Early struggles gave way to a very hot stretch and now the Astros are serious contenders again.
I wrote an article that ran May 4, analyzing the Astros as possible surprise sellers on the summer trade market. Eight weeks later, that looks like an awfully silly article, because the Astros are now 41-37. Despite the Rangers leaning way out over their skis and building a 10-game lead in the AL West, Houston is a very legitimate playoff contender.
Let me defend myself, however lamely, by pointing this out: the Astros started this season 17-28. No playoff team last season had any 45-game stretch in which they lost 28 games. Since then, they’ve won 24 of 33, something only one team (the mid-May Twins) managed to do last season without making the playoffs. Highs this high and lows this low usually don’t fit into the same season, let alone the same half of one. Obviously, though, the Astros were always better than their early record showed. They caught some bad waves in the crashing surf of in-season variance, and they simply got aberrant, miserable starts from a few players who are better than that.
A world of research and development has been put into the very problems and questions that baseball clubs face. Applying instructional design to player development.
With draft day in the rear view, perhaps this is as good a time as any to talk about player development and how those newly-drafted players might refine those myriad skills that make up professional baseball performance. After all, the biggest mystery in the sport is how some players find success while others don’t, despite having similar body types, backgrounds, and amateur performance numbers.
How does Matt Shoemaker find success after years of toiling away in the minors? How does Zack Cozart start hitting for power all of a sudden? How does a first-overall draft pick like Delmon Young never figure out how to have an approach that matches his physical tools? Why does Matt Carpenter succeed where Zack Cox fails? And most of all: Why is it these particular guys?
It’s a big question that requires more time and intelligence than I have. But it all boils down to baseball’s last great black box: player development. The goal of player development—ultra-simplified—is to turn raw human resources into valuable big-league production. PD departments do that by augmenting or creating knowledge, skills, and attitudes in their body of assigned players.
Why do teams almost always wait until late July to make significant trades?
Evan Drellich’s article in Boston Herald this past Sunday quoted Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski as saying about potential trades:
“It’s still early. I can tell you I’ve done a great deal of work, there’s five clubs that are willing to talk about it. They’re the same five clubs that have been at it all year, so it’s still a little early for that type of situation. We’ll just see what happens. I think the thing you got to remember is, it takes two clubs to make a deal. And most clubs, as I’ve said all along—and it hasn’t changed whatsoever really—are not prepared to move towards 2017 and be in a position of where they’re willing to move.”
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Tyler Beede, Josh Bell, Dwight Smith Jr., and Hunter Harvey.
Prospect of the Day: Tyler Beede, RHP, San Francisco Giants (Double-A Richmond): 7.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K.
Beede has frustrated many ever since he was a senior in high school with inconsistent stuff and results over his career. That has not been an issue in 2016. Not only is he missing bats with a plus fastball and change, but he’s throwing his solid-average curve for strikes, and he’s keeping the ball in the park. Maybe he’s not a future ace, but if he can continue to hit his spots—especially with the curveball—he could help the Giants rotation at some point next season.
How much "major change" should there be in baseball and what counts as enough "progress"?
For the past week and change, I’ve been totally transfixed by the British political scene, and more specifically by the vote and aftermath of the referendum to leave the European Union. In case you’ve been under a rock or just, as you always should be, watching highlights of web gems and dingers, the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union, in a decision that even supporters of the move regretted almost immediately. And, sure, there are probably a lot of people who are pretty pleased to be out of the EU, but there are also a bunch of folks left wondering “what have we done?”
It might be because I’m seeing everything through the lens of a British exit (Brexit), but I couldn’t help but think of our own imperfect unions in baseball, the American and National Leagues. Between the Brewers switching the NL from the AL and the Astros doing the reverse, through the dawn of interleague play and all of its various tweaks, and approaching the occasion of the fourteenth time that the All-Star Game “counts,” the AL and the NL have never enjoyed a stable experience. And at the core of this persistent tweaking is a whispered suggestion: Why not just get rid of both?
I’m sure that you’ve all seen various suggestions for how we might be rid of the two leagues, so I won’t do those suggestions the injustice of quick glosses here, but you also probably know the general idea: Break up the two leagues, and create four or five divisions based purely on geographical proximity. These divisions would allow for greater parity in travel distances, new and exciting regional rivalries, and, ostensibly, a fairer balance of playoff spots, punishing weaker teams and rewarding stronger ones across the board. A more perfect union, as opposed to a house divided.
In this way, the hypothetical “united” MLB looks more like an idealized EU than a post-Brexit UK, but I think the desire for change for the sake of change is important to consider. Much like the referendum that’s put the UK in its current troubles, any proposal to demolish the current MLB bi-league setup is a proposal to fix a clock that isn’t quite broken. There are flaws in the AL/NL split: Teams have uneven travel arrangements; the Designated Hitter is not universal; interleague play remains unbalanced. But those flaws are probably not fatal, not a cultural détente as in Brexit. At least not yet. And as Brexit has shown us, there is some truth to staying with the devil you know as opposed to the unified super-league of five divisions you don’t.
Effectively, as a fan, were you given the power to decide the fate of the league’s overall structure, you’d be in a paradoxical situation: Stick with the old and reify the bad things about our current situation in baseball, or blow it all up and take the risk that what you find next is somehow even worse? Do you open it up to mass fan votes, knowing the risks of ballot box stuffing and fraud could produce an Omar Infante as Vice President of Baseball Operations situation, or do you declare yourself God Queen or King of MLB Decision Making? Do you consider the players or the fans? Or do you chuck those two and consider the owner? What do you do?
Part of the difficulty of this question derives from the problem of who does and does not “have a say” in corporate decision-making for MLB. But I think the disenfranchisement of fans and democratic solutions to that problem should wait for another column. Instead, I want to think about the league owner as a politician in a classical sense. We expect MLB owners and especially the MLB commissioner to be baseball enthusiasts like we all are. We expect them to love the game, and perhaps most or all of them do. But at core, I want to argue, that love for baseball itself cannot be their guiding motivation. Instead, they’re playing a game of comparative risk, the stakes of which are the life or death of an entire industry.
Wilson recomments targeting these young'uns in midseason dynasty drafts and trades.
We’ve reached that point in the season where the minor leagues start to play their all-star games, and the first-half performers start migrating to their next respective levels, and the recent crop of draft picks starts to matriculate into short-season play, and the world is sunny and beautiful for prospect hounds. I play in a couple dynasty leagues that have mid-season prospect drafts, and I’ve always enjoyed the format. On one hand, it tends to encourage further prospect trading, as managers get faster and looser with their farmhands knowing they can replenish the coffers with recent draftees and J2 signees in short order. And on the other, there tends to be an opportunity to grab some helium guys that can get lost in the shuffle of the race to snag the newest first-rounders. So with that as my backdrop, here’s a list of some personal favorites to either make a play for in trade over the next couple weeks or add to your target list for an upcoming prospect draft.
Record-breaking Orioles power, Yankees comeback craziness, and Jose Altuve doing his usual thing.
The Wednesday Takeaway
If you’re a fan of the Baltimore Orioles and baseballs being hit really far and over outfield fences, then the month of June has been lovely. The Orioles only hit one home run Wednesday during their 12-6 victory over the Padres, but it was one to remember for Mark Trumbo as they put the capper on what’s been a prolific month of power.
A few weeks ago I was in Miami, and then Atlanta, following the Brewers so I could watch Jeremy Jeffress throw. Miami was uneventful—he did not throw in the entire series—but Atlanta was a fun trip. JJ hit 98 once, had a couplegood outings and I was glad to have spent time with him. This has been such a rewarding season, and I still think the best is yet to come for JJ.