While home runs and strikeouts keep piling up, and Aaron Judge keeps getting figuratively bigger, here are the top 10 stories to watch in the second half of the Major League Baseball season.
1. Aaron Judge chases Mark McGwire
As a rookie with the A's in 1987, McGwire hit 49 home runs—11 more than any other rookie in history. Judge, already with 30, is a good bet to set the new standard. Moreover, he’s been so impressive as a pure hitter that he just might be the first rookie ever to lead the league in homers and walks.
The big guy makes Yankee Stadium look even tinier than it is. In 56 career games in the Bronx, Judge has hit 24 homers and slugged .753. (In 53 road games, he is much more mortal: 10 homers and a .471 slugging percentage.)
Here’s a story for you to add to the legend that is Judge. Back when the engineers from Walter P. Moore were designing the retractable roof of Marlins Park, they set out to determine how high the roof would have to be so as not to interfere with balls in play. They studied the air density and temperatures of Miami and plugged those variables into equations from NASA. Then they wrote an algorithm “to generate a volumetric approximation of all the possible batted ball flight paths” and then applied it to their Building Information Modeling to determine the final geometry of the roof structure.
The engineers finally arrived at a height of 210 feet above the ground at its apex (above second base) to make sure no batted ball hit the roof. It tapered to a low of 128 feet above the ground in deep right-centerfield.
The Marlins still were required, however, to submit to MLB a ground rule on how to treat a batted ball that might hit the roof. It was thought of as a formality, seeing how they had hired experts to make sure the roof couldn’t be hit.
So they came up with this rule: Any ball that hit the roof would be treated as a live fly ball, not a home run. If it landed in foul territory it would be a foul ball. If it landed in fair territory it would be a live ball, with the batter-runner advancing at his own risk. If a fielder caught the carom off the roof, the batter would be out.
Crazy, right? Well, nobody gave it a second thought because the idea of a ball hitting the roof was thought to be impossible. Until Monday, nobody did hit the roof—not in a game, not in batting practice.
Then Judge showed up and hit the roof with a Home Run Derby blast. The Marlins estimated that it cleared one girder and smacked against another at a height off the ground of about 170 feet in deep left-centerfield. Think about that: about 17 stories high after traveling about 300 feet.
Teams officials suddenly had to dust off the obscure ground rule that had never been used before and had largely been forgotten. The blast was determined not to be a home run, making it the most massive fair ball ever struck that was not a home run.
The moral of the story is this: You can bring together the brainpower of the world’s smartest building engineers, combine it with every bit of local atmospheric data, add to it the computational power of NASA, and you still can’t Judge-proof a ballpark.
2. The Nationals’ nightmare of a bullpen
Rarely has such a talented team had such an obvious and extreme flaw. Washington must address its bullpen at the trade deadline. It is the worst unit in baseball, with a 5.20 ERA. The Nationals are not winning the World Series unless they can get better work from their relievers. Think about this: The worst bullpen for a World Series champion belonged to the 1987 Twins, who posted a 5.11 ERA.
The Nationals have to trade for one among the White Sox' David Robertson, the Orioles' Zach Britton and the Marlins' A.J. Ramos, and perhaps even add a second reliever among the Athletics' Ryan Madson, the Phillies' Pat Neshek, the Padres' Brad Hand and the Mets' Addison Reed.
3. The dull starting pitcher trade market
As I’ve been telling you, the emphasis on relief pitching has lessened the value and the aura of starting pitching. We are down to four true starting pitcher stars in the game today: Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. So when I hear about teams such as the Astros, the Dodgers and the Cubs searching for young, controllable starting pitchers on the trade market who can rise to an elite level, where are they going to come from?
Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray entered the break as the best available arms, though each has his own flaws. On Thursday, the White Sox dealt Quintana to the crosstown Cubs, and if I'm the Athletics, I'd do the same with Gray to take advantage of his health and the current market. Maybe the Pirates will listen to a deal for Gerrit Cole. Maybe we get a shocker, such as the Blue Jays trading Marcus Stroman. It’s slim pickings.
Here’s what I mean by the Great Decline of the Starting Pitcher, especially as it relates to young arms, who tend to be babied or hurt or both. On a per-team basis, there have never been fewer young starters who qualified for an ERA title in the game than there are today. These numbers say it all:
4. Turnaround teams
I’ve been saying it every spring training for years: At least one team with a losing record the previous year will be in the postseason this year. It’s happened 11 straight years and 21 of the 22 years with the wild card. You don’t ignore that kind of trend. And it will happen this year.
My preseason rankings for most likely surprise playoff teams in 2017 went like this:
Notice I didn’t even have the Brewers (currently leading the NL Central) or the Twins (2 1/2 games out in the AL Central) listed. Now all seven of those 2016 losers have a shot at playing postseason baseball in 2017.
So here’s my updated rankings of the losing teams from last season that are most likely to be a postseason team this year:
5. The NL Cy Young Award race
Between them, Kershaw (three) and Max Scherzer (two) have already won five Cy Young Awards. One of them is going to win another this year. Scherzer, who leads the majors in ERA (2.10) and WHIP (0.78) and the NL in strikeouts (173) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.61), has the edge at the moment.
6. The sale of the Marlins
If Miami billionaire Jorge Mas is not going to win the bidding for the Marlins, I don’t know why he was sitting with current owner Jeffrey Loria at the All-Star Game on Tuesday. A sale to a local owner with deep pockets and heavy cash in the deal is the preferred blueprint for MLB. In this case, that would mean the league is turning away two of the most popular former athletes on the planet, Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan—unless they can broker a deal to fold them into the Mas bid.
A $1.17 billion sale for a team with low revenues and an unstable fan base seems an overpay, but not when you remember that in buying a team, you are buying into BAM Tech, the video-streaming company partly owned by MLB Advanced Media, and the belief that streaming services and social media platforms offer baseball owners the next new source of revenues.
7. 3,000 hits for Adrian Beltre
He is only 22 hits away from the magic number. Here’s why Beltre snuck up on us as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, most of whom are on an obvious path to Cooperstown at a young age:
8. The Response of the Cubs
Getting Quintana could help, but only if he more closely resembles the pitcher he was in his first five seasons (118 ERA+) than this year (95 ERA+). Even more troubling is an offense that—outside of the lowly Padres—is the worst in baseball at hitting with runners on base (.236). Chicago looks like a sluggish team tripping its way to 84 wins, just like manager Joe Maddon’s 2009 Rays, who were 73–73 as late as Sept. 16 in the year after their World Series run.
The Cubs have lost their fun factor. The Brewers, Dodgers and Astros have it—the ability to play with joy and without expectations. The Indians are getting it back.
On June 7, with his team floating along at 29–28, Cleveland manager Terry Francona ripped into his team in a clubhouse meeting that he said was the angriest he’s held since he was manager of the Phillies from 1997 to 2000. Francona thought the Indians had lost their edge, and sensed that his team had suffered a natural letdown from the excitement, electricity and newness of the previous October. Since then, Cleveland is 18–12.
The Cubs need their own wakeup call. It doesn’t have to be a fire and brimstone speech from Maddon. But they do need to break the malaise somehow, because the Brewers are riding the energy and confidence that Chicago is missing.
9. Chaos theory
No regular season has ended in a three-way tie for a playoff spot. The American League wild-card race—in which all 12 non-first-place teams are within 7 1/2 games of a playoff berth—gives us hope we might see this logistical nightmare scenario. (Click here to read about how it would be untangled.)
10. A World Series stage
Three of the best players in the game never have played in the World Series: Kershaw, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout. They have played 23 combined seasons and gone 3–10 in postseason series. Trout and Harper have never made it out of the first round.
The saw that “baseball needs to promote its stars better” is a tired one based on a false equivalency when people compare the sport to football and basketball. Kershaw, for instance, plays in only 19% of his team’s games. Trout and Harper may “touch the ball” only seven times in a three-hour game; imagine if that were true for Tom Brady or LeBron James. Baseball players travel or play in about 170 of 183 days during the season, leaving almost no time for promotions and sponsors.
Baseball is an intensely strong regional sport. The best promotion for raising a player’s national profile is exposure on the true national stage, such as Judge destroying baseballs in the Home Run Derby or Harper being interviewed during live action in the All-Star Game. Mostly, though, it comes from playing and succeeding in the World Series. It worked for Jeter, David Ortiz, Buster Posey and Kris Bryant in recent years. It will work again for Kershaw, Harper and Trout, if they can get there.