A year ago today, Francisco Lindor was recalled. Since (roughly) that day, the position has gone from a dead spot to historically great.
Eleven months ago Alcides Escobar was voted into the All-Star game as the AL’s starting shortstop. Escobar is an oft-praised defender with plus speed on a Royals team that was coming off a World Series loss and headed for a World Series win, but he also ended the first half with a modest .699 OPS and finished the season with a .614 OPS that nearly matched his .636 career mark through age 28. Alcides Escobar, All-Star starting shortstop just seemed a little lofty.
Royals fans stuffed the ballot box so much that second baseman Omar Infante and his .555 OPS nearly got voted into the game as well, but in Escobar’s case the story wasn’t so much about an undeserved selection as no other AL shortstops standing out as clearly deserving. In other words, don’t blame Escobar or Royals fans for his being in the starting lineup alongside the biggest stars in the league. None of the AL shortstops had an OPS above .750 at the All-Star break. The chosen backup was light-hitting Jose Iglesias, another glove-first player whose career OPS is .680.
Eleven months later, the AL’s shortstop landscape has changed so dramatically that the position as a whole has a higher collective OPS (.709) than Escobar had at the time of the All-Star break last year (.699) and Escobar has been the worst-hitting shortstop in the entire league. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .359/.405/.527 for the Red Sox. Manny Machado, who shifted from third base to shortstop following J.J. Hardy’s foot injury, is hitting .308/.376/.600 for the Orioles. Francisco Lindor, who made his debut exactly one year ago today, is hitting .304/.360/.450 for the Indians. Carlos Correa, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is hitting .256/.351/.423 for the Astros.
The uncomfortable feeling of hoping your favorite team will save money signing Latin teenagers.
We’re at the point in the season, as you may have heard a few times now, where we can begin to judge who is and who is not a contender for the playoffs. Some teams are in a no-doubt playoff push even in these early June days, and teams like the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals are looking ahead to the trade deadline to see who they can pick up to bolster their runs. Then there are teams like the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, who find themselves in a dog fight, and who can look forward to several months of local columns debating the plusses and minuses of “selling the youngsters” and “adding experience.” But what about the already-also-rans like the Atlanta Braves or the Minnesota Twins? What can they look to in the doldrums of uncompetitive June? Well, July 2nd, of course.
July 2nd marks the date that amateur free agents from outside the United States can officially enter into deals with major-league clubs. It is basically a moment when, somehow leaping the bounds of even our most prestigious wishful prospect thinking, teams sign 16-year-old kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and any number of other (mainly Latin American) countries while the teams’ fans wonder if these kids will be able to help in 2018. It’s an exciting day, marking the start of a new crop of hope in the minor leagues, a kind of second draft to pump excitement into even the most moribund fanbase. It’s fun, basically.
The reality of the day, however, outside of its hopeful pomp, is a bit more complex. Many of the free agents that will “sign” on July 2nd have been under handshake deals for far longer than that. Kevin Maitan, the Venezuelan shortstop who supposedly defends like Andrelton Simmons and hits like Miguel Cabrera and rides a stallion of white gold named Juan de Cortez onto the field, apparently has an unofficial agreement with the Atlanta Braves. This is, of course, illegal, but the deal exists in the odd gray area of plausible deniability and indeterminate rules that exist for Major League Baseball’s international free agents. Indeed, while spending caps introduced to the 2012 signing period have made the international market not quite the Wild West free-for-all it used to be, “July 2nd” can stand in metonymically for the massive business of finding, courting, and underpaying the 16-year-olds who will win you a championship seven years down the line. And this business sees teams bending and breaking the rules as a matter of course, as the cost of playing the game in the first place.
And MLB has been attempting to curb this rule bending, mainly by introducing newer and more exotic rules. Handshake deals and communication with free agents prior to 16 are frowned upon and forbidden, if not always explicitly. Spending caps, tied to draft position, have been levied on each team, and going over that cap carries the penalty of not being able to select any players on the following July 2nd deadline, along with a (probably far more onerous) financial penalty. To give you an idea of how labyrinthine these rules can get, here’s an excerpt from a Ben Badler column from 2014 on a then-new rule change:
Sometimes, a hitter adjusts so quickly that it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s doing, as he’s doing it. Perhaps it’s a new front-foot tap that’s helped him get his timing down on that tough fastball, and he debuts it on a Sunday and sees success with it right away. Perhaps it’s a sudden recognition of a particular pitch, out of a particular arm slot, that allows him to start crushing before anybody really notices how it’s happening. Perhaps. It doesn’t often happen that fast.
Within Mookie Betts' otherworldliness, baseball happened.
An improbable event is amazing not because it happened but because of all the times before when it didn’t. When a penny falls from your wallet and lands in such a way that it’s balanced precisely on its rim, you’re amazed not only at the fact that you had a penny in your wallet in the first place (which is a pretty rare thing, these days) but also because your brain has been jarred from its stupor: Every other time you dropped a penny, from an infinite past eternity on forward to that auspicious present, it fell flat onto one of its sides or another, or, more drearily, bounced away into some grimy crack or crevasse. In any event, it falling onto its rim was entirely unexpected.
Bethancourt livens up a lousy day, the Cubs lose behind Arrieta, and Mookie gets... three homers.
The Tuesday Takeaway James Shields added another chapter to a sadly long story of soul-crushing outings Tuesday—his fifth career game with 10 or more runs allowed, tying him for the most of any pitcher since 1940, as BP author Aaron Gleeman pointed out on Twitter. The first and second innings began by following the same pattern, with Shields getting two quick outs to start each one before falling apart as he let walks and singles pile up. At the end of the second, though, the pattern broke, as Kyle Seager introduced the first piece of power to the game with a three-run homer, and things only went downhill from there.
The Astros strike out a slew to set one record, Fernandez whiffs a bunch to tie a franchise mark, and Jackie Bradley is back to being a regular guy.
The Thursday Takeaway
With the power-packed but whiff-happy Astros and Orioles squaring off this week, strikeouts were sure to be a-plenty at Minute Maid. Suffice it to say that the Astros’ arms held up their end of the bargain.
After Houston struck out 19 Baltimore batters in the opener and 18 more in the middle match, Lance McCullers took it upon himself to bring his team into record territory. The right-hander was effectively wild Thursday,