bat flips. Meeting new people is why you go to summer camp, after all.
It’s also important to remember that if you have the Extra Innings package, tweet about baseball 12 hours a day, or even if you’re reading this column, the All-Star Game isn’t really designed with you in mind. This might be the first exposure to Duvall or Herrera that some casual fans get, so if we’re going to showcase the league, let’s showcase the whole thing.
7 What’s after Fort Bragg?
In his stop in the ESPN booth during Sunday’s Braves-Marlins game at Fort Bragg, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred alluded to other potential unconventional sites for MLB regular-season games. Certainly, the exhibition game between the Rays and the Cuban national team in Havana back in March remains one of the season’s most memorable moments so far. I hope the success of the Fort Bragg game — the atmosphere, the creation of a television spectacle, and the expected solemn approval whenever sports and the military cross paths — encourages Major League Baseball to continue to seek out exciting new venues, whether it’s to leverage the game’s popularity to achieve diplomatic ends or to honor other civil servants, like schoolteachers or first responders.
8 The Cardinals should sue geography and luck.
Not that anyone feels that bad for the Cardinals after five straight playoff appearances, two titles, and four pennants since 2004, but the Cardinals are kind of getting screwed by the universe.
St. Louis has the third-best run differential in the NL and the fourth best in baseball but is nine games out of first place in a division the Cubs have had locked up, it seems, since before the season even started. Moreover, the Cardinals are underperforming their run differential by six games. When a team over- or underperforms its run differential, it’s usually either because of the tactical influence of the manager, the bullpen, or sheer dumb luck.
We can’t measure the latter, but recently deposed closer Trevor Rosenthal has posted a 5.28 ERA, and manager Mike Matheny, whatever his other virtues, has a tactical acumen that inspires onlookers to say “Bless his heart” somewhat more frequently than the Cardinals would like.
Now, the Cubs are so good that none of this really matters, and the Cardinals have had so much success over the past decade-plus that the organization and its fans, if they were looking at this rationally and dispassionately, would just take the L and try again in 2017. Unfortunately, we’re seldom rational and dispassionate about baseball.
9 These warm-ups are a hell of a way to honor the game’s best players.
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper just joined Kris Bryant on the list of prominent MLB power hitters who will not take part in the Home Run Derby. Maybe they want to take it easy the night before the All-Star Game, or maybe they just want to spend as little time on camera as possible while wearing promotional gear for a chocolate-flavored children’s breakfast cereal from 1977.
Seriously, this looks like something out of a deleted scene from The Nice Guys in which Ryan Gosling tries to convince Russell Crowe to go undercover as a pair of beer league softball players — only Russell Crowe won’t do it because the jerseys look too stupid.
Then again, maybe this is the best you can do when MLB tries to copy the host team’s aesthetic for All-Star gear, and San Diego’s best-ever uniform might include a camouflage jersey.