- In the latest edition of Nine Innings, the crew analyzes the work of first-year managers this year, takes stock of the NL Wild Card contenders and picks out our favorite stories of the week.
AFTER ANOTHER DISAPPOINTING YEAR, WHERE DO THE GIANTS GO FROM HERE?
By Jon Tayler
On Sunday afternoon, the Giants fell to the Rockies, 3–2, for their 12th loss in 14 September games. Since the All-Star break, San Francisco has flatlined, going 20–31 (a .392 winning percentage, or a 99-loss pace over a full season), including an 11-game losing streak at the start of this month. Already firmly out of the postseason conversation by that point, September’s slump has killed any hopes of a winning season in San Francisco as well: At 70–80, the Giants would need to win all 12 of their remaining games to finish above .500. Coupled with last season’s 98-loss disaster, 2018 will be the second straight losing season for San Francisco—the first time that’s happened in a decade.
The championship days of this franchise—three titles in five years from 2010 to ’14, plus a playoff appearance in ‘16—feel like ancient history now. Most of the important pieces of those teams are still there: Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt continue to form the team’s core. But that group is aging (all but Bumgarner are older than 30), hurting and declining. Hip surgery ended Posey’s year in August as he put up the worst full-season home run, OPS+ and Wins Above Replacement totals of his 10-year career. Bumgarner’s velocity and numbers are slipping. Belt’s power has been sapped by near-constant injuries. Crawford remains an excellent defender, but one whose bat has atrophied. And the 35-year-old Pence may call it quits after a horrible season and his contract expiring.
As those players have slowed down, the Giants’ efforts to get them some help haven’t paid off. Expensive free-agent gambles like Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Mark Melancon look to be costly mistakes. Poor drafts have led to a thin farm system that’s failed to provide adequate reinforcements. This winter, aiming to vault back into contention, San Francisco landed two former All-Stars in Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. But the former was dealt at the waiver trade deadline, and the latter has posted a mediocre 94 OPS+, is on the downward slope of his career at 32, and will be tying up the team’s already high payroll for the next four years to the cost of roughly $55 million.
San Francisco’s current reality is bleak. The Giants average the second-fewest runs per game in the majors, and their collective 85 OPS+ is tied with the Tigers and Diamondbacks as the worst in baseball. No one on the team has more than 15 home runs, and Belt is the only regular with an OPS+ above league average. Things are better in the rotation and bullpen, but the team is bereft of pitchers with high-strikeout stuff: San Francisco’s 20.6% strikeout rate is third to last in the NL. There is no impact prospect coming to save them any time soon, either. There were no Giants on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason top 50, and per MLB.com’s rankings, their best player is 2018 draft pick Joey Bart, the heir apparent to Posey behind the plate. But at 21, he's still likely a couple years away from the majors given that catchers usually develop slowly.
Most front offices, when faced with a mess of this size and shape, would discard it altogether: a total teardown, in which anyone over the age of 28 can and must go. But looking at the Giants’ roster, it’s hard to see exactly what they could part with that would go toward building the next great San Francisco team. Bumgarner would be an obvious trade candidate, but beyond him, the Giants are unlikely to get much of any value for expensive veterans like Belt, Crawford, Longoria or Samardzija. In that light, it’s easier to understand why, after coming close to 100 losses last season, San Francisco’s front office chose to go for a quick fix instead of a long rebuild.
Now the question becomes what path the Giants choose to walk to solve the problem that was the 2018 season. The team is already on the hook for $138 million next season and $124 million the year after that; future large free-agent expenditures could be a financial step too far. There are young players who could be dealt, but that would leave San Francisco once again trying to contend with an aging roster and no depth. Building around players like Dereck Rodriguez, Chris Shaw, and Austin Slater is a better bet than hoping on players like Longoria turning back the clock.
From the outside, there’s no obvious answer to the Giants’ woes. They’re unlikely to land a franchise-changing free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, and their farm system, while improving, isn’t capable of producing an Astros- or Cubs-style turnaround. The best bet may be to unload what veterans they can and try to get younger around the diamond while hoping for better health and results next year. Or maybe a new voice is what’s needed: Over the weekend, USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale reported that the team is “expected to shake up” the front office, with general manager Bobby Evans on the "hot seat." Longtime manager Bruce Bochy still has a year remaining on his contract and recently expressed his desire to stay with the team to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Regardless of whether Evans or anyone else stays or goes, the Giants have to figure out a direction, and soon. Otherwise, expect next September to be just as listless and without impact as the two that have preceded it.
TYLER CHATWOOD CONTROL PROBLEMS ARE NEARING HISTORIC TERRITORY
By Emma Baccellieri
Three weeks ago, Nine Innings asked each of us for one number this season that boggled our minds. I chose Tyler Chatwood’s walk rate, already one of baseball’s highest ever at 8.23 per nine innings and with the potential to reach the terrible symmetry of 9.00. That was a fair pick—after all, it’s hard to get more mindboggling than any number that can be considered one of the worst ever—but it barely scratches the surface of his control issues, which long ago passed terrible and veered into territory that’s historically so.
Chatwood returned from the disabled list two weeks ago after rehabbing a hip injury and has since worked out of the bullpen. He might not be afforded many more opportunities this season for damage control on his abysmal stat line. But as is, he stands in rare company. There’s no one remotely close to him on any control-related leaderboard—Chatwood is the only pitcher with a walk percentage (19.6%) higher than his strikeout percentage (17.5%). He’s landed in a 3-0 count against 9.7% of the batters that he’s seen, which is more than double the major league average and the highest number that baseball has seen since 2004. There are only two pitchers in the past quarter-century who have touched 10%.
Those 3-0 counts, of course, have brought nothing good for him. (He has 19 four-pitch walks, or almost one every five innings.) Look at his performance in three-ball counts up until this year. Chatwood’s control has never been a strong suit, of course, but it was still obvious that he was at least trying to do what most pitchers are trying to do in a three-ball count: throw one around the middle.
Compare that to what he’s done in three-ball counts this year. The down-and-away location here isn’t the result of turning to his sinker or another secondary pitch. In fact, he’s stuck with his regular fastball more than ever in three-ball counts this year (56%, versus 42% pre-2018). He’s just failing to locate it—a problem for him in any count, against any batter, but particularly here, when it matters most.
Chatwood is the first pitcher in a decade to post a walk percentage this far above his strikeout percentage, but that fact alone doesn’t make him too remarkable from a historical perspective. While it’s uncommon in today’s strikeout-heavy age, there were plenty of pitch-to-contact types through the first half of the 20th century who fit into this category simply because they had very low numbers in both metrics. But for a guy’s walk percentage to be above his strikeout percentage and for that walk percentage to be so high—say, above 18%? Until this year, it had been done just six times, last in 1976 by San Francisco’s John D’Acquisito. Chatwood’s 2018 adds one more, a piece of history that’s as small as it is ignoble.
ROUNDTABLE: WHICH FIRST-YEAR MANAGER HAS IMPRESSED YOU AND WHY?
Emma Baccellieri: Gabe Kapler. While he was (rightfully) grilled for some high-profile gaffes at the start of the year—a premature yank of Aaron Nola on Opening Day and some bullpen overmanagement, if not outright mismanagement—he’s shown an impressive ability to learn from those and adjust as needed. That’s not to say that he’s fundamentally changed his style; after all, this is still the same guy responsible for three pitching changes in the fifth inning of a one-run game last week. But he’s made some key modifications. Perhaps most notably, he hasn’t been quite so hasty to move to the bullpen in any and all situations; Philadelphia sits now exactly at league average in pitches-per-start (89). Essentially, he hasn’t seemed quite as rigid in his thinking, and he’s moved toward discussing his choices as… well, choices, rather than dogma.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: I’m most inclined to answer Mike Shildt in St. Louis because of how he saved a lost season. Though Mike Matheny had no business returning to his managerial duties in 2018, he survived until July. He was fired shortly after an unflattering story ran in The Athletic that revealed reliever Bud Norris as Matheny’s personal team policeman. The team turned to Shildt instead of going outside the organization and the plan has worked, as Tom Verducci noted in this space last month. Whether or not the Cardinals make the playoffs, Shildt’s presence clearly settled a fraught clubhouse. While Alex Cora and Aaron Boone have performed well in their first seasons, they were gifted teams far more ready to compete than what Shildt inherited in St. Louis.
Connor Grossman: It's a funny time to be answering the question, when the perceived value of a manager has never been lower. But it's impossible to look at the Cardinals' season and not see the inflection point: 35-22 since Mike Shildt took over as manager in July. Say what you want about the influence of a manager the on-field product—it's likely that many are merely providing lip service for front office executives—but a manager's job performance is based on his team's performance. Shildt has done a helluva job, it appears.
Jon Tayler: The easy answer is Alex Cora, seeing as how he’s at the helm of a team racing toward 110 wins and that will go into October as one of the World Series favorites. So let’s give some love instead to Mike Shildt, the unexpected skipper of the Cardinals who’s led them back into contention despite never having managed before. To some degree, that’s an indictment of the departed Mike Matheny, who always looked to be in over his head despite overseeing several winning teams. But Shildt has clearly helped stabilize a clubhouse that seemed toxic under Matheny’s watch and brought order to a lineup that was constantly being juggled. St. Louis’ run may end up being too little and too late, but that’s no fault of Shildt’s, who was given an unenviable task and carried it out with aplomb.
Tom Verducci: Alex Cora is easily the best of the rookie managers. He benefited greatly from a year as the bench coach of the Houston Astros. He keeps a terrific balance between challenging his players (he has pushed hard for Xander Bogaerts to raise his game) and winning their confidence. He has been bold enough to admit mistakes (he once admitted he forget to get J.D. Martinez out of the outfield with a big lead), but has made few of them. Remember, it was Cora who pushed for Boston to dump Hanley Ramirez. Remember him? People were afraid Ramirez would be missed when Boston played the Yankees or would come back to haunt the Red Sox. Cora saw a player whose bat had slowed and had no defensive skills. As in most cases, he’s been proven right.
QUICK HITS ON THE NATIONAL LEAGUE WILD CARD CONTENDERS
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
• Los Angeles Dodgers: Now tied for the second Wild Card spot with the Cardinals, the Dodgers still have eyes on the division title as they face first-place Colorado three times this week. The power surge from Yasiel Puig, who homered five times over a 24-hour span this weekend is coming at the right time. Their predicament is surprisingly perilous as the defending NL champions, but their final nine games after the Rockies series (Padres, Diamondbacks, Giants) give them a good chance to win the division.
• Milwaukee Brewers: As noted by Manny Randhawa at MLB.com, the Brewers bullpen finished a splendid week with a 1.46 ERA and 32 strikeouts over six games. Don’t be surprised if Josh Hader, who logged nine strikeouts in three innings, receives some MVP votes at season’s end.
• St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals mostly failed their weekend test against the Dodgers, but Adam Wainwright’s vintage Sunday night start offers some hope that he can help their last-minute playoff run.
• Arizona Diamondbacks: It’s getting late for them. They’ve lost seven of their last nine and have scored more than five runs just once since Sept. 7. Perhaps Arizona can make up a few games in its series with the Dodgers next week, but it needs to gain some ground back against … the Cubs and Rockies. Yikes.
BEST THING I SAW: THE ARRIVAL OF BASEBALL'S NEXT FAVORITE CATCHER
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Twins utilityman Willians Astudillo isn’t in a major market or playing on a team that will make the postseason, but he’s quickly becoming baseball’s favorite chubby catcher. Whether it’s his remarkable ability to make contact (he has just two strikeouts in 57 plate appearances), his absolute refusal to take a walk (he’s taken just one walk) or his regal portliness, Astudillo provided one of the most joyous highlights of the season when racing home from first base on a Max Kepler double.
It’s hard to identify the best part of the video. Maybe it’s Astudillo’s flowing mane whipping in the summertime wind. Perhaps it’s the tightened lips, wagging tongue and bulging eyes as he bolts around third base. Maybe it’s simply the outstanding hustle from a player “generously listed at 5’ 9” 225 pounds” according to Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Michael Rand.
The several angles only enhance the experience.
WHAT'S ON TAP: THREE SERIES TO KEEP AN EYE ON THIS WEEK
By Michael Beller
There are just two weeks left in the regular season, so we’re going to do something a little different and solely focus on the three biggest series across the league this week.
Rockies at Dodgers, Monday through Wednesday
This is the last series of the season between the two teams that start this week at the top of the NL West. The Dodgers enter with a 0.5-game lead, and can take some major strides toward their sixth straight division championship. Whichever team wins the series will be in the driver’s seat in the division, and both could pick up a little breathing room with a sweep. This is the most important series of the week, in terms of pure playoff implications. The Rockies will send Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland and Tyler Anderson to the mound, while the Dodgers counter with Hyun-jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. Both teams have to be happy with how their rotations set up for a series that could make or break their seasons.
Red Sox at Yankees, Tuesday through Thursday
The Red Sox have already clinched a postseason berth, and the Yankees will soon follow suit. The Yankees still have a mathematical chance of chasing down the Red Sox in the AL East, but realistically, the latter will soon be celebrating their third straight division title. In terms of pure postseason implications, there isn’t much at stake here. The Yankees could fall behind the A’s and remain behind the Astros in the standings, and that would send them on the road in the AL Wild Card Game. But that wouldn’t be a huge deal. That makes this merely the second-to-last meeting in the regular season before what could be the most anticipated division series of the Wild Card era. The pitching matchups in this series are Nathan Eovaldi against J.A. Happ on Tuesday, David Price against Luis Severino on Wednesday, and Eduardo Rodriguez against Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday.
Cardinals at Braves, Monday through Wednesday
The Braves are mere days from clinching their first NL East title since 2013, capping off one of the most unlikely runs to the postseason in recent memory. They enter this week with a lead over the Phillies that is all but insurmountable, barring a monumental collapse. The Cardinals, however, are desperate for every win they can get, starting this week half a game behind the Rockies for the second wild card spot in the NL. The Cardinals have a particularly brutal schedule to end the season, facing the Brewers and Cubs next week after a brief respite against the Giants.
The Cardinals likely need at least six or seven wins in their final 12 to feel good about a postseason berth, putting a huge spotlight on St. Louis over these last two weeks. The Cardinals will start Miles Mikolas, Austin Gomber and Jack Flaherty in this series, and the Braves will go with Mike Foltynewicz, Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
Our great country is divided. But the Red Sox and Mets fans at Fenway Park just joined together to chant "Yankees suck."— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) September 15, 2018
If I ever go to grad school, I'm going to write my dissertation on when it became unacceptable to blame the players.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) September 12, 2018
Mike Trout year-to-year OBP in his career:— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) September 16, 2018
He's accumulated 1,179 hits, 686 walks, 235 homers, 786 runs.
He just turned 27.
José Ramírez (38 HR in age 25 season) &— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) September 15, 2018
Francisco Lindor (35 HR in age 24 season):
First teammates in MLB history to hit 35+ HR in age 25 or younger season.
READS OF THE WEEK
• How did the New York Mets, of all teams, stumble into the best pitcher in baseball with the 272nd pick of the 2010 draft? Tim Britton of The Athletic strings the tale together with a tremendous amount of reporting.
• The extension of safety netting at all major league stadiums has protected countless fans this year. It's also made it harder for players to throw balls into the stands, as Joe Lemire writes for the New York Times.
• When did it become wrong to hope for a player's ascension to 20 wins or 100 RBIs? Joel Sherman of the New York Post argues the sabermetric revolution is pushing away the next generation of fans.
• Jayson Stark columns are a treasure trove of nuggets. One from his latest piece at The Athletic: Milwaukee reliever Josh Hader has 16 appearances this year of three-plus strikeouts and zero hits allowed.
• Legendary Mets P.R. man Jay Horwitz is stepping away from his post for a different role with the club. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times digs up a few gems about Horwitz's tenure, including the time a former player put ketchup on a horse head and stuffed it under his pillow.
FROM THE VAULT: SO LONG, YANKEE STADIUM
By Connor Grossman
It's hard to believe a decade has passed since Yankee Stadium shut its doors. Relative to the Yankees, it was a rather unceremonious ending for baseball's cathedral. The team sat out the postseason for the first time in 15 years and played a meaningless game against the Orioles to close out the House That Ruth Built. Tom Verducci authored a memorable first-person cover story ... from the perspective of Yankee Stadium.
Come for the lede (I am dying. It's O.K. You need not feel sorry for me.), stay to fully grasp the amount of history (baseball and otherwise) that unfolded in one venue.
Enjoy the excerpt below and find the full story here.
In a dying state, you don't worry about offending people. So let me just come out with the truth, even if this one might hurt: The original Yankee Stadium has been gone for 35 years. Derek Jeter doesn't stand in the same batter's box as Joe DiMaggio did, because home plate was moved forward some 10 to 20 feet in the renovation. Leftfield doesn't "get late early out there" anymore, as Yogi Berra famously observed, because the layout of the field changed; Death Valley, the infamous leftfield gap where titanic blasts went to die, became only a near-death experience, its deepest point chopped from 457 feet to 430 in 1976, to 411 in '85 and finally to 399 in '88. The frieze, made of copper, was sold for $75,000 to a guy in Albany, N.Y., who promptly melted it to sell for piping and other pedestrian uses. The foul poles were sold to a baseball team in Osaka, Japan, for $30,000. One-hundred-eighteen steel pillars, which were either a distinct structural element or a nuisance, depending on whether you ever sat behind one, were removed.
Indeed, short of Thomas Alva's concrete, there is almost nothing you can see from your seat today that somebody in that same spot could see in 1973. And even the concrete looks different. That's another story. In the mid-'60s the sand-colored concrete facade and the green patina frieze were painted white. When George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, he made sure I was covered in fresh coats of paint. That's because in '73 graffiti artists tagged everything that didn't move, like me, and even some things that did, like subway cars. "It was disgusting," says Marty Appel, the Yankees' assistant public relations director at the time, "but that was New York City in the early '70s. You would walk around the Stadium, and it was gross."