The Wednesday Takeaway:
Close your eyes and imagine walking over to the bookshelf behind you to grab a hefty, hardcover black book titled Baseball’s Official Unofficial Handbook. Trust me, it’s there. Now, open it up, skip through Rob Manfred’s "Why Baseball Is Bad" essay, past the 15 blank pages that are simply called “Baseball’s Unwritten Rules,” and after an in-depth read on “Adrian Beltre: Baseball’s Hero” you’ll find a chapter labeled “The Universal Rules.”
What follows are the rules which every baseball player (save for just a few exceptions) must follow, not quite the "coach must stay in the coach’s box" kind, but the "5-foot-6 sluggers shouldn’t exist" variety. Following each rule, you’ll find a section dedicated to notable players who break the rules, because these guys are special—if you can bypass a universal rule, it’s for good reason. With that in mind, let’s look at one of the most popular players in this imaginary chapter, Rich Hill:
Rule: Thou May Not Succeed as a Starter with Two Pitches
Key Exception: Rich Hill. You probably expected a power arm with a Chapman-esque fastball and a curve resembling Kershaw’s Public Enemy No. 1 to be the leading man in this section. Instead, you got a pitcher who doesn’t even average 90 mph with his heater. This is exception inception, if you will. But back to the point at hand. Hill’s a two-pitch pitcher in the truest sense of the word, working with a fastball and curveball combination which has managed to shut down hitters for the better part of the last two seasons. While his fastball is impressive enough to get its own paragraph, this is the curveball’s time to shine.
By all measures, Hill’s curveball is otherworldly: it ranks among the league’s best in spin rate, as well as horizontal and vertical movement. On a less quantifiable level, Hill’s a master in making almost imperceptible tweaks to his grip and delivery which allow that one pitch to expand into myriad offerings, each just different enough to throw the hitter for a loop time and again. His base is a single elite curveball, but incredible body control allows for five or more different and elite curveballs.
Rule: Thou May Not Become a Strikeout Pitcher with a sub-90 mph Fastball
Key Exception: Rich Hill. In 2017, just 11 pitchers have a slower average fastball than Hill. Only three have a K/9 above 7, and none of that trio eclipses 8. This season, Rich Hill is striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings, the fifth best rate in baseball. How does he do it? How does that sluggish fastball hold the second best whiff rate in the game at 32.83%? There isn’t an easy answer, and, in all honesty, it defies any sense of logic.
To try and understand the dominance, we have to look at his curveball—the fastball plays perfectly off his breaker, with the two pitches looking nearly identical until the last possible moment. In addition, the high rate of curveballs makes that heater look that much faster, especially when it’s thrown up in the zone as Hill is so apt to do. To boot, the four-seamer boasts impressive spin rate and run, and Hill pulls the curveball trick of using subtle manipulations to give rise to a variety of different fastballs.
Rule: Thou May Not Leave Baseball at 30-Plus Years Old and Return with Improved Results
Key Exception: Rich Hill. “Hill Becomes 10th Duck Signed in 2015” is a real headline on the official Long Island Ducks website. The Independent League club took a shot in the dark and plucked the 35-year-old southpaw Hill out of the bargain bin, threw him into their sparsely populated stadium, and simply hoped that the allure of a former big leaguer would draw more fans to the ballpark. For Hill, it looked like the tail end of a disappointing career.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, Hill would make just two starts before departing from the team to sign with the Red Sox, a team that thrust him into the majors soon afterward and watched him record a 1.55 ERA in four starts. The next season, he had a 2.12 ERA in 20 starts. This season, a 3.32 ERA in 19 starts. Rich Hill left professional baseball as a journeyman reliever. He returned as an ace.
Rule: Thou May Not Throw a No-Hitter Over Nine Innings, Allow Zero Runs, and End Up With a Loss
Key Exception: Rich Hill. Through eight innings, Hill was putting together an outing for the ages—he had a perfect game, with just one inning and plenty of pitches to go. The defense was doing everything they could to keep it going, too: Adrian Gonzalez made a hit-saving catch on a bunt in the fourth inning, and Chase Utley laid out to make a spectacular, full-extension catch to snatch a line drive in the eighth.
Unfortunately, the bats couldn’t support Hill in the same way—through those same eight innings, they were unable to push a single run across. In the ninth inning, the defense wavered: Logan Forsythe booted a ground ball, ending the perfect game but keeping the no-hitter intact.
But Hill stayed strong, retired the next two batters in the ninth, and finished the nine innings with a no-hitter. However, the game was far from over; the score remained tied at zero, and Hill came out for the 10th inning, still under 100 pitches. To the surprise of no one, the 37-year-old was worn down from the high-pressure night, and two of his first three pitches to Josh Harrison missed the zone. Hill then found his control, but perhaps he wishes he hadn’t—an 88 mph fastball was ripped down the left field line, just barely making it into the seats for a crushing walk-off home run. Rich Hill walked off the field with a loss to his name, as the Pirates mobbed Harrison at the plate.
Baseball isn’t fair, a saying that suits Hill in more ways than one. Last night, that reality brutally stung—what should have been the night of his life, a game written down in history books, ended with Hill being labeled a failure in the box score. But in every other way, Hill should wear the "baseball isn’t fair" tag proudly. It hurts, but it’s fitting that a career born out of the strangest circumstances and sustained in unsustainable ways would have a crescendo in the most unique way imaginable. And I say crescendo instead of peak because, if we’ve learned anything from this lefty, he’s far from done.
Everything else seems awfully insignificant compared to Hill’s evening, but baseball never stops, and neither will we. Let’s start in Detroit, where Gary Sanchez reminded us that offense does, in fact, exist, and so does his affinity for August greatness. The player who burst onto the scene last year with a historic home run pace that began in August is doing it again a year later, as he now has 12 home runs in his last 25 games. While this blast wasn’t quite as impressive as Tuesday’s 493-footer, Sanchez is establishing himself as baseball’s best-hitting catcher. He’s played 147 career games, and has 46 home runs over that span with a 145 wRC+. The Kraken has been released.
Let’s talk about what Zach Britton’s done over his last 60 saves. The Orioles’ closer capped off an elite 2015, showing that the previous season’s transformation from bad starter to high-end closer was no fluke. Britton then had one of the best seasons from a relief pitcher of all time, allowing just seven runs over 67 innings and garnering Cy Young votes and a fourth-place CYA finish in the process.
Next up, he sat in the bullpen while his team blew the Wild Card game. Next up, he started 2017 just as successfully as he finished 2016, and after missing a couple months with a forearm strain, has gutted out a couple solid months despite still being dogged by the injury.
Oh, and during that time, Britton didn’t blow a single save, good for an AL record. Unfortunately, Britton hasn’t quite been himself since being injured, and it resulted in his first blown save since 2015 on Wednesday night. Britton entered the ninth inning with a two-run lead, then proceeded to give the advantage back over a third of an inning before being lifted.
Rebuilding isn’t quite as easy as the Cubs made it seem, and the Phillies have learned that the hard way. Thus far in the effort, it’s seemed like Philadelphia has been on a "one step forward, one step back" schedule—they’ve shown the ability to develop exciting young talent over the past few seasons, but with the breakout of one player has come the regression of another. It’s been a rollercoaster of a career for young major leaguers like Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, and Aaron Altherr, and even for prospects like Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, and J.P. Crawford
Each made progress to warrant excitement, but mishaps and injuries stifled some of that buzz soon after. But that’s to be expected with young talent, and teams just have to hope the performances eventually stabilize. Although 2017 has been an awfully disappointing for the Phillies, there are signs that things are finally coming together for good. Nola is pitching like an ace, Crawford is rebuilding his prospect stock and hitting in Triple-A, and Williams and Hoskins are looking like budding stars. When that youth is all playing well at the same time, as it’s increasingly doing as this season progresses, the results can be impressive.
Philadelphia did just that on Wednesday, piecing together an impressive 8-0 blowout of the Marlins on the back of Mark Leiter’s seven-inning masterpiece. Taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowing just one hit all night, Leiter also struck out five and walked just two.
On offense, Hoskins got it done yet again, doubling and hitting his seventh home run in 14 career games. Nick Williams went 2-for-3 for good measure, and the 46-78 Phillies showed there just may be a bright future down the road.
What a difference a year makes. One year and 10 days ago, Luke Weaver was called upon by the Cardinals to make his big-league debut against the Cubs. Weaver had made just one start in Triple-A, but carried a 1.40 ERA in Double-A and showed solid polish with his fastball-changeup combination. His curveball lagged well behind as a third pitch, so relying on the heater was paramount to Weaver’s success as a starter. Unfortunately, leaning on his four-seamer wasn’t so successful in his first outing in the MLB, and a lack of command was in large part why:
Now flash forward to Wednesday evening against the Padres, and feast your eyes on how Weaver, a year older and wiser, just turned in the best start of his young career:
Fastball command, fastball command, fastball command. Weaver wasn’t perfect in this one, but he caught the edge of the strike zone more often than not and, despite a lack of whiffs, struck out 10 over seven innings on a whopping 17 called strikes on the fastball. If Weaver can continue to spot the fastball on the fringes of the zone and go low with the changeup as an out-pitch, he might turn out to be a heck of a starter for the Cardinals.
While the second walk-off home run of the night wasn’t nearly as noteworthy as the first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the wildest comeback of the night. Down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Royals faced Rockies (and former Royals) closer Greg Holland, who has struggled mightily of late after a great first half. Down to their final out, Kansas City sent Eric Hosmer to the plate with runners on first and second, and … boom:
Defensive Play of the Day
I mean, come on. Hill’s perfect game might have eventually been broken up, but check out the 38-year-old Utley going full extension and gaining every possible inch to stop this screaming line drive in its path and keep the perfecto going.
What to Watch Thursday
Thursday probably won’t be quite as entertaining as Wednesday’s games proved to be, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be lacking in fun baseball. Robbie Ray (3.11 ERA) will return from a terrifying injury sustained by a comebacker to the head on July 28, and he’ll look to shut down the Mets at 12:10 pm ET.
Later in the day, Chris Sale (2.62 ERA) will match up against the defending AL pennant winners in Cleveland, looking to surpass opposing ace Corey Kluber’s 12 strikeouts from Wednesday. It’ll also be worth catching the best pitching matchup of the evening at 8:10 pm ET, when Dallas Keuchel (2.58 ERA) battles Stephen Strasburg (3.24 ERA) in Houston.