The two best teams in baseball, plus a lot of uncertainty.
This is Part 2 of the series that began Wednesday, setting up the second half by talking about all 30 teams—but using just one word per game played for each. You can read Part 1 for a more extensive introduction to the concept. Let's jump right in.
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Halway home and plenty of uncertainty to go around.
You can see the equivalent piece on the teams of the two East divisions for the details of this shtick. The gist is that we’re breaking down each team at the All-Star break, using only one word per game played to this point. It’s an exercise in humility, in understanding how little a single half of a season really tells us. Today, the 10 teams in the two Central divisions get their turn.
Have we learned more than we knew at the beginning?
A few years ago, I tried a thing for a month or so where I wrote up power rankings of teams using only as many words as they each had games played. I did this once a week for, I don’t know, maybe a month. It was fun the first time, but not the fifth. The point, which I thought cut cleanly and sharply through the piece in the first installment but eventually went a little dull, was that we really learn about teams very slowly.
Players’ skill levels change faster than ever before, I think, relative to the rest of the league. Guys get hurt and rookies get promoted. There’s all of this data flowing past us all the time, but often our best estimate of a team’s true talent remains the one we made before the season, when we were looking at all of those things—all the possible injuries, improvements, adjustment periods, the big picture—and the data was standing still.
Joe Maddon and the Cubs could take some intriguing strategic paths in the second half.
It's almost the All-Star break, and the Cubs are still broken.
It's the most obnoxious story of the baseball season to date. Everyone has a take. They're suffering from a World Series hangover. Their clubhouse culture is poisonous. They miss Dexter Fowler, they miss David Ross. Their pitchers have just piled up too many innings over the last two years. They can't handle the expectations. Joe Maddon never should have batted Kyle Schwarber leadoff. The front office never should have saddled Maddon with Schwarber as a primary left fielder.
Is there still hope for Kyle Schwarber in left field or are his wheels simply too lacking?
Coming into this season, Kyle Schwarber was a polarizing player. Some saw him as a potential MVP—an elite left-handed slugger with plenty of pure hit tool and the ability to make up for any defensive deficiencies with all of that offensive value. Others saw a missed opportunity, and said the Cubs should have traded Schwarber while his value was highest—either after his sensational rookie showing, or while he nursed his devastating knee injury over the summer of 2016, or last winter, in the afterglow of his heroic showing in a World Series for which he was supposed to be sidelined.
The thinking in the latter group was that Schwarber would never cut it as a left fielder, or indeed, as anything but a designated hitter, and that the Cubs were trying to make a very shiny square peg fit into a round hole, and squandering much of Schwarber’s value in so doing I think it would be unfair to say, flatly and without additional detail, that the doubters were right. They weren’t entirely right, and (obviously) the Schwarber believers weren’t entirely wrong.
Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are towering over baseball as rookies.
Two of the first half's top stories were the power-hitting pillars of two of the league’s flagship franchises. Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger have captured the national imagination, and—with the Rookie of the Year trophies almost surely already engraved—they might just capture their league’s MVP awards come November. They’re the perfect new faces for the sport, at least for this part of this season—a spring marked by skyrocketing home run rates, questions about the ball being juiced, and a wave of young talent not only supernally talented, but also impossibly big, strong, and fast.
These are two towering sluggers, but they’re less unusual in that way than they might have been a decade ago, and certainly less so than they would have been in the 1980s or earlier. In fact, the six-foot-seven Judge and the six-foot-four Bellinger are just the latest in a line of very tall power hitters who have been taking over the game in recent seasons. Miguel Sano, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa all are at least six-foot-four. For most of baseball history, conventional wisdom has held that guys with such long levers were too vulnerable strikeouts, too exploitable, too disadvantaged by the larger strike zone with which opposing pitchers could work. That conventional wisdom, to the extent that it’s not retroactively disproven by these superstar sluggers, seems to be eroding. I want to talk about why, and what it can tell us about the game.
Jose Berrios' slight adjustments have had big payoffs, as 23-year-old thrives in Minnesota's rotation.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Jose Berrios entered 2017 with his career arc somewhat in doubt. Formerly a top prospect, he’d struggled—no, he had outright failed—in his first extended look in the majors, and despite his youth and his raw stuff, even his most enthusiastic supporters were forced to admit that big changes were needed if he was going to turn himself into a valuable big-league hurler.
The lion, the fox, the jackal, and the wolf, with the Yankees starring as the lion.
We talk a lot about the fundamental challenges faced by low-payroll or small-market teams trying to compete with the big boys. This goes back to the times of Branch Rickey and Ed Barrow, but it became a fashionable conversation once Moneyballturned baseball inside-out. The A’s might have been the first team to realize that speed was overvalued and that on-base percentage was undervalued, but the Red Sox and Yankees were among the first five, and that closed Oakland’s margin for error fast.
Ever since, MLB has been reenacting the fable of the lion, the fox, the jackal, and the wolf. See, all four animals went hunting together, and they killed a stag. The lion took his place, and he told the others to quarter the kill. They did, cut it up nice and evenly, and then the lion said, “I get one quarter because I’m king, and another because I’m the arbiter, and another because I took part in the chase. Now, who wants to lay a paw on the last quarter?”
One change, and a little more trust in his dominant raw stuff, could take James Paxton even higher.
Something about Mariners left-hander James Paxton makes people grab the nearest hyperbole and fire it at the wall with gusto.
Over the winter, Mariners manager Scott Servaissaid that Paxton’s slider “grades out better than [Clayton] Kershaw’s,” an eye-popping bit of exaggeration made all the more odd by the fact that what Paxton throws is much more cutter than slider. Jeff Sullivan (God bless him, because without him you’d just have to take my word for it that this happens often) recently called Paxton the AL’s best left-handed pitcher—implicitly pushing him past Chris Sale on that list.
Hitters like Miguel Sano, Marcell Ozuna, and Starlin Castro refuse to make things easy on pitchers.
We are, inarguably, living in the Golden Age Of Offensive Platitudes. Russell A. Carleton tossed out several of them in one recent column: “Sit fastball. Swing hard. Strikeouts don’t matter.” The Pirates say “OPS is in the air,” which is really just the Cubs’ “there’s no slug on the ground,” but stood on its head. Josh Donaldson wants you to “just say no to ground balls,” which is unimaginative but clear enough.
Modern offense comes down to launch angle and exit velocity, and to maximizing extra-base power (especially home runs) in order to make up for an unabating upshoot in strikeout rate. To be a great hitter in the modern game is nowhere near easy, but it’s fairly simple. Most teams, and many individual players, have dedicated themselves to breaking down hitting to the simplest set of basic ideas possible, so that batters can adapt to the unprecedented velocity and sheer stuff of modern pitchers as deftly as possible.
Did the Astros right-hander stumble into a breakout season?
Friday night was the rockiest game of the season for Astros right-hander Brad Peacock. From the jump, it was clear that he didn’t have good command, and he limped through four innings of what turned into an ugly loss for the Astros. His transition from short relief to a starting role has been slow and uneven. He’s still yet to crack 90 pitches in any start, and has two good and two bad outings as a starter.
Cardinals teammates Matt Carpenter and Tommy Pham provide two sides to the same story.
Things are grim for the Cardinals right now. They’ve been disappointing, and worse, they’ve been frustrating. They cough up leads, they make mistakes on the bases and in the field, and the offense is really stuck in neutral. Coming into the season, they had a clear offensive core: Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty. Two months in, Molina looks too old; Diaz looks too young; Grichuk is in the Florida State League for some reason; and Fowler, Carpenter, and Piscotty simply aren’t producing at a level that might allow them to make up for that.