There is little nuance in the names we use for baseball’s positions—they describe, simply and directly, either what you do or where you stand. The pitcher pitches; the right fielder is in right field; the shortstop stretches this characterization by being a 19th century adaptation of the cricket term “long stop,” but whatever. The logic is, on the whole, satisfyingly and explicitly clear, and it gives us a language that is specific and deliberate.
But sometimes the circumstances of the game force us to question the foundations of that language’s specificity. To wit—the first baseman covers first base. And yet:
That is one moment of extreme caring in a late-September affair that was full of not caring. The bottom of the fourth inning in last Wednesday’s Cubs-Pirates game, the outcome of which meant nothing to two teams with futures already decided. It was Anthony Rizzo (first baseman playing in to defend against a bunt) and Ben Zobrist (second baseman covering first base for this one play) and Clint Hurdle (maybe a fierce defendant of the rules, maybe a frustrating pedant, definitely someone who cared very much about this play in this moment).
Adrian Beltre is a Hall of Fame player, but his impact goes beyond the numbers.
There has never been anyone like Adrián Beltré.
This is where one would normally jump into a dissection of his incredible talent and on-field accomplishments, and then end in a rigorous whacking-over-the-head with his Hall of Fame-worthy accreditations. Maybe we should, anyway, but what really stands out when Adrián Beltré plays baseball is joy.
Beltré is one of the best third basemen to ever play the game, with one of the more unusual careers. He’s an offensive dynamo, a defensive wizard, and his successes on the biggest stage could be an excuse for him to be any average dour and over-serious veteran player--or at least, the kind of personality void that happens from prolonged exposure to the media.
Instead, Beltré approaches games like there’s nothing else he’d rather do. He’s one of the rare people in the game who can treat it with the levity it deserves without inciting the ire of less-forgiving opponents. He approaches every plate appearance with purpose--with dedication to his craft and an honoring of his talent--but imbued in all that is joy.
It’s difficult to talk about this kind of thing without tipping straight over into raw sentiment, something that has its place in this game, but not overmuch. It might even be easy to diminish the accomplishments of the player in over-simplifying him to a set of reactions and meme-able GIFs, instead of taking it all in as a whole and marveling at both the humor and the pride.
What happens when a player is so good so young that there are no better versions against which to compare him?
Mike Trout is unique. The meaning of that word has expanded somewhat, so that it can mean either a) generically special or b) truly one-of-a-kind, without peer or comparison. Mike Trout is the latter definition.
Trout is closing out his age-24 season--his sixth year as a major leaguer and his fifth as a full-timer--and in doing so, is closing out the best stretch of baseball by a young player, ever. Not in the modern era, or with any other qualifiers attached, by but any player. During his time in the majors, he’s accumulated 48.3 WAR by Baseball Reference’s version of the metric, more than a win greater than Ty Cobb’s 46.7 in second place and nearly a full season above Mickey Mantle’s 40.9 in third.
WARP only extends back to 1950, but Trout’s 46.6 WARP is in first place among players in that period, leading Mantle by nearly four wins. And, just for completeness, Trout also leads using FanGraphs’ fWAR, with 47.4 to Cobb’s 47.2. Nor is it only a matter of playing time; to find a player with a higher WARP per plate appearance, you need to drop the minimum PA threshold to about half a season’s worth. By basically every measure we have, Mike Trout is the best player through age 24 baseball has ever seen.
If you Google “Mike Trout Mickey Mantle” you can see a real progression over time.
No one will forget Jose Fernandez, on or off the field.
There is a traditional Mexican folk song whose roots and history are woven deep into the Mexican culture and consciousness. It is a macabre song describing the wishes one person is leaving to another regarding how they want to be remembered in death. La Martiniana’s famous line is the following:
“No me llores, no, no me llores, no,
Porque si lloras yo peno,
En cambio si tú me cantas
Yo siempre vivo, yo nunca muero.”
Which roughly translates to:
“Don't cry for me, no, don't cry for me, no
Because if you cry, I will suffer
Instead, if you sing songs of my life
I will live forever and never die.”
Someday, every baseball player's career will end. Will his resume be ready for that day?
Baseball is not introduced to most of us as a career. A game, a passion, an escape, a pastime—just not, usually, a career. But a career it is, however awkwardly it might fit the framework of a nine-to-five office job, and as such, it includes LinkedIn profiles. Here, the archetypical examples of famous baseball men’s very real and seriously, real LinkedIn accounts:
One of the weird things about being a parent is that your kids will do things that will confuse you. I’m not talking about the things that confuse you and make you mad, like emptying an entire bottle of soap into the bathtub. Or things that confuse you and make you laugh, like a nonsense song or an accidentally urbane joke. No, they’ll do things that seem like weird glitches, odd actions that make you wonder when the next Child Patch is coming out to clean up the bugs. It’s these confusing moments that most occupy my reflections as a parent, and none more than the incessantly repeated action.
Parents are now nodding their head, but for non-parents, here’s what I mean. My daughter, Tilly, has started to get really invested in hide-and-seek. Not weird on its face, I know, but Tilly’s version of hide-and-seek is a little strange. She’ll hide in plain sight and loudly tell you to look around the room for her. Once you “find” her, she’ll usually jump out and yell and then hop back into her hiding place and ask you to find her again. Finding her this time means repeating your previous actions exactly, even up to the words you say before she jumps out. I know this sounds farfetched, but I have the phrase “I always check the modem when I can’t find someone” indelibly marked in my memory as proof.
Okay I hear you: my daughter likes to play a weird version of hide-and-seek and has quirky 2-year-old behavior. So—you’re asking—what? What could this possibly have to do with baseball or anything that would interest anyone outside of the most doting grandparent? Well, it’s in the explanation of why she does it that we find our hook. Apparently, repeated games—these sort of maddeningly scripted, exactly replicated games—are common in the development of toddlers, a sort of cognitive checkpoint in human growth.
Now, despite what you may have heard, I am not a brain scientist, so grains of salt all around. But as far as I can tell, the cognitive purpose of this repeated game is a sort of super charged version of object permanence. Object permanence is the funny trait we have as humans wherein we know that an apple does not disappear just because someone tucks it under the table. Or, in the case of infants, that mom or dad doesn’t disappear entirely when they put up their hands and say “peekaboo!” Believe it or not, this insight is actually something learned, not innate, and it’s something that has different levels of complexity. Object permanence, I’m suggesting, isn’t just about knowing that material objects have permanence, but also that social ones do as well.
So when Tilly plays hide-and-seek, she’s repeating the performance in an experimental effort to see how permanently the game exists in the world, testing its repetitive tension: Can I reproduce the exact conditions, and if so for how long? Put this way, I think you might be able to see how baseball comes into the picture, as the game is primarily focused on an extreme attempt to repeat the conditions of play: Every at bat has a fairly limited set of outcomes, even in a per-pitch basis. And especially when we get into recognizable pitches and situational pitching, we come to expect particular outcomes. Left-handers roll over on well-placed changeups; guys being pitched in the zone will usually swing over a wipeout slider; leaving a breaking ball up is a good way to get it crushed. For as weird and mercurial a game as baseball is, these scenarios proliferate in which we already know what should happen, and we expect that outcome to repeat itself.
So when it doesn’t, when a batter misses a fat meatball and hits it just foul or someone lays off the impossible slider to get a rally-starting walk, we get angry or thrilled depending on our particular rooting situation. These are the unexpected moments in baseball, and by their very nature, they’re of course interesting and evoke emotion—they’re special and usually memorable because they change games that really matter to a particular set of teams. But they’re also special because, within the fabric of baseball’s own object permanence, they aren’t ever meant to happen. We know that sliders are strikeout pitches, that hitters hit bad pitches, and that changeups are a quick out for lefties because if we didn’t know that, baseball itself would be a totally random proposition, an unchartable mish mash of outcomes that would frustrate even the most committed fan. So long as we know, know, that, say, Aroldis Chapman is meant to strike out the side, then we can contextualize how unlikely it is when that doesn’t happen.
There were plenty of reasons to dislike trade if you were, as I was, a Red Sox fan. Crisp was a relative unknown, Marte was a prospect stud, and I mean, why couldn’t the Sox just have resigned Johnny Damon? But my Mom found an even better reason to dislike the trade: David Riske’s name. What follows is a brief, reimagined rendition of the conversation that followed.
Mom: I don’t like this at all. They should’ve just resigned Damon. And you can’t use a reliever named Riske. That’s asking for trouble. Ben [extremely early-teensplainy voice]: That’s ridiculous! Riske was good last year! Mom: That’s not in the AL East, though. And still, his name is Riske.
In essence, at a very young age, my mother had warned me about the dangers of Reliever Name Foreshadowing, or, as I will refer to it henceforth, RNF. I’ve thought about RNF sporadically throughout the years, but was reminded of the valuable lessons it offers a few weeks ago, when I got the increasingly rare opportunity to watch most of a Red Sox game with my Mom.
Every night, 25ish Hall of Famers play baseball for us. How aware are we?
Bill James once wrote that, on average, there are approximately 25 future Hall of Fame players in the league in any given season. That number has fluctuated a bit throughout history, of course, and with 30 teams playing now, I’d take the over on that number today. Recently, I was thinking about which of the players from 2016 are going to be in the Hall someday, and I quickly realized that there are a lot fewer locks than I had previously imagined.
By my count, there are only five slam dunk, no doubt, no steroid concerns, could retire and plan a trip to Cooperstown players in the league right now: Albert Pujols, Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, and Miguel Cabrera. You might say David Ortiz or Mike Trout and I wouldn’t disagree; I certainly think both of them will make it. But once it became clear that there are a whole lot less than 25 locks in the league, the next move was obvious: Find a buddy, draft two teams of superstars, put the results in a time capsule, and see (30 years down the line) who picked more Hall of Famers.
Fortunately, Meg Rowley was up for the challenge. Below, you’ll see the results of our draft. We used a simple snake draft method and went through 25 rounds. We figure that most of the players we took in the first 10 rounds will make it; we also imagine that we whiffed entirely on at least one guy. Ultimately though, the process revealed just how difficult it is to project which superstars will and won’t make the Hall of Fame.
Ironically, the ace we're about to talk about is quite possibly best known for being untalked about.
Appreciation is a skill worth practicing. While it’s better directed toward our spouses, children, friends—the parts of our life that actually matter—sometimes it is just easier to aim at baseball and its players. It’s possible now that we’re at Peak Written Baseball Content, with dozens of player profiles written each week by talented, insightful writers and smart, cutting analysts at every possible outlet. As a group of sport enthusiasts, we are in no short supply of words of appreciation directed at the game’s best, worst, and everything in between.
Despite this, sometimes there are players who seem to fall through the cracks for a moment in time. Even true seamheads can’t always focus on each of the 760-plus major-league players. Are you surprised to hear that Arizona’s Jean Segura has 5.0 WARP, only trailing Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy among all National League middle infielders? Does it shock you to see that D.J. LeMahieu has a .416 on-base percentage, a mark that’s third-best in baseball, only topped by Mike Trout and Joey Votto? Even after investing so much time and energy into this baseball season and its players, there are things that shock me and blind spots in my knowledge of the game.
Jose Quintana used to be one of those blind spots for me, and he has been for most of the past four years. He is, by my accounting, the quietest ace in the American League, and perhaps the least-appreciated pitcher in baseball. His skill and performance are undeniable, and currently he is the 12th-best pitcher in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s DRA-based WARP. That surpasses Rick Porcello and Johnny Cueto, Carlos Carrasco and Stephen Strasburg. He’s a pitcher who throws a lot of innings—reaching 200 or more in each of the past three seasons, and poised to surpass that number this year—but by rate stats he’s pretty great too. His DRA, ERA, FIP, and cFIP are all top-25 in baseball among starting pitchers.
To "fix" the postseason requires first deciding which story baseball is fundamentally trying to tell.
The playoffs are broken. They exist to crown a champion of Major League Baseball in a way we find satisfying and enjoyable, but they’re not living up to that relatively simple calling. One needs only to look at the last few years to see that it’s true: the wrong teams have been making the playoffs, and the wrong teams have been winning. And while we don’t yet know how 2016 will turn out, the playoff picture has almost totally resolved itself for all but a half-dozen or so teams, and it’s safe to say we can expect more of the same this October.
The playoffs are broken, but not irredeemably so. Baseball is a game that, to its benefit, is comfortable with rule changes and tweaks in the pursuit of improvement. It’s time for another, to fix the playoffs.
The best Septembers ever, when the best Septembers ever were required.
In this series, we’re looking at the 210 teams that won at least two thirds of the games they played in September and October. I divided them into three groups. In the first installment, I examined Group 1: They Were Gonna Win Anyway. They’re the 87 teams that were leading their league or division at the end of August, or were less than three games behind, and rode a hot September/October to the postseason. I also looked at Group 2: No Cigar, Often Close. That’s the 91 teams that that won two-thirds of their games starting September 1, but didn’t play beyond the regular season’s close. Now we’re at the really fun teams—those that were trailing by three or more games at the end of August but rallied to make the postseason.
Group 3: From the Depths of Hell
If you haven’t seen this video of a collegiate 4x400 relay, you really should, partly because it’s a thrilling race, but also to hear the announcers, one of whom makes a Tom Hamilton home run call seem sedate while the other at points seems to be channeling Fred Willard in Best in Show. So which major-league teams, like the anchor-leg runners, have used a sizzling final lap to come from behind and win their races?
There have been 32 teams that were in second place or lower, three or more games back, at the end of August, but won two-thirds or more of their September/October games to qualify for the postseason. Prior to divisional play, only eight clubs had managed the feat. From 1969-1994, the two-division era, six teams did it. Since 1995, 18 teams have done it. However, of those 18, 14 were within three games of the wild card as of August 31. So there are only 18 teams since 1913 that have trailed a postseason berth by three or more games as of the start of September but got to play into October via a blistering finishing kick. Here they are, ranked by the deficit they overcame in ascending order:
The first All-Star Game was in 1933. Ever since, the Midsummer Classic has provided a convenient, if mathematically inaccurate, way of dividing the baseball season into halves. The first “half” has comprised, over the last 10 years, an average of 90 games. The remaining 72 games of the schedule make up the second “half.” I’ll dispense with the quotation marks here, but keep in mind this is a figurative, not literal, half.
This year, the All-Star Game was a little earlier than average, so the first half was a little shorter than average, with the 30 clubs playing between 87 (Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee) and 91 (Dodgers, Toronto) games, with an average of 89. Through Labor Day, teams had played an average of 48 games in the second half, with an average of 25 games to go.
And wouldn’t you know it, we’re seeing something that we’ve never seen before.