Peter Gammons: State of the MLB at the Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice arrived and the sun rose on Buzzard’s Bay on three remarkable facts:

–Two rookies named Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger led their leagues in home runs, 46 between them, and Bellinger didn’t make it to Los Angeles until April 25;

–The three best records and widest run differentials in the National League were the Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Oh yes, and Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Bellinger are already being aligned for top 5 MVP notices;

–The Boston Red Sox are in first place, which on June 21 is like being one place in line ahead at a Starbucks.

The fact that Coors Field could turn into a summer opening pennant race game drawing 35,016 on a Monday night was remarkable, remarkable because the two great players, Arenado and Goldschmidt, took turns with game-changing hits, the Rockies’ revamped bullpen with Adam Ottavino and Greg Holland closed it and catcher Tony Wolters threw out the potential tying run at second base made the night—Joe West’s 5000th game—one of those times fans of the Diamondbacks and Rockies could sit back and think this could be 2007 all over again.

I’m not worried about the Dodgers making the playoffs because of their depth—is Chris Taylor Andrew Friedman’s best trade since Ben Zobrist?—their bullpen and the expectancy that Rich Hill and Julio Urias will be straightened out by September.

But these are four things I love about the Rockies and Diamondbacks making it to October:

–Bud Black and Torey Lovullo have impacted their teams more than any new managers in the game. Hey, these two teams’ position lineups are very good, in the Diamondbacks’ case exceptionally versatile. Black has exorcised the curse of Coors Field, Lovullo of the negativity that has seemingly followed the ‘Backs like a dust storm.

–They are second and third in the National League in runs. The Diamondbacks have a 3.66 earned run average in a home park some find more trying than Coors. They are second in the league in road ERA at 3.19, the Rockies third in road ERA at 3.39. They’re pitching.

–Black and his coaches Foster and Darren Holmes have taken their young, power staff and defied the traditional thought that curveballs and other breaking balls don’t work in the mile high air. As Baseball Prospectus’ Travis Sawchik wrote, the staff has been encouraged to use curveballs with 2 and 4 seam fastballs; all of their starters are throwing from 10 to 23 percent of the time, which in turns means they don’t have to pitch differently at home and on the road.

–The Diamondbacks, in the words of several opposing managers and coaches, have become “one of the most aggressive baserunning teams in the game,” adding hat the decline in base stealing in this home run era has tended to pitchers becoming more lax holding runners.

Analytics show that the ‘Backs are one of three top teams in Baserunning Runs in the majors. Goldschmidt, for instance, already has 21 steals, and as a team they are third in the league in steals, third in runs, 6th in OPS.

Baserunning coach Dave McKay began spring training with detailed emphasis on leads, turning bases with their right foot, direct line…and during the season not only does McKay meet with baserunners with the ideas from scouting and video, but goes from player to player with his iPad in the clubhouse to emphasize what they may be able to do. They prepare for baserunning the way teams traditionally prepare pitchers and hitters, and it’s working.

Which is why Wolters’ throw was so important last night.

If the National League West has supplanted the American League East as the game’s strongest division, the A.L. East has regained some of its swag with the fact that the Red Sox and Yankees have pulled up to the stoplight right next to one another. What is surprising is that while New Englanders moan at the DL time of Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg (no one was more chagrined at the exile of Travis Shaw than this head, but it’s done and left a serious void in the Boston infield), what got the Red Sox into the passing lane the last month was the bullpen, as well as the fact that Chris Sale has so impacted an out-of-tune rotation that Boston is first in the American League in quality starts.

Simply put, the Red Sox have the best closer in the league, Craig Kimbrel, and John Farrell has done a remarkable job sometimes using him in 8th innings, as well as getting to him with Joe Kelly, with his 1.20 earned run average, and Matt Barnes, who has blossomed with three pitches and 11 strikeouts per 9 innings.

Kimbrel is ridiculously good. He has struck out 53.2% of the batters he’s faced. Consider this: in the previous decade, 2007-16, only one reliever struck out more than half the batters he faced—Kimbrel, 50.2%, in 2012. Can that continue? Can Brandon Workman (who recently was up to 96 MPH) or Jalen Beeks (with his newfound cutter) or Ben Taylor come up and help? If Gerrit Cole isn’t on the market, the starters’ trade deadline market may be vastly overrated, and the reliever mart may be like Ocean State Lot.

Boston’s bullpen earned run average is 2.84. Cleveland has the best, 2.56, the Dodgers are third at 3.04, the Yankees next at 3.20. The Indians and Red Sox are 1-2 in save percentage at 85.0 and 84.0.

Remember this: Kimbrel has been healthy all season. . Kimbrel has been there all season. The Yankees lost six straight—in which they were outscored by 8 runs—and Aroldis Chapman was disabled for most of them. The Yankees have blown 12 of 27 save opportunities, but once Chapman and Dellin Betances are lined up at the end, Adam Warren, Tyler Clippard and Chasen Shreve look a whole lot better getting to them.  

The Orioles have been without Zach Britton since April, but their starters have been dreadful. This is about lack of drafting and developing. They have one consistent starter in Dylan Bundy, who was drafted by Joe Jordan before he left to join the Phillies. All the starters not drafted by Jordan have a combined earned run average of 6.23. The Blue Jays have used 14 relievers and blown 11 save opportunities. Tampa Bay has blown 13.

As the Red Sox prepare to retire David Ortiz’s number this weekend, which should end the return speculation (hey, with what the man went through physically, he could be completely ready by Labor Day, so let’s enjoy the desert of a gourmet career), what their scouting and development did in bringing Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Andrew Benintendi to the big leagues should be re-celebrated. Managers watch Betts’ hit, defend, run the bases with uncanny instincts and insist that next to Mike Trout, he is the best all-around player in the league.

But Bogaerts’ hitting has gone vastly underrated. I’ve asked a number of retired and exceptional pitchers what it means to them that over the last three years Bogaerts has, by far, the most two strike hits in baseball. “It tells me this is that rare player who hits your best put-away pitch,” said Al Leiter.

Going into Tueaday’s game (6/20), these are the major league leaders for the 2015-17 seasons in two strike hits;

Bogaerts, BOS             217

Goldschmidt, ARZ     189

Betts, BOS                   183

Blackmon, COL          175

J.Abreu, CHX             174

The Red Sox have to figure out third base. The most logical is Jed Lowrie, $6.5M this year, $6M option, kills lefthanded pitching (.302/.377/.522/.899 this season vs, LHPs) and if Dustin Pedroia gets hurt, he can play second and fill at short. For further flexibility and because Christian Vazquez is clearly the 100-game-a-year defensive catcher for the foreseeable future, why not start allowing Blake Swihart to get out from behind the plate and use his remarkable athleticism play at first, third, and in the outfield; he could be a very useful player in the second half of the season when he’s over the bumps and bruises he’s played through behind the plate.

They have to get the expected from David Price and Rick Porcello, which is likely. They need to know what they can get from Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson, Brandon Workman, maybe Jalen Beeks.

And they need Pedroia playing. On Ortiz Week, it is meet and right to recall a story Jason Varitek told at a Hot Stove/Foundation to be Named Later luncheon in April:

“In 2007, early in the season, David hit a fly ball for an out and didn’t make it all the way down the line to first base,” said Varitek. “Now, remember, Pedey (Pedroia) was a rookie the year before. And as David came back to the dugout, Pedey got in his face and shouted ‘is it so tough to run down the line to first base?’

“A bunch of us were like, ‘uh oh.’

“David stopped, looked at him, then put his hand on Pedey’s shoulder and said, ‘you’re right.’ I think a bunch of us thought at that moment we were going to win it all.”

And they did, against the Colorado Rockies, who beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the playoffs to get there, which no one on the Summer Solstice, 2007 imagined possible.

So as I look out at Buzzard’s Bay, all we really know on this day’s sunrise is that beginning Thursday the sun starts setting earlier and the voyage to October has meaningfully begun.

Comments

  1. GhostOfFenway says:

    Love Jed, would really love to see him back in a Red Sox uniform. And he would be a better option at third than most of the guys we have put there this season… but I don’t see him as a 3rd base staple on a playoff team,he hasn’t played there since 2015.

    • Frank P says:

      Idk just because he hasn’t played there in a while doesn’t mean he cant field the position , the A’s just didn’t need him there. But he hasn’t played more than 87 games in a season since 2014

  2. Larry Howser says:

    they have been wasting Swihart….he should have been working at 3b exclusively since spring training.

  3. Dr. Smith says:

    Peter , it isn’t a reserve Inf RS need. It’s a middle order thumper like Jose Abreu (UFA).

  4. Daytonastang says:

    I say bring up the next big prospect in Devers throw him in triple a for the next 3weeks and if he prospers bring him up and give it a shot they did it with Benetendi and it seemed to work

  5. SoFla BoSox fan says:

    Lowrie could be a latter day Bill Mueller. Under the radar guy who has a lot of nice things about his game and has the grit to step- up in the clutch.