MLB's next big thing: Red Sox vs. 116 and more races to watch

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Baseball is a story, one that never ends and one that never follows any pat formula. Each season is a chapter in the longest novel ever written. The chapters achieve closure; the novel does not. We just have to keep reading.

All the storylines we’ve followed since that early November night last fall when the Houston Astros won their first World Series have led us to this part of the calendar. The Hot Stove, spring training, the All-Star break, the trade deadline, the Cooperstown induction — all that is behind us. All that remains is determining how all of that positioning will pay off over the six weeks to come. And that’s even before we get to October.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of my favorite unresolved storylines as the season builds to its ultimate climax.

1. Red Sox & 116

This has kind of snuck up on us, but Boston has been so hot for so long that, suddenly, we have to start wondering if the Sox will make a run at the win record. We went through this with the Dodgers last season, and as soon as the possibility seemed to become real, L.A. lost 16 of 17. The Red Sox have been as consistent as they’ve been good and haven’t lost back-to-back games since June. The complicating factor is that with a record that is eight games better than every other club in the American League, there is no particular reason for Boston to max out during the regular season. As we saw with the Dodgers last year, you can ease off a historic pace and recover your mojo when October comes around.

2. NL MVP

This is a quagmire. What’s your flavor? Old-school stats? A pitcher? An all-around player? Or a slugger? There is a little bit of everything in this race and no clear leader. Some see St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter as a leading candidate. Others scoff at the notion. Some see Javier Baez as a front-runner. Others don’t even list him as being in contention. Max Scherzer, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are all in the running. This is a race whose leader could change with each passing day.

3. How high can the A’s go?

Oakland already has sprinted past Seattle in the AL wild-card race. The A’s are coming up on the Yankees now, and catching the Astros isn’t out of the question. Oakland had a negative run differential as of June 19. The A’s are now plus-58 and have won 35 of 50. Oakland is sailing on some serious momentum.

4. Who gets the NL’s top seed?

There are 7½ games separating the Cubs, who have the National League’s best record, and the Pirates, who have the 10th best. The Cardinals have sprung up off the mat, the Brewers, Phillies and Braves have proved their staying power, and both Chicago and the Dodgers have struggled to really get a stranglehold on their divisions. We still may very well end up with another Cubs-Dodgers NLCS. But this may be one of those postseasons where it’s a matter of who catches fire at the right time. And the Dodgers have to actually get into the postseason first.

5. The race for 10

As in 10 WAR. Jose Ramirez, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts all have a shot at cracking 10 WAR, which makes their battle for AL MVP a historic competition. According to baseball-reference.com, there has been only one season in which three position players cracked double digits in WAR. That was 1927: Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth. There have been only three 10-WAR seasons this entire decade — two by Trout and one by Bryce Harper. Despite this, don’t sleep on J.D. Martinez’s MVP candidacy. The guy has a shot at the Triple Crown. That shouldn’t necessarily win the MVP award for him, but it did so a few years ago for Miguel Cabrera

6. Race for the bottom

In my latest run of simulations, Kansas City finished with an average of 52.9 wins. Baltimore was at 53.1. During the 162-game era, only nine teams have won fewer than 53 games in a non-strike season. Aren’t we lucky to have two “contenders” in the same season? The stakes here aren’t nothing. My takeaway from reading the draft pundits on next year’s class is that prep shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. has a shot to be a particularly special top pick.

7. Chasing Earl Webb

The record for doubles in a season has stood since 1931, when Earl Webb cranked out 67 two-baggers. Arizona’s Eduardo Escobar is on pace for 59. He hit 37 for Minnesota and has added five more since being dealt to the Diamondbacks. Arizona has 46 games remaining, so a double-every-other-game pace would leave Escobar just short of the mark. The good news is that Chase Field is a much better doubles park than Target Field.

8. 40-40 vision?

With 33 homers and 27 stolen bases through Thursday, Cleveland’s Ramirez is a shoo-in to become the first 30-30 player in the majors since Trout and Ryan Braun did it in 2012. The question now is whether he can become the fifth 40-40 player, and the first since Alfonso Soriano did it for the Nationals in 2006. Ramirez is on pace for 47 homers and 38 stolen bases.

9. Lilliputian among Gullivers

When you think of the all-time, single-season strikeout kings, you think of oversized sluggers, because that’s who dominates the board. The record is 223, by Mark Reynolds. The others in the top 10 are Adam Dunn, Chris Carter, Chris Davis, Aaron Judge and Drew Stubbs. (Some are on there more than once.) They all could be passed this season by White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada, who is on pace for 232 strikeouts. Moncada has been remarkably consistent in this regard. He’s whiffed 35 percent of the time against righties and 34 percent against lefties despite being a switch-hitter. He struck out 34 percent of the time before the All-Star break; he’s at 38 percent since. If he keeps playing — and why wouldn’t he — he’s going to do this.

10. Hits vs. whiffs

Speaking of whiffs, if you recall, we experienced our first-ever month with more strikeouts than hits back in April. The hits have made a comeback since then but, still, through Wednesday’s games, we’ve had 29,037 hits this season in the bigs, and 29,044 whiffs. I mean, that is close. We need to put up a tracker.


What the numbers say

Winning formula?

The past couple of days, I’ve had a chance to write about pitcher wins in a way that on the surface might seem paradoxical. In this piece on Justin Verlander nearing the 200-win club, I defend wins as an acceptable way to view pitcher’s career record. On the same night, I wrote how Jacob deGrom‘s 2018 season is a textbook case of why we have to take single-season win-loss records with a gigantic grain of salt.

Both of these positions, I think, are defensible at the same time. It’s a matter of sample size, I suppose. However, in the Verlander bit, I mention the poor design of the win stat. There is so much silliness in how decisions are doled out at the end of a game. If a starter goes four lockdown innings, leaves with a lead, and his team holds it, some reliever gets to poach his win. If he goes the requisite five innings and departs with a lead, a reliever blows it, and his team later gets it back, it’s a no-decision. We could go on like this forever. What exactly is this statistic trying to measure?

Well, for me, it’s trying to evaluate which starting pitcher got the better of the matchup with his counterpart. One game, one win, one loss. For much of baseball history, this worked well enough because pitchers tended to work deep into games. In many ways, it was very much a one-on-one matchup, with the large exception being that one pitcher might well have a much better lineup and/or defense working with him in the game.

There aren’t many games that feel like a mano a mano matchup these days, and the ones that do tend to be my favorite games over the course of the season.

Last year, I proposed what I thought would be a better way to design the win stat that would more align with what the thing is supposed to capture in the first place. The method was simple: The winner is the starting pitcher who puts up a better game score.

While I have no delusions of this ever taking root, these are numbers that I track as the season goes along. Now seems like a good time to share the leaders and laggards by this method. Let’s start with the leaders, listed in order by net wins, or wins minus losses. Also, keep in mind that there are occasional ties. Finally, I’ve made a tweak to the Bill James game-score calculation this season as a direct result of the advent of Rays-style bullpen usage. I now make a negative adjustment for starters who go less than four innings.

This doesn’t look much different from the WAR leaderboards, though Kluber stands out here as a 20-game winner. (This does not include his start on Thursday.) But the name that really jumps out at me here is Price, who has drawn some criticism for his high-ish ERA (3.93). But more often than not, he has outpitched his counterpart. The lineup behind him doesn’t hurt, either.

These are not support-neutral numbers. In other words, pitchers on good teams are going to have an advantage, just as they do by the method we’ve always used to hand out wins and losses. Nevertheless, deGrom breaks into the league leaders by the game-score method, which makes his actual win-loss record that much more befuddling.

Finally, here are the laggards, which I won’t break out by league.

Oh, Homer.


Since you asked

Recognizing Minnie’s impact

If you’re like me, and baseball history draws you like a moth to a blue flame, then you’ll want to check out a new traveling exhibit called “Negro Leagues Beisbol.” The show originates from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, which generally has a few exhibits touring around at any given time. All of them are fascinating and a great way to get a glimpse of the history preserved by the museum, even if you can’t make it to Kansas City.

The Beisbol exhibit opens to the public in Chicago on Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field. It’s housed inside the Sports Depot on the opposite side of 35th Street from the park, and will be on display through the end of the season, including on days the White Sox aren’t playing. To track when the exhibit and others like it will be coming to a venue near you, check in at nlbm.com from time to time.

The obvious centerpiece for the Chicago exhibit is White Sox legend Minnie Minoso, whose Hall of Fame candidacy I have touched on this season and in other venues in the past.

I toured the exhibit this week. Minoso’s wife, Sharon, and son Charlie were on hand, along with Adrian Burgos Jr., the author of “Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball,” a book about influential Negro Leagues owner Alex Pompez, who also was a major league scout. Burgos is one of the country’s foremost experts on Latino baseball and a vocal advocate for Minoso’s place in the game.

What’s the general idea behind the exhibit?

Adrian Burgos Jr.: The idea of the exhibit is to highlight the story of the Negro Leagues and its interactions with Latinos. From the very foundation of the Negro Leagues, Latinos were part of the story, both in ownership and on the field. What we really want fans to see is that there was greatness in the Negro Leagues. Whereas the major leagues had Luis Tiant Jr., the Negro Leagues had Luis Tiant the father. And then you have a guy like Minnie Minoso, as a very young player in the Negro Leagues, in the 1946 season. When people saw Minnie play, they were like, “This guy has got it all.”

I think what a lot of people forget is how Minnie’s path was different than Jackie Robinson’s, and his challenges were unique. As someone who was Latino, and black and brown, and spoke Spanish as his first language, and was not accustomed to what was going on in the United States. To have achieved the greatness that he did from 1951 through 1962 is all the more significant because he continued to play at such a high level while dealing with the reality of race relations in the United States at the time.

One thing that emerges in the relationship between the Negro Leagues and the Latino baseball world of the time is that there was a level of inclusiveness that just didn’t exist in organized baseball. Doesn’t it seem like it’s an unappreciated aspect of those days before the color line was finally broken by Jackie Robinson?

AB: The first Venezuelan player performed in the Negro Leagues before the major leagues. The first Dominican was in the Negro Leagues. The first Puerto Rican was in the Negro Leagues, before they played in the majors. And it was because of that inclusiveness. The Negro Leagues wanted the best available talent, regardless of racial or cultural background. A number of these players actually went from the Negro Leagues into the major leagues before Jackie. They weren’t white, they were what we would call today Latino and brown.

They were actually very important for Jackie, because Jackie shattered all racial ambiguity as an African-American black man. The story of the Negro Leagues is if you’re good, you come on in and you play for us. That was really the story of the Negro Leagues.

We’ve got a couple of years before the Golden Days committee convenes again to consider Minoso’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Is it safe to assume that’s a drum you’re never going to stop beating?

AB: As an individual I firmly believe that Minnie is a Hall of Famer. All he lacks is a plaque in Cooperstown. I am not the originator of calling him the Latino Jackie Robinson. I quote that because this is what Orlando Cepeda said, and this is what some of his contemporaries say. Part of what people don’t quite grasp, the same way that in African-Americans Jackie inspired hope, Minnie inspired hope for black Latinos.

He went through all of this, and kept that great personality. Before he was a major league star, people in Cuba adored the guy they called Orestes. That smile, the joy of life. He went from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, and then to stardom. We lose sight of that greatness, and what it meant to achieve that level of greatness, when we don’t consider the social moment. He was the first black player on either of the Chicago major league teams. We kind of lose sight of that because of the greatness of Ernie Banks. What I love to say is that Minnie had suited up for three All-Star Games before Ernie and Gene Baker suited up for the first time for the Cubs.


Coming right up

Bonds’ number going up

Barry Bonds played his last big league game in 2007. He remains the game’s all-time home run champ, holding the records for a season (73) and a career (762). He is not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, his No. 25 jersey has not been retired by the team for which he hit 586 of those home runs — the San Francisco Giants.

That will change on Saturday, when the Giants will hold a ceremony at AT&T Park to retire Bonds’ number before San Francisco’s game against Pittsburgh, the franchise for which he hit his other 176 homers. Bonds will be the 10th player so honored in the history of the New York-San Francisco Giants.

GIANTS RETIRED NUMBERS
Bill Terry (3)
Mel Ott (4)
Carl Hubbell (11)
Monte Irvin (20)
Willie Mays (24)
Juan Marichal (27)
Orlando Cepeda (30)
Gaylord Perry (36)
Willie McCovey (44)

We all know the reason Bonds has struggled to have his accomplishments recognized since he stopped playing, and we won’t hash that out again here. Suffice to say, Saturday’s event will be bittersweet for some. However, hopefully for many, it will be a moment of healing, a sign that we can finally start to move forward and acknowledge the fact that there have been very few, if any, better hitters in the history of baseball.

The Giants will wear a commemorative patch during the game honoring Bonds.



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