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  • Welcome back to Nine Innings. This week we discuss the spike in home runs to start this season, the best baseball names that would fit in Game of Thrones, a terrific Yasiel Puig bobblehead and more.
By Jon Tayler
April 16, 2019

Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI's weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: the sudden spike in homers; Where In The World Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.; and some Game of Thrones-related content to make that SEO value soar. If you have any feedback, questions or angry rants to send my way, please don’t hesitate to hit me up via email (jon.tayler@simail.com) or Twitter.

This Week In … Too Many Damn Home Runs!

The following is an incomplete list of players who have hit at least one (1) home run this season.

• Jeff Mathis

• Dee Gordon

• Jacob deGrom

• Delino DeShields

• Jhoulys Chacin

• Walker Buehler

• JT Riddle (2)

• John Ryan Murphy (2)

• Zack Greinke (2)

• Jarrod Dyson (2)

• Freddy Galvis (5) (!!!)

You may have noticed that a lot of those guys are what baseball experts would call “terrible hitters with no power at all, and also some pitchers.” You’d be right! But here they are, popping dingers in a season where seemingly everyone is doing so with ease. Khris Davis is already at double digits with two weeks to go in April. Jay Bruce has seven homers this year after hitting nine last season; Jose Altuve is right there with him despite being the size of a fire hydrant.

They’re not alone. Through Sunday’s action, 600 homers had been hit across 17,554 plate appearances. Over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, that would amount to some 6,300 homers, which would shatter the record of 6,105 set two seasons ago—itself a gargantuan leap from the previous high of 5,693 from the peak of the Steroid Era in 2000.

To make a long story short: Home runs are way up. And weirdly enough, they’re back after a 2018 season in which rates fell significantly, as the league finished with almost 500 fewer home runs than it had the year previous (and that still represents the third most hit in MLB’s entire history).

So what do we make of the Return of the Dingers? That’s an even tougher thing to figure. When home runs spiked in 2017 (though the actual increase began as far back as the midpoint of the ’15 campaign), there was no immediate answer as to why. Eventually, a leading culprit emerged: the ball itself. Reduced drag was contributing to it going further, perhaps due to lowered seams; a 538.com investigation by Rob Arthur showed that its core may also be different, leading to balls that go further when hit.

None of that, though, explains why home runs suddenly dipped back to (relatively) normal levels in 2018, or why things are all of the sudden back to record heights this year. Writing for Baseball Prospectus, Arthur found that drag is again down this season, which may explain the rise—or it could mean nothing at all, if those figures change.

Regardless, the smart money is on the ball being the cause, but if that’s the case, MLB won’t say. The league has denied any shenanigans for a while now, revealing only that its own studies have shown “a change in the aerodynamic properties” of the ball, but with no reason why that is. So all we’re left with is a huge wave of homers and the league responding with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .

I personally don’t care if there are more home runs. Dingers are good and fun and cool; the brainwashing of Nike’s 1999 “Chicks Dig The Long Ball” ad successfully took hold in my developing adolescent brain, it seems. But the bizarre fluctuations in power call a lot into question. It makes the season feel like a video game with the preset sliders all out of whack, or the difficulty turned down. Noodle-bat infielders like Galvis banging homers like Mark McGwire in his chemically-aided prime blurs the lines of reality—consider it baseball’s uncanny valley, full of bad CGI. What you get is a game that’s hard to trust or believe, with results that feel highly questionable.

MLB will probably never give an answer on the uptick in homers, be it because of a juiced ball or not. Things may even end up normalizing to some degree. But that feels to me like a mistake. If the balls are flying because they’ve been monkeyed with, then fans and players alike deserve to know.

This Week In … Why Isn’t Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In The Majors Yet?

After being sidelined with an oblique injury and then rehabbing in Florida, Vlad Guerrero Jr. is back, though not with the Blue Jays. Instead, he’s with Triple-A Buffalo and making a mockery of the minors, with five hits in his first 10 at-bats, including this booming home run against Scranton that went about 750 feet.

It’s clear that Guerrero has nothing at all left to learn in the minors. That much has been the case since roughly last August, when he put Double A to the torch before doing the same to Triple A despite not being old enough to buy a beer. In any just and functional league, he’d be in the majors right now. Yet even as he demolishes the International League, you have Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins saying only that Guerrero is “hopefully ready to make a debut at some point soon.”

That “some point soon” should be today; it should’ve come last year. Toronto fans, stuck rooting for a team that’s a flat-out mess, deserve that. Baseball fans as a whole deserve to watch him bash massive dingers. Most importantly, Triple-A pitchers don’t deserve this kind of punishment. Take it from Gio Gonzalez, one of the unlucky hurlers in Scranton forced to face this man-child: “Just get out of here already—I’m tired of facing your family.” (Gonzalez is one of the few pitchers to have faced both Senior and Junior—a list that will grow once the latter is called up, and that will never stop making you feel miserably old.)

Still, it’s understandable why Toronto is slow-playing the inevitable. After all, the man they have in Guerrero’s place at third base—Brandon Drury—is doing such a bang-up job so far. Now to take a gigantic sip of water and look at his stats.

MLB.com

Oh.

This Week In … Joyful Bobbleheads!

Bobbleheads: They make for delightful souvenirs, even if most of them end up bearing only the most passing resemblance to the figue they’re supposed to depict. Yet they’re fun all the same, and perhaps none this season will be as wonderful as Yasiel Puig’s first with the Reds.

Fittingly, the Wild Horse gets a horse of his own, and one sticking its tongue out to match his own wagging glory. It’s a lovely little thing, even if Puig looks more like Adrian Beltre to these eyes. Now watch him take Clayton Kershaw deep.

This Week In … Puig Your Play-by-Play Announcer!

Speaking of Puig: It’s been a busy week for MLB’s walking flashpoint. On Saturday, he finally hit his first home run of the year, and on Monday, he made his first trip back to Los Angeles since the Dodgers shipped him out of town last December. (True to form, he was late to his own press conference.) But before all that, he and teammate Eugenio Suarez sat down to recap Cincinnati’s win over the Cardinals on Sunday in Mexico, and now I want him to do play by play for all games going forward.

This video’s got it all: Puig’s thoughts on a four-man outfield (“That isn’t baseball, I don’t like it”); calling Jesse Winker “Winky”; Suarez’s spectacular 1990s blonde dye job; Puig complimenting his own throw from rightfield; and the fact that neither he nor Suarez seem to remember any of the details of the game despite having played in it. I hope this becomes a recurring series, or that Puig at least gets a guest spot in the booth during the World Series.

This Week In … Highly Relatable Baserunning Decisions!

On Saturday against the Cubs, Angels first baseman Justin Bour ripped a line drive off Kyle Hendricks into rightfield for a first-inning single. At least, that’s how it started, before things veered into full-blown Keystone Cops territory.

To recap: That’s a throw that goes off Bour’s foot into foul territory, followed by him hustling into second base for a double just under Javy Baez’s tag … only to walk off the field despite the safe call, leading to one of the slowest and easiest rundowns you’ll ever see. And it’s understandable: Everyone’s had that moment where they’re convinced they’ve screwed up even if they actually haven’t—where the certainty of failure leads you to do something even dumber. It’s not quite self-sabotage, but it’s not far removed, and for that, I salute Justin Bour and his extremely sympathetic blunder. Even when you’re safe, sometimes you just feel out.

This Week In … Craig Kimbrel!

Every week until he’s signed, I’ll take a look at which teams need free agent Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball, the most, and declare one the “winner.”

After the constant bullpen conflagrations of the first two weeks of the season, things have calmed down somewhat around the league. The Nationals’ relief ERA has dropped three full runs—albeit to a still horrifying 7.75, but hey, baby steps. The Cubs have slapped enough gauze on their gaping wounds to slow down their bullpen bleeding. The Dodgers have been fine so long as they forget Joe Kelly exists. Things are, if not fixed, at least improving slightly.

That’s not to say all of those teams couldn’t use Kimbrel. But the urgency created by all those blown leads has abated. Instead, his most logical place is now on the team that needs him most because of a simple, good old fashioned reason: injury. That would be the Phillies, who placed nominal closer David Robertson on the injured list with elbow pain. I say “nominal” because Gabe Kapler seems to be happy picking his ninth-inning reliever out of a hat. One night it’s Robertson, another it’s Pat Neshek, another it’s Bryce Harper (well, not yet, but never say never with Kapler). This is a bullpen that already could’ve used another arm before Robertson went down, and even if his injury isn’t serious, now seems like a good time to add some depth *and* give Kapler a proven closer to stop the game of musical chairs.

Also receiving votes: Cubs, Braves, Mets, Dodgers, Mariners, Nationals, Twins

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This Week In … The Best Stories of the Week!

• MLB Inception! Who wins baseball's rising pitcher-swap matchups? | Sam Miller, ESPN

General rule around these parts: If Miller writes it, I'm reading it, and it's almost certainly going to be one of my favorite pieces of the week. Here, he has fun exploring what happens when pitchers hit against position players. The results may surprise you!

• Yasiel Puig left behind a complicated Dodgers legacy | Andy McCullough, Los Angeles Times

To say that Puig was a bit of a pain for the Dodgers appears to be an understatement. McCullough—through lots of good interviews—paints a picture of Puig as equal parts thrilling and aggravating, with moments of joy mixed with petulance and selfishness.

• ‘It’s almost like a part of you dies’: Retired players on hard choices and life after baseball | Brittany Ghiroli, The Athletic

An emotional read in which you also Remember Some Guys (Will Middlebrooks! Chad Moeller!), and a fascinating look at what happens to those players whose careers end not with highlights or grace, but abrupt and forced retirement

This Week In … Baseball-Related Game of Thrones Content!

Game of Thrones is back, and if you’re a nerd like I am (or just a fan of soap operas that feature dragons, zombies, and a wheelchair-bound boy who can see through time), you rejoiced. But the return of HBO’s high fantasy series led The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan to ask a pertinent question that I can easily exploit for #content purposes.

These are both good choices, and it got me to thinking as to my choices. So here are my picks for the most Game of Thrones name in baseball.

1. Cheslor Cuthbert

He’s not a major leaguer—Cuthbert is toiling in the Royals’ minor league system—but I won’t hold that against him, because he has the most Game of Thrones name ever created. I’m honestly surprised that a Cheslor Cuthbert hasn’t popped up as a minor character in the early seasons—someone who turns traitor on the Starks, or a knight of the Kingsguard who’s secretly a bully, or something. I’m just going to pretend he has.

2. Whit Merrifield

“Merrifield” is a great fantasy name, but I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that his first name is “Whitley,” which is the galaxy brain version of “Whitney.”

3. Engelb Vielma

I’m honestly not sure if Vielma is in organized baseball any more—Google was unhelpful, and a quick check with fellow SI scribe and longtime Vielma chronicler Emma Baccellieri turned up nothing—but he makes my cut anyway because, well, look at that name! It’s got some serious Braavosi banker vibes to it.

Anyway, check in next week when, in order to keep this search traffic pump flowing, I rank the dragons by their theoretical baseball playing ability.

This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!

Jon Tayler

Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my work desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Julio Zuleta, first baseman, Chicago Cubs (Fleer 2001).

Julio Zuleta had yet to do much beyond exist when this card came out. He didn’t go on to do much more than that in his brief MLB career, consisting of 79 games across two seasons in Chicago (one good, one bad) before a more successful stint in Japan. Yet beyond reminding card collectors that the word “prospect” by its very definition involves hope but no guarantee, Zuleta stands as a member of one of MLB’s smaller yet more impactful clubs. A native of Panama, the big first baseman is one of just a few dozen men from that country to reach the major leagues. It’s a varied spectrum, ranging from Mariano Rivera and Rod Carew on one end to guys like Zuleta and fellow NPB star Fernando Seguignol on the other (and with Bruce Chen—no, really—somewhere in between). But while he may not have had the impact of a Carlos Ruiz, Carlos Lee or Manny Sanguillen, he represented his country all the same.

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