Keuchel has mowed down the NL East in style since Aug. 14, allowing one earned run in his last 19 innings.
Welcome to the latest installment of 3 Up, 3 Down, our weekly stock watch of who’s streaking and who’s slumping throughout Major League Baseball. Our latest edition includes notes on Toronto’s latest rookie sensation, the always-steady Juan Soto and the Rockies’ dispiriting second half.
↑ Keuchel Returning to Cy Young Form ↑
There were few better pitching seasons in the last decade than Dallas Keuchel’s 2015 campaign with the Astros. The 31-year-old lefthander led the American League in innings, WHIP and shutouts, posting a 2.48 ERA as Houston returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Keuchel was an ace in every sense of the word, and he fully delivered in the playoffs at Yankee Stadium. He was one of two AL pitchers since 2010 to tally 20 wins and 200 innings in a season with an ERA under 2.50. The Astros exited 2015 with Keuchel as their ace of the future.
Keuchel’s ride hasn’t been so smooth since. He struggled mightily with a 4.55 ERA in 2016, and he allowed the most hits in the AL in 2018. A contractual standoff and an ensuing free-agency freeze landed him Keuchel in Atlanta in late June, and the early returns were middling. He was bombed for eight runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Marlins on Aug. 8, and he sported a 4.83 ERA through his first 10 starts. Atlanta’s midseason splurge hadn’t paid off.
The tide has turned of late. Keuchel has mowed down the NL East in style since Aug. 14, allowing one earned run in his last 19 innings. He’s stuck out seven batters in each of his last three starts, and opponents are slugging just .288. Keuchel’s sinker is diving with abandon and Atlanta’s All-Star infield has been stellar. The Braves’ rotation lacks a clear postseason No. 1. Mike Soroka and Max Fried are untested—albeit very talented—and Julio Tehran may see some innings out of the bullpen. If Keuchel keeps rolling, perhaps Brian Snitker will give him the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS.
↑ Bichette Exceeds Expectations ↑
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has found his footing in the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup, but the highly-anticipated rookie experienced some growing pains out of the gate. He didn’t homer in his first 13 contests, and he slashed just .238/.317/.387 through July 18. This isn’t a criticism on Vlad Jr. Even the greats struggle early on. That's what makes Bo Bichette’s rookie year all that more impressive.
Toronto’s rookie shortstop has been on an absolute tear since getting called-up from Triple-A Buffalo on July 29. Bichette enters Tuesday night slashing .351/.388/.684 with eight homers in 26 games. He’s registered a hit in 14 of 26 contests, including eight hits in three games against the Mariners over the weekend. Bichette has 21 extra-base hits in his first 25 games. Only Joe DiMaggio had more through 25 games in baseball history. September will provide Bichette a chance to challenge more rookie records. The next decade could see him compete for the American League MVP.
↑ The Other NL East Phenom ↑
The baseball community spills plenty of ink on the exploits of Ronald Acuna each month. And rightfully so. The Braves’ electric centerfielder leads the NL in runs and stolen bases, and he has a real shot at 40-40 with 36 homers and 31 stolen bases. Acuna has certainly been impressive, yet his 2018 Rookie of the Year competitor Juan Soto has been conspicuously absent from the conversation surrounding the game’s best young players. The lack of adulation is puzzling.
Soto burst onto the scene in 2018 with an otherworldly eye and a beautiful lefty swing. He became just the third rookie since 1950 to hit 20 homers and post an OBP over .400 (joining Albert Pujols and former A’s outfielder Mitchell Page), and his .923 OPS ranked third among NL outfielders. Washington missed the playoffs in 2018, but it entered this season as at least a co-favorite for the NL East crown. Soto was a key reason for the hype, and the 20-year-old has been as good as advertised in year two.
Soto enters Tuesday with a .955 OPS and .402 OBP, surpassing his rookie totals with 29 homers and 86 RBI in 530 plate appearances. He’s been especially hot of late. Soto has a 1.089 OPS in August with nine homers. He has 16 walks to just 12 strikeouts, leading Washington to seven wins in its last eight games. Atlanta’s hot streak has kept the NL East lead at arm’s length, though Soto’s strong season has the Nationals in prime position for an NL Wild Card.
↓ Colorado Plummets From Contention ↓
The Rockies locked down Nolan Arenado with a $260 million contract in February, which is the largest financial commitment in franchise history. Colorado reached the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, and with Arenado in tow for nearly the next decade, perhaps the first NL West title in franchise history was on the horizon. Such optimism has proved foolish as we approach September.
Colorado is on pace for its fourth last-place finish in NL West since 2012 entering Tuesday, sitting at 59-73 following a 3-1 win over the Braves on Monday afternoon. The Rockies trail the Dodgers by 26.5 games in the NL West. They’re 11 games back of Cubs for the second NL Wild Card. Just two NL teams sport a worse run differential, and only the Orioles have allowed more runs. The Rockies owe a combined $32 million in 2020 to Ian Desmond and Wade Davis. Their front office has largely missed on the edges, and the cracks in the organization's foundation continue to show. Consider 2019 another lost year of Arenado’s prime.
↓ Reds Fading Fast ↓
The Reds truly were the NL Central’s answer to the Mets before the deadline when Cincinnati dealt Yasiel Puig and top-30 prospect Taylor Trammell for Trevor Bauer. A glance at Cincinnati's roster suggested a potential playoff contender a few years down the road led by Trammell and Nick Senzel, but instead, the Reds pushed their chips to the middle of the table in a deal for Bauer. Has the deal paid off? Not quite.
Fangraphs has Cincinnati at 0.2% to make the playoffs, and the Reds are now closer to the division cellar than third-place Milwaukee at 61-69. This year can be considered a growth year for the Reds, who boast an impressive offense, an emerging ace and a talented young closer. But to sacrifice a potential franchise cornerstone for two months and one additional season with Bauer is questionable. The Reds will likely be a playoff longshot again in 2020, even if Bauer remains in the Cy Young conversation. Their impulsiveness is unlikely to pay off before Bauer bolts after next season.
↓ Rethinking Deadline Decisions ↓
We chastised the Reds above, so let’s take a look at two other franchises who made questionable deadline deals.
Mets: New York considered trading one of its impact starters before the deadline, namely Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard. The Mets lost a pair of marquee assets in the disastrous Edwin Diaz-Robinson Cano deal, and exporting a starter for prospect capital was a calculated decision. But, as is the Mets’ way, Brodie Van Wagenen and Co. zagged the other way, acquiring Blue Jays’ ace Marcus Stroman. The results have been shaky thus far (including an 4.58 ERA and .876 opponent OPS in 19 2/3 innings) yet I’m more willing to forgive New York than Cincinnati. The Mets are two games back of the NL Wild Card; a few good Stroman starts down the stretch could land New York a playoff spot. Even if the Mets’ season ends in September, they’ll enter 2020 armed with perhaps the best rotation in the National League. Van Wagenen appears to have made a worthwhile gamble.
Giants: There’s a tricky emotional tie here with the final year of Bruce Bochy, but are we sure Giants’ fans would rather have a month more of Madison Bumgarner than a building block for the future? It’s hard to imagine San Francisco jumping New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago for a NL Wild Card in 2019, especially considering they still have to play in St. Louis, Boston and Atlanta in September. Add in six games against the Dodgers and the Giants’ minus-50 run differential, and Bumgarner’s next postseason start will likely come with a new team. MadBum is among the greatest pitchers in franchise history. It’s hard to crush San Francisco for holding on another two months, but for the future of the franchise, the Giants didn’t make the most prudent move.