A year ago, ESPN’s Sam Miller put forth a haunting hypothetical question: Would you be willing to play in an MLB game if your skill level and salary stayed as they are? How about five games? Or a whole season? How long until embarrassment forced you to stop?
We’ll never find out for sure what a normal person would look like in an MLB lineup long term, but this season we’re getting pretty close.
Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal had his best outing of the young season on Sunday: Coming in to start the eighth inning with a six-run lead over the Mets, Rosenthal hit Dominic Smith, threw two wild pitches, and walked Luis Guillorme before being lifted. Only one of the seven pitches he threw was a strike. But the next reliever, Wander Suero, stranded Smith and Guillorme. Before Smith and Guillorme, the previous nine batters Rosenthal had faced had scored.
Rosenthal hasn’t retired a batter since August 12, 2017. That night, he felt discomfort in his elbow while recording a save for the St. Louis Cardinals. Four days later, he pitched again, faced two batters who both scored, and went on the shelf before having Tommy John surgery and rehabbing for the next 19 months. Rosenthal has failed to record an out in his first four appearances this year, an MLB record to start the season. Tack on his last appearance of 2017 and Rosenthal now shares, with Trever Miller and Joey Eischen, the record for most consecutive appearances without retiring a batter at any point in a season.
About an hour up the road, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is on an 0-for-44 streak. He’s walked four times and driven in two runs this year, but he hasn’t had a hit since last September 14. If Davis fails to get a hit in his next three at-bats, he’ll break the record for longest hitless streak by a position player, set by Eugenio Vélez with the Dodgers in 2011.
Either streak would be a shocking run of conspicuous failure in any geographical setting that wasn’t so close to Congress. Both are so confounding it’s hard to judge which one is worse. (And before you ask, the Nats and Orioles don’t face each other until July, so at least one streak should be over by then.) Dating back to last season, Davis has gone 13 games without a hit. Rosenthal’s streak is only 11 plate appearances long, but the odds are so stacked in the pitcher’s favor—leaguewide averages tell us any given batter is more than twice as likely to make an out as he is to reach base—that it’s almost unimaginable that a pitcher could go five games without so much as lucking into a pop-up or at-’em ball.
As you might expect, Rosenthal has struggled to find the plate over his streak, throwing just 18 of 46 pitches for strikes. But it’s not like batters aren’t swinging, as he’s surrendered five hits. Three of them—a home run in 2017 and two hard-hit line drive singles this year—were smoked, but he’s come close to fluking into an out. On March 31, he kind of jammed Mets shortstop Amed Rosario on an opposite-field line drive that was more of a low-trajectory Texas Leaguer.
But the closest Rosenthal’s come to an out this season, in a turn of irony so tragic it churns the stomach, was the first batter he faced—on the second pitch, in fact. Mets catcher Wilson Ramos bounced a fastball in front of the plate and it rolled out to shortstop Trea Turner so slowly that even Ramos, who runs about as quickly as a fish thinks, was able to beat it out.
What Rosenthal and Davis are going through might look the same as some rando dropping into the lineup in the box score, but it’s more sad than funny for completely different reasons. Rather than knowing they don’t belong, both players were dominant in the relatively recent past. In 2013, Davis led MLB with 53 home runs, earning an All-Star berth and a third-place finish in AL MVP voting. Only Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 in his MVP season in 2017, has hit more home runs in a season since. In 2015, Davis led MLB again with 47 homers. That same year, for the Cardinals, Rosenthal posted the best season of his career: 48 saves, a 2.10 ERA, and 83 strikeouts in just 68 2/3 innings. Rosenthal made the All-Star team and even picked up a couple of MVP votes.
Both have struggled since. From 2015 to 2018, Davis’s seasonal OPS+ dropped from 147 to 110 to 96 to 50 last season. In 2018, Davis hit just .168/.243/.296, and because he’s a below-average defensive first baseman and took 522 plate appearances, his numbers graded out to a historically bad all-around season. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both rated him as worse than three wins below replacement, while Baseball Reference WAR, the most positive metric on Davis, still had him at minus-2.8, for the 14th-worst season by a position player in the previous 100 years.
Rosenthal has had his ups and downs as well: After three dominant seasons out of the Cardinals’ bullpen from 2013 to 2015, and just two earned runs in 23 career postseason appearances, Rosenthal’s walk rate nearly doubled in 2016, and after a run of bad outings in June, he lost his spot at the back of the Cardinals’ bullpen. Rosenthal recovered, and in 2017 he won the closer’s job back and posted his best strikeout rate ever, but then he blew out his elbow in August and missed all of 2018.
While an ordinary person would be expected to fail each time out, Davis and Rosenthal keep getting chances because they still look like the All-Stars they once were. Rosenthal is still hitting 99 miles per hour with his fastball, and Davis is still the same humongous square-jawed Texan with leg-sized forearms that he was in 2013. Only now the gigantic eyes that once brimmed with confidence just look kind of weary.
Because of their previous success, we still expect Rosenthal and Davis to succeed. Hell, last week Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo had Javy Guerra intentionally walk Davis, because historic slump or no, he’s still the guy who once tagged the Jays for three homers in one game.
Late last season, Davis talked about his struggles in detail in an absolutely heartbreaking Sports Illustrated feature. Read it and it becomes clear how much repeated failure wears on an athlete, even an athlete with the support of his teammates playing in a relatively low-stakes MLB environment. The story details Davis’s efforts to kick a slump that just won’t seem to end and a frustration that billows into a full-blown crisis of faith. “Failure just follows me around daily,” he told SI.
Rosenthal isn’t there yet; after five bad games, one of which was two years ago and can be explained away by injury, his annoyance has not yet turned to despair. “I’ve been super encouraged because of how good I feel, but that’s what makes it more frustrating because I know it’s there,” Rosenthal told reporters on Sunday. “I know my stuff’s there. I feel better than ever, really, but the results aren’t happening.”
If Rosenthal and Davis both have the same bodies they did in 2015, it’s their spirits that have been altered. What these two are doing is historic, and weird, and even a little funny. But these former All-Stars are now objects of pity, and that might be the hardest part to watch.