The 30: Big changes impacting Angels, D-Backs, Indians, Blue Jays
Consistency. Managers and players talk about it all the time, especially as it relates to the long, long baseball season. Put up consistent results over the grind of 162 games, and you’ll get rewarded for it.
But consistency by itself doesn’t necessarily lead to success—especially if the level at which a team is consistently playing isn’t all that great. Often, the best way to point a ballclub toward a winning streak is to find a catalyst for positive change.
This week’s four featured teams have all gone through that kind of dramatic change lately. For the Indians, it’s been Trevor Bauer supercharging an already loaded rotation. The Diamondbacks are finally getting mileage out of mega-investment Zack Greinke. On the flip side, the return of Andrelton Simmons hasn’t stopped the Angels’ slide, while Marcus Stroman’s sharp reversal in batted-ball results has held back the Blue Jays’ drive toward the top of the AL East.
A change is gonna come. It’s Week 12 of The 30.
BEST CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK:
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
At the height of his powers, few players crushed the ball as hard or as far as Vladimir Guerrero, the imposing slugger who slammed 449 homers in his 16-year major league career from 1996 to 2011.
His 17-year-old son, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., has already started following in his dad’s footsteps. Playing for the Blue Jays’ rookie-level team in Bluefield, Va., on Friday, Vlad the Younger launched the first home run of his professional career. Better: He did it with his dad in attendance. Best: The pics his dad posted of himself with his son, from Vlad Jr. as an adorable toddler rocking Expos gear to the present day.
Getting a little dusty in here!
A Change Will Do You Bad
Adding the league’s best defender, plus starting pitching reinforcements, hasn’t helped the stumbling Angels.
30. Minnesota Twins (24–51 record, minus-112 run differential, last week: 30)
29. Atlanta Braves (26–49, minus-97, LW: 29)
28. Cincinnati Reds (29–47, minus-115, LW: 28)
27. Philadelphia Phillies (32–45, minus-105, LW: 27)
26. Tampa Bay Rays (31–43, minus-39, LW: 21)
25. Los Angeles Angels (32–44, minus-35, LW: 23)
24. Oakland A’s (32–43, minus-59, LW: 26)
23. San Diego Padres (33–44, minus-45, LW: 25)
22. Milwaukee Brewers (34–41, minus-56, LW: 24)
It was supposed to be a game-changing move. By trading for Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta's Gold Glove shortstop, last November, the Angels hoped to upgrade their defense by creating a chain reaction that would dramatically help their run prevention, even as the state of their pitching staff remained in doubt.
Simmons has done his part, saving 12 more runs than the average major league shortstop in just 42 games—making him the best defender in the majors at his position for a fourth straight season. But his presence hasn’t been enough to save Los Angeles from sputtering, not before he hit the disabled list in early May, and not since his return to the lineup on June 15. Much of those struggles stem from the team’s Swiss cheese pitching staff, which hasn’t been able to overcome major injuries to Andrew Heaney, Garrett Richards, C.J. Wilson and others.
But part of the problem also lies in Simmons’ horrific showing at the plate. When the Halos dealt three players (including promising pitching prospect Sean Newcomb) to get Simmons, they could see at least a glimmer of offensive upside. In 2013, Simmons’ first full season in the big leagues, he batted .248/.296/.396 for the Braves. Not great, but just 9% worse than the average major league hitter that year. Combine that with his usual all-world defense, and Simmons worked out to something close to a five-win player. Angels brass thus understood that even quasi-adequate offense, combined with being the best in the league defensively at an incredibly demanding position, could produce star-level results. But Simmons hasn’t been anything close to adequate offensively this year. He’s batting .232/.264/.291, with just six extra-base hits (one homer and five doubles) in those 42 games.
Even if some of that is due to dealing with injuries and post-DL rust, that’s still abysmal: Simmons ranks among the 10 worst AL hitters with as many plate appearances. And while the Angels’ pitchers not named Matt Shoemaker remain the main reason the club is dead last in the AL West, don’t overlook its lackluster offense. Even with a superstar like Mike Trout leading the way, black holes like Simmons and catcher Carlos Perez (right behind Simmons as the fourth-worst hitter in the league this year) have knocked the team’s park-adjusted offense down to a weak ninth in the AL.
Add it all up and you have a formula for one of the worst teams in baseball.
Go Back, Zack, Do It Again
Led by their $206.5 million investment, the resurgent Diamondbacks might have a chance to get to… .500!
21. Arizona Diamondbacks (36–42, minus-23, LW: 22)
20. Pittsburgh Pirates (37–40, minus-18, LW: 17)
19. Colorado Rockies (36–39, minus-1, LW: 19)
18. New York Yankees (37–37, minus-25, LW: 18)
17. Detroit Tigers (38–38, minus-12, LW: 16)
16. Chicago White Sox (38–38, minus-9, LW: 20)
15. Kansas City Royals (39–35, minus-15, LW: 11)
14. Seattle Mariners (38–38, plus-43, LW: 10)
No team drew more criticism for its off-season moves last winter than did the Diamondbacks. By trading a king’s ransom worth of talent to Atlanta—including 2015's No. 1 overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson—to land pitcher Shelby Miller, and spending $206.5 million to reel in another starter in Zack Greinke, GM Dave Stewart and company were pushing all their chips into the middle of the table. This despite a supporting cast that looked ... the same as the one that produced just 79 wins last season.
The experiment, so far, has failed. Miller looks completely broken, and after serving up seven runs on 11 hits last Saturday his ERA is now an apocalyptically bad 6.79. As for Greinke, history tells us that handing six-year mega deals to pitchers in their 30s almost guarantees failure. The Barry Zito argument holds that a single bout of postseason excellence (and the World Series victory that came with it) justifies spending an obscene amount of money, but unless Arizona shocks the world with a magical October run at some point, the deal for the now 32-year-old Greinke deal was always doomed. That run almost certainly won't happen this year. Even after a recent stretch of winning baseball, the Diamondbacks are four games under .500.
The larger question then becomes whether Arizona can become a legitimate contender before Greinke follows the nearly inevitable path of an aging pitcher, succumbing to a drop in velocity, a drop in effectiveness, a rash of injuries, or all of the above. A full season of outfielder A.J. Pollock, who has been out all year with a broken elbow, in 2017, combined with some hope for Arizona’s young arms, at least offers a glimmer of hope. Also encouraging: Greinke can still get it.
Things didn’t look so rosy at the start of the season for the 13-year veteran. In his first start as a Diamondback, on April 4, Greinke surrendered seven runs on nine hits in just four innings to the Rockies. He fared progressively better in his next three starts, only to cough up another seven-spot to the Cardinals (along with 11 hits) on April 25, after which his ERA was an alarming 6.16.
Things have turned for the better since then. In his past 11 starts, Greinke put up the following line: 76 2/3 innings pitched, 63 hits, 15 walks, 65 strikeouts and a 2.58 ERA. Greinke’s in-season progress tracks closely with a change in his pitch usage. Through the first month of the season, opponents were hitting better than .400 against his four-seam fastball. Greinke exacerbated that problem by throwing that pitch more than 40% percent of the time. To combat that issue, he started dialing back his fastball usage, and instead firing a lot more sliders: In June, he’s tossed his slidepiece nearly 29% of the time, the highest monthly usage for that pitch in any month of Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x database, which traces back to 2007. That change in pitch mix, combined with better location of his pitches, has had a cascading effect: Opponents are batting a microscopic .075 against his slider this month, as well as a tiny .148 against his changeup and an improved .275 against that less frequently used heater.
For the past few years, Greinke has relied more on pinpoint command and a broadly effective pitch mix to get hitters out, with his 92-93 mph fastball rating as borderline slow by modern pitcher standards. After his poor start to the season, Greinke is now back to befuddling batters, throwing as many as five pitches (and sometimes multiple variants of each pitch) for strikes. Led by Greinke, Arizona’s rotation ranks fourth in the NL this month in ERA, and that’s without adjusting for their hitter-friendly home park. The D-backs, who enter the week 13 1 /2 games back in the NL West, still face long odds to even flirt with a playoff run. But at least things are starting to look up.
Marcus Stroman’s allowing a lot more hits over the past few weeks, and his otherwise improving team is paying the price for it.
13. New York Mets (40–34, plus-18, LW: 13)
12. Houston Astros (39–37, plus-11, LW: 15)
11. Toronto Blue Jays (41–36, plus-35, LW: 8)
10. Miami Marlins (41–35, plus-9, LW: 14)
9. St. Louis Cardinals (39–35, plus-75, LW: 12)
8. Los Angeles Dodgers (42–36, plus-41, LW: 9)
7. Boston Red Sox (41–34, plus-68, LW: 5)
6. Washington Nationals (44–32, plus-70, LW: 4)
Handed the ball on Opening Day this season, Marcus Stroman justified his new status as de facto staff ace. Facing the Rays on April 3, Stroman allowed three runs on just six hits and one walk, striking out five and needing just 98 pitches to get through eight efficient innings. He had a few rough patches the rest of that first month, but overall acquitted himself fairly well: Opponents batted just .208/.264/.323 against him.
Things got worse in May. After smoking hapless Tampa Bay for the second time with an eight-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout gem on May 1, then tossing seven quality innings against the Dodgers five days later, Stroman started unraveling. Over his next four starts, he allowed 17 runs in 24 2/3 innings, including a seven-run, 13-hit tire fire against those same Rays on May 17 and a seven-run, 11-hit debacle against the Red Sox on the 28th. Though Stroman did pitch well in three of his six starts that month, his other three outings helped net this uglier opposing hitter's line: .289/.337/.447.
It’s all come apart in June. Again, Stroman managed to mix in a very good start, this time a seven-inning, two-run affair on June 14 against the sad-sack Phillies. In his other three starts this month heading into Sunday’s matchup with the White Sox, Stroman had allowed 17 runs on 27 hits in just 14 2/3 innings. Even counting the Philly outing, that worked to this line from opponents for June: .367/.414/.589, with a 7.89 ERA.
Against Chicago, Stroman ran into some bad luck. After walking light-hitting Tyler Saladino, Stroman saw him advance to second on an error by Edwin Encarnacion, advance to third on a weakly hit infield single, then score on a tapper to the mound, with Stroman throwing to the wrong side of the plate, thus allowing Saladino to score. Another run scored later in the game on a wild pitch, as catcher Russell Martin tried to backhand the errant offering rather than blocking it. Still, Stroman created plenty of problems on his own. Lasting just five innings, he walked four batters, allowed four runs, served up a homer and again struggled on balls in play, coughing up seven hits en route to a 5–2 Blue Jays loss. All of it typified Stroman’s overall 2016 performance: You look at the defense-independent numbers and elevated batting average on balls in play and think it might just be bad luck ... then you see the sharp upticks in hard-hit balls and line drives and realize a lot of it boils down to Stroman serving meatballs.
Stroman’s struggles have been especially unfortunate given how the rest of the team has fared. Even after dropping two of three to the White Sox, Toronto is still a robust 30–22 since ending April at a season-worst three games under .500. The offense is mashing again, with Encarnacion and Martin improving after slow starts and Michael Saunders in the midst of a breakout season. And the rotation, rife with question marks at the start of the season, has been mostly good, with Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez all exceeding expectations.
Still, for the Jays to secure for a playoff spot—they enter the week a half-game up for the AL's second wild-card—they’ll likely need positive contributions from other players. A turnaround from the staff ace would be a great place to start.
The emergence of Trevor Bauer gives the Indians the best rotation in the American League...and a chance to dream big.
5. Baltimore Orioles (45–30, plus-45, LW: 6)
4. Cleveland Indians (44–30, plus-81, LW: 7)
3. San Francisco Giants (49–28, plus-66, LW: 3)
2. Texas Rangers (49–27, plus-49, LW: 2)
1. Chicago Cubs (48–26, plus-155, LW: 1)
June 19 was a big day for Cleveland sports. Yes, the Cavaliers won their first NBA title in franchise history, and Akron-born LeBron James fulfilled his destiny of bringing a championship to the city that hadn’t won one in more than 50 years. But there was another Cleveland sports team doing interesting things that day, namely the Indians, who finished off their third straight win, and a series sweep of the White Sox, with a Jose Ramirez walk-off single in the 10th inning.
They haven’t lost since. By sweeping the Rays at home and the Tigers in Detroit, Cleveland has now won nine in a row and owns the best run differential in the American League, second-best in the majors. The Indians ran the table at home in June, going a perfect 11–0, and have opened up a season-best five-game lead in the AL Central, as they vie for their first division title in nine years.
Of the many catalysts for Cleveland's surge, one stands out: Trevor Bauer. The No. 3 overall pick by Arizona in the 2011 draft, Bauer was regarded as both a top prospect and a pitching savant with a unique training regimen dating back to his days as Gerrit Cole’s co-ace at UCLA. When you’re a cocksure young pitcher with your own way of doing things, you’d better pitch well, and early in his career Bauer did not, drawing harsh criticism from his former teammate Miguel Montero, among others. Given a regular turn in the Indians' rotation in 2014 and '15, Bauer did show signs of potential, whiffing nearly a batter an inning last year. But even then, the negatives outweighed the positives, as his league-leading 79 walks last season pushed him to an ugly 4.55 ERA.
This season, Bauer has emerged as one of the best and most consistent starters in the American League. For that, he can thank a huge improvement in command. His 22.8% strikeout rate this season is essentially identical to last year’s career-best mark. But unlike in past seasons, Bauer now has a good sense of where his pitches are going: His 7.8% walk rate is a career low, he’s pounding the strike zone more often overall and batters are making contact less often on those pitches in the zone. When batters do make contact, they’re doing less damage: Bauer’s 0.64 homers allowed per 9 innings a career low, as is his line-drive rate allowed.
Even those numbers might be understating the impressive nature of Bauer’s breakout. Thanks to erratic run support, he’s won just twice in his past six starts. But his more meaningful numbers over that span are still outstanding: a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 4-to-1, a 50.4% groundball rate, 2.22 ERA, more than seven innings pitched per start and just one homer allowed in 44 2/3 innings. The top pitcher in the American League by Wins Above Replacement over the past month? Trevor Bauer.
Having Bauer throwing alongside strike machines Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, along with overachievers Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin, is daunting enough for opponents. But the Tribe have thrived now that their offense is supporting all that pitching strength. I could regale you with all kinds of fancy stats to prove it, but the Indians’ always entertaining Twitter account summed up Cleveland’s mashing against the Tigers succinctly and effectively: four triples Friday, four homers Saturday, four homers in one inning Sunday. Even with team leader Michael Brantley on the DL with an unknown return date, the supporting cast has fared well, especially the young guys: 2015 Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor has emerged as an MVP candidate, while 2016 rookie Tyler Naquin is crushing to the tune of .322/.376/.591.
When the kids are breaking out, the impossibly stylish Juan Uribe is hitting bombs and dropping bats and the Cavs have already snuffed out the city’s championship drought...well, maybe God really does love Cleveland.