We’re in the midst of something truly historic in baseball this year. We may be seeing the best crop of young players to come into the league ever. That’s not to say that someone new on the diamond this season is going to become the “best-ever”, but that the incredible volume of great rookies and sophomores collectively may never have been surpassed.
Almost every year, one or two kids come up and have great seasons. Many of them go onto bigger and better; some will find their way to Cooperstown a couple of decades or so down the road. This year however, the list that potentially fit that category is long, and spans at least half the teams in the Majors. It’s so amazing that players like outfielders Bryan Reynolds (with Pittsburgh) and Alex Verdugo (Dodgers) are going almost unnoticed. Reynolds is hitting .322 with 83 runs scored and 16 homers. Verdugo, .294 with a WAR of 3.1 before being shut down with a back injury last month. This week, MLB ranked him as the 10th best “young” (under 25) rookie so far this year. Makes it hard to imagine times like 2004 when Bobby Crosby of Oakland won the Rookie of the Year award with a .239 average and 70 runs scored, or 2009 NL winner Chris Coghlan from the Marlins whose career WAR was 0.2.
In a dismal season so far for Toronto, fans have been able to get excited about their rookie contingent including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. MLB still rank Guerrero as the best rookie, although noting he likely won’t win the Rookie of the Year and suggest his “offensive upside ranks with any prospect in recent memory”, while Bichette is ranked 5th, they point out traling only Alex Rodriguez and rookie classmate Fernando Tatis Jr. of San Diego for best slugging percentage for a rookie shortstop under 22 years old – .592.
In between the two Jays are the aforementioned Tatis (.317 with 22 HR in 83 games), Astros OF Yordan Alvaraez , (.315, 25 HR, 75 RBI in 77 games, plus 48 walks resulting in an OPS an extraordinary 78% better than league average), and Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox (28 HR.) Somehow, Pete Alonso of the Mets, with his NL rookie record 47 homers, comes in only 8th on the MLB list! Fans in cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington all have new faces putting in remarkable performances.
While the ranks of pitchers aren’t being filled with so many budding superstars, we can’t discard the importance of the likes of Chris Paddack of San Diego and Mike Soroka of Atlanta can’t be discarded. Soroka is considered the top rookie pitcher, a 21 year old who’s 14-5 with a 2.70 ERA and 190 innings logged for the Braves so far. His WAR is 5.6.
Compound all these players in with last year’s rookie stars – Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna, Washington’s Juan Soto and Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler and you have a remarkable class of newcomers who are dominating the game after only a few months on the field.
This may lead to problems for the league not too far down the road. The past couple of seasons have already seen a slower market for free agents, with fewer teams bidding and some veterans who were still capable of playing fairly decently (think Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis) missing out entirely by the start of the year. The union is quick to call “collusion”’ savvy owners have pointed out that more and more value is being added by young, low-paid players and too many long-term contracts to veterans have come back to bite them.
The end result of this is that the next labor negotiations after 2021’s season, could be quite nasty and contentious. The union is going to be bitter, young stars are going to want a bigger piece of the pie and veterans are going to be fighting for rules to protect their ground. But that’s in the future.
For now, MLB has a unique opportunity. Never have so many young players on so many teams given their fans cause to celebrate. To root on the home team, buy new jerseys and learn a whole roster full of new names.
Basketball leaped forward in popularity with Michael Jordan; the NHL became popular in sunny Hollywood with Wayne Gretzky on ice and Tiger Woods made golf popular TV viewing for Gen X-ers. It’s been widely noted that baseball has failed to capitalize similarly on the great nature and outstanding performance of Mike Trout If it can’t sell one superstar, perhaps it can with eight or ten.
Job One for Rob Manfred this off-season should be getting together with PR consultants to figure out how to do just that. Because the MLB has a golden egg right now… they need to keep that goose healthy. If baseball can’t skyrocket in public interest by marketing Mike Trout, let’s hope it can with the combined effects of Guerrero, Tatis, Alonso, Bichette, Acuna and Alvaraez. The long-term well-being of the sport may rest on it being able to do so.
First note for today. Congrats to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Number 27 played game #100 of his career Tuesday, and had his 30th multi-hit game to celebrate. As of 100 games, Vlad has 104 hits, including 23 doubles, 15 HR and has driven in 58. Add 40 walks to his .280 average and you find a .353 on base percentage, and a .469 slugging percentage. All told, OPS of .822 and a WAR of 2.2 (actually a 2.5 offensively but a slight negative defensively.) Numbers a veteran would be proud of, let alone a rookie!
As a point of reference, another player who hit the 100 game mark seven years back. Mike Trout. Trout played his 100th game, appropriately enough on July 4, 2012. He had two hits against Cleveland that day, bringing his season average to .343. However, his first 40 games, in 2011, weren’t very remarkable, so all together after 100 games, Trout had 109 hits, with 20 doubles, 3 triples, 15 HR and 52 RBI. He was hitting an even .300, with fewer walks than Vlad, and a .355 on base, .494 slugging and .849 OPS.
A .300 average and .849 OPS top a .280 one with .822 OPS… but not by that much. Point is, Guerrero’s off to a remarkable start not that different than Mike Trout was a few years ago. And now I seem to be in the minority when I argue that Trout isn’t the best player ever.
So, if Vlad can continue to be just a little bit lesser than Trout throughout his career… I think we Jays fans have reason to rejoice! And that’s without even guessing at where Bo Bichette’s numbers will be by his 100th game, probably around May of next year.
A couple of random items before we get back to the final instalments of the Best Ever Blue Jays.
The first is reason for hope for Jays fans. A few of whom have been grumbling about a perceived lack of performance from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Which might be reasonable if viewed through the lens of media hype and the assumption that the majors are no different than the minors. However, the two are utterly different and there is a learning curve for even the best of players coming up. Last night, #27 played in his 49th big league game (and had 3 hits plus and RBI against the Yanks). To put his first two months in context, let’s compare him to another good player through their first 40 games. That other player is Mike Trout, who logged exactly 40 games in 2011, just few enough to keep him under the bar so he could come back and win the Rookie of the Year in 2012 – which he did. Guerrero’s 40th game was back on June 14th, so we’ve backdated his stats to that game:
Most of the stats are self-explanatory, but I point out that the decimal points are missing (software quirk) and the final column is the difference between the player’s OPS and the league average that year. Trout’s N11 is negative 11… 11% below average.
We can see that Guerrero’s numbers are better in every category. Does that mean he’ll continue to outpace Mike Trout and be an even bigger star than the Angel’s OF down the road? Not necessarily. But it does mean it’s time to shut up with the complaints about Vladimir’s hitting.
Give commissioner Rob Manfred one thing. He’s not afraid to tinker with time-honored traditions of the game. Among his many changes have been alterations to the All Star Game.
He’d already eliminated the (relatively recent) incentive of the winning team getting home field advantage in the World Series. This year he’s played around with the voting procedure.
For the first time, there are two separate votes to get to the starting lineups for the AL and NL team – the initial one which has wrapped up now and another round starting tomorrow with fans picking between the top 3 at every position. Fun! (Yawn) Excitement!
If memory serves, last year there was a cap on how many times a fan could vote -35. This year, no such limit has been in place. But a funny thing happened along the way to the All Star ballpark. Fans seemed to give up caring.
Although MLB quickly seemed to edit out the total number of votes received by players, the tallies were out there and they show that so far Cody Bellinger of LA leads with 3.68 million votes. Christian Yelich and Mike Trout are the only others to log 3 million ballots this year. Last year, Jose Altuve led all vote-getters… with 4.85 million. Flip backwards like a bat in time to 2011 and you’ll recall Jose Bautista became the first Blue Jay to lead in votes… with 7.4 million.
I don’t have the time to search out the entire vote results for year, if they are even archived and add them up. But the trend seems clear. Fans can vote more than ever this year. And they are in fact voting less than they have before this decade at least. Methinks paying the players to take part in the rusty Home Run Derby isn’t the way to bring excitement back to the Mid-summer Classic.
Perhaps if fans could vote on who they wanted for MLB Commissioner people would pay attention again.
A game for the ages tonight. It could be one to tell your kids about years down the road, as baseball’s present meets its future. Or at least, that’s the hope. Toronto make their way to southern California to take on the Angels thereby making a chance to see two of the most talked-about players in the game on one field. Vladimir Guerrerro Jr., meet Mike Trout!
Trout is of course, in many people’s opinion, far and away the best player in the game right now. A seven time All Star whom we suspect might have put up better than his rather excellent .307 average and 246 home runs since he first showed up in the Majors in 2011, had he been backed by a slightly better team than his Angels have been most of this decade.
Guerrero, is of course, the Blue Jays blue chip prospect, finally promoted to the Majors last week after being ranked the #1 prospect in the sport for the last two years. He’s played just 3 games thus far and tonight will be the first for him outside the friendly confines of the home crowd in Toronto.
The two seem to have a lot in common. Both are about the same size – 6’2”, around 240 pounds give or take. Both are right-handed. Both wear #27 for their team. And both entered the league young, with lots of hype and attention.
In Trout’s case, he hit “the show” at just 19, mid-season 2011, a mere two years after being drafted. Guerrero just turned 20 (meaning that technically, if he wanted to he could legally have a beer to celebrate after the game at Rogers’ Centre but not on the road!) after a fairly quick ascension through the minor league ranks, culminating in a .381 average, 75 RBI in an injury-shortened 98 games last year between levels of the minors.
So far, Guerrero’s looked fine, but not “superstar”. He’s surprisingly 1-4 in each of his first three games, making for a .250 average. He’s had one double, an important one in the 9th on Friday (his debut) when the score was tied. Brandon Drury homered later to make Guerrero’s hit the winning run. People worried about his defence but so far he’s looked at home at Third Base, making a few smooth grabs and throws and notching 6 assists so far.
Lest Toronto fans worry, should we look back at Trout’s debut almost 8 years ago? He debuted against Seattle, hitting 9th, playing Center field and wearing retro-California Angels gear. He flew out in his first at bat. He ended up going 0-3 in his first game, although like Guerrero in his first game, he hit one right to the wall that was so close to his first homer. That in fact, came 16 days later against Baltimore’s Mark Worrell.
Trout actually looked entirely ordinary that first season. He hit just .220 with a .671 OPS (which was about 11% below league average!) and 5 home runs through the 40 games the Angels ran him out to the field. Hardly the numbers of someone compared to Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. However, by the next season, 2012, his first full one, he hit .326, with 30 homers and 49 stolen bases, and hasn’t looked back to date. This year, in 26 games, he’s hitting .305 but has a phenomenal 28 walks, making for an unearthly .496 on base. He’ll be going up against veteran Clay Bucholz tonight, a pitcher he’s 5 for 10 with one home run vs. in his career.
Guerrero will be facing Griffin Canning, who’ll probably be having some butterflies in his stomach. It’s Canning’s major league debut. He’s a righty, and so far in the very limited sample, all of Vlad’s hits have been off righties, although he’s only had 2 at bats against southpaws.
So watch and enjoy. At our end, we’re hoping for some fireworks from Guerrero’s bat, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’ll be a game to remember… and worth remembering that even someone as good as Mike Trout had a learning curve at one time.
Well, the season is moving along at breakneck speed, so I’ll try to get some more previews in a bit quicker. starting with the AL West…
Houston – anyone actually remember when the Astros were losing over 110 a year and were so unpopular the Nielsen’s showed them having a statistical TV rating of 0? Nah, me neither. Well, not true but it sure seems like more than 6 years ago. The Astros have been the runaway winner in the division for a few years and that should carry right on this year. Great core of team still present and young enough to still get a bit better while old Michael Brantley is a great and cheap free agent acquisition. So too catcher Robinson Chirinos, one of the better-hitting catchers around. Yes, they lost (over-rated) Dallas Keuchel… unless they re-sign the still unsigned pitcher, but Wade Miley is an adequate replacement and they have one of the best pitching prospects in the game, Forrest Whitley bubbling under and maybe being in the rotation by the All Star Game. As long as roberto Osuna can keep his temper with his girlfriend at home, their bullpen is good enough with a rotation featuring Verlander and Cole.
Los Angeles Anaheim – yep, they have the guy many consider the best player in the game, Mike Trout, and now for another dozen seasons. Now they have about 420 million reasons to build a solid team around him, but they’ve yet to do that. The not-so-good just got worse for the Angels, with their second-best outfielder, Justin Upton now out for minimum 2 months after injuring his foot in yesterday’s game. Yes, Albert Pujols was looking like the old Pujols in spring, and Jonathan Lucroy is a good catcher they added, but this is still a rather mediocre beige lineup with one shining star. Two, if we count Shohei Ohtani, who should be able to hit for them by June, but won’t be on the mound until next year. Pitching isn’t terrible… but isn’t very good by any measure. It’ll be a big test for Brad Ausmus, the first new manager there in two decades.
Oakland – the Cinderella team last year with an unexpected 97 wins, but do they get asked to the ball for a second year? Khris Davis is one of baseball’s best power hitters, averaging 44 dingers and over 110 RBI over the past three years and already clipping a trio more longballs this season and opening weekend isn’t over yet! Mike Chapman is the unsung hero, a Gold Glover at third and an .864 OPS last year, his first full season. Ex-Blue Jay Marco Estrada is poised for a comeback and should benefit from not pitching in the bandbox parks of the East as much. Big question will be if former super-stud prospect Jurickson Profar can resurrect a flagging career now that he’s got a regular position and is removed from an unconducive Dallas environment. All in all, the team has a lot of the same pluses as last year but hard to think ’18 wasn’t a bit of a mirage.
Seattle – getting rid of your top starter, your all star closer and a superstar second baseman is hardly a recipe for winning. But it’s the Mariner way this year. Although to be fair they did try to do a bit to balance the scales. Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi, a rare Asian lefty, had been one of Nippon’s best and, based on the prior experiences of the likes of Darvish, Ohtani and their predecessors, should do well on this side of the Pacific but not as well as they did in the other league. Expect him to be a solid, middle-of-rotation guy. Unfortunately he’ll probably be expected to be an instant-ace, given the decline of Felix Hernandez, who according to one magazine preview”still sells tickets” but last year had become one of the worst starting pitchers in the game, statistically. A few years ago, a lineup boasting Edwin Encarnacion, Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon and Jay Bruce would have inspired a lot of fear in opposing pitchers. Nowadays one might think of them more as an ad for the AARP in the making. Just as Profar has a fresh start in Oakland, former-Phils super-prospect JP Crawford is there trying to salvage a career that’s quickly gone downhill.
Texas– I watched this aft’s game against the Cubs, which ended in an 11-10 win , winning run coming in on a wild pitch, and it showed a lot of what Rangers fans can expect this year… home runs, bad fielding and worse pitching. Yet, if new manager Chris Woodward, a great student of the game and hard worker in his playing days with Toronto and seattle , can keep his players motivated and alert, they just might win a few… even without their heart and soul, the recently-retired Adrian Beltre. Asdubral Cabrera has the unenviable job of replacing that future Hall of Famer. Joey Gallo is a challenger for the home run title (being 4th in the majors over the past couple of years) but needs to cut down on bad swings to become an elite hitter. Roughened Odor , as SI notes is hard-headed and doesn’t take instruction well, which isn’t a great way to live up to one’s potential for anything other than starting brawls on the field. Jeff Mathis is a great defensive catcher, but not much of a hitter (although he did notch a home run today on his 36th birthday) , but that may still be an upgrade given the Rangers-trademarked poor pitching staff. Mike Minor’s returned alright but is far from the staff ace he’s billed as and Lance Lynn may be well beyond his prime now. Jason Hammelwas penciled in for the staff but retired during the Cactus League. Jose Leclerc is the new closer and seems to be among the best of those already; last year he had a 1.56 ERA and about 13 strikeouts per 9 innings in his first year at the role. He very quickly could overtake Derek Holland as the best active pitcher to come through the Texas organization.
HOUSTON – 106 – 56
L.A. ANAHEIM- 82 – 80
OAKLAND – 80 – 82
SEATTLE – 79 – 83
TEXAS – 70 – 92
Well, no Shohei Otani in Toronto blue and no surprise. After all, while I’m sure Ross Atkins et al made a pitch to the Japanese phenom, I doubt anyone really expected him to pick the Jays for his North American landing spot. After all, Ohtani, arguably the most in-demand player on this year’s free agent market, had his choice of team to play with. Given the current rules and limits to initial salaries for international free agents such as himself, it’s likely all 30 teams (or at least 29 if MLB’s punishment of the Braves for John Coppolella’s violations prevented them from making an offer) made a pitch for the young pitcher/left-handed DH. It wasn’t realistic to expect he’d opt for Toronto.
After all, the blue Jays had less money to offer than several other teams including the Yankees and Rangers, so if money was going to be a determining factor, Toronto was at a disadvantage. Although all signs pointed to the idea that Shohei was motivated by proving himself here and looking at the long-range rather than by high money in 2018 anyway. Which also would lead him elsewhere.
Toronto could boast of the Rogers Centre and artificial turf which perhaps might remind him a bit of the Sapporo Dome he was used to calling home in Japan, but that’s about it. Like it or not, people growing up in Asia fascinated by America and baseball are probably drawn to New York, the biggest city, home to the biggest names in the game’s history- Ruth, Dimaggio, “Mr. October”. Not to Canada; although neither would they gravitate towards places like San Diego or Tampa either if that’s a consolation.
Or, they are of Otani’s age and probably grew up idolizing Ichiro and watching games from Seattle streamed across the sea. Given that team’s popularity in Japan, and the success Ichiro (and to a lesser extent Hisashi Iwakuma) had there, I fully expected the Puget Sound area to be his preferred site. Right coast, wrong end of it.
Toronto fans shouldn’t feel bad about not signing him. I look at it as a positive. First and foremost, I’m a baseball fan. I love the game and want it to prosper. And while I was disappointed at Toronto’s 2017, it was still enjoyable to watch the playoffs and see players like Jose Altuve go for the glory. I’m excited to see what this kid can do. He may not be Cy Young material, or batting title material, but how cool will it be to see how good a hitter a pitcher can be ? Even if he goes , say 13-9 with a 3.60 ERA and then hits .275 with 15 or so homers, that’s a story. That’s a game-changer, literally! If he can do better than that, for a few years, comparisons to Babe Ruth may not be far off.
And this is good for baseball. Ohtani will bring new interest to the game at home and overseas. Old fans will be more interested and new fans will be made. No less important, he adds a new spark to a relatively moribund franchise. The Angels will demand watching again and may be more competitive after spending this decade without a post-season win so far. This too helps baseball, even Toronto. One can only imagine that it will be much easier for Rogers to sell tickets to games with LA-Anaheim coming in than it was before. Attendance will rise and one can predict that, coupled with Mike Trout there, the Angels will be one of the better draws on the road . All teams benefit from that.
A rising tide lifts all ships. Baseball’s latest high tide just rolled in from Nippon. Welcome to the bigtime, Shohei!
Watching the Blue Jays play their first post-season game since 1993…what better time to look back at the regular season and make my picks for the awards before playoff heroics (or zeroics!) taint our opinions per baseball rules. I for one always rather thought the voting should take place after the playoffs since a spectacular October would certainly add to a players value. Case in point, Madison Bumgardner was not the best pitcher in the NL last season, but after seeing him go through opponents like a hot knife through butter in October makes him seem like perhaps the better pitcher than Clayton Kershaw.
That point made, without further ado, my picks for the American League Awards would be–
MVP: Josh Donaldson (Toronto) when you lead the league in runs scored, runs batted in you’re doing something right. Add in top-5 placings in hits, doubles and homers plus Gold Glove caliber defence at a tough position and it’s hard to argue against him. Most seem to concede that it’s a tossup between him and Mike Trout; though Trout did have a slightly higher OPS and matched Josh’s 41 home runs, it goes to Donaldson because 1)123 RBI runs circles around Trout’s 90. Fish fans say, “yeah, but look at Donaldson’s team” but ignore that Donaldson hit second all year, in front of Bautista and Encarnacion. Put him hitting behind them and he’d have set a Blue Jays team record. 2) finally after two decades, we can turn the old baseball adage around to our advantage- an MVP has to be from a playoff team, or so most would have us believe. We saw Carlos Delgado and Jose Bautista overlooked in the past because the team were middling; this year it’s Trout’s team that failed to live up to potential, ergo “how important can he be?”
Donaldson wins, my runners-up: #2: Mike Trout (LAA), #3: Jose Altuve (Hou), led league in hits and steals and his team to an unexpected playoff berth; #4: Wade Davis (KC), doing whatever was asked of him out of bullpen with second year in a row of ERA at 1 or less; #5: Chris Davis (Bal)- 47 HR, 117 RBI, did all he could to help his Orioles fly back up in the standings.
Cy Young: David Price (Det./Tor.) today’s game might not seem like it, but he’s been the best in the league this year, by a nose. 18-5, league best 2.45 ERA, 225K, only 42 walks. Wins it in a photo-finish by reason of his slightly better ERA than runner-up and exceptional performance down the line for Toronto (9-1, 2.30 after being traded, whereas Keuchel let up a little going 6-2, 3.34 as his Astros faded in last two months)
#2: Dallas Keuchel (Hou), only 20 game winner in AL; #3: Sonny Gray (Oak), numbers slid a bit in second half but still excellent 14-7 for a last place club with 2.73 ERA.
Rookie of Year: a tough call. The best actual position players played only double digit numbers of games, but does that still allow them to trump all-season regulars who played not quite so well? Winner-Roberto Osuna (Tor): OK, a bit of homerism here, but there’s no clear winner so why not Toronto’s closer? He came out of nowhere to win a roster spot barely turned his 20th birthday and by mid-season had taken over the closer’s role that no one else had managed to do adequately for the Jays. 68 games, 20 saves, solid 2.58 ERA helped the team have confidence with a 9th inning lead and have the best record in baseball after July.
#2: Carlos Correa (Hou), certainly the media fave, nothing wrong with his glove or his .279 avg, 22 HR, 68 RBI, 14 for 18 in stolen bases. But missed first two months of year, #3: Delino Deshields Jr. (Tex), .261, 25 stolen bases, 83 runs. Great speed won him the regular CF spot and had him hitting lead-off in a much improved Rangers lineup.
Comeback of the Year: Prince Fielder (Texas). the iron man came back from a weak and injury-shortened season last year to hit .305, 23 HR, 98 RBI and increase his slugging percentage by over a hundred points, hitting a career best 187 hits along the way. #2: Alex Rodriguez, (NY)- maybe an even more surprising comeback but, remembering why he missed all of 2014 makes me squeamish about voting for him for anything.
Manager of Year: yes, Joe Girardi, Ned Yost and Paul Molitor all got way more out of their roster than anyone expected and deserve kudos. But the award comes down to a matchup of the two skips who battled today at Rogers’. Winner- reluctantly, Jeff Banister (Texas). Journeyman Pirate employee with no big league managing experience took over the team that was league’s worst last year, lost his staff ace in first week of spring training and somehow turned them into division champs. Team showed impressive determination in contrast to last year’s. #2: John Gibbons (Tor)- Gibby showed critics wrong in their belief he didn’t deserve a return to the jays bench and had to manage with a bullpen that was terrible at start of year, cajole them into giving their best and figure out a way to use them properly.
As for other Jays and awards, Kevin Pillar should be a shoe-in for an outfield Gold Glove and Jose Bautista and Russell Martin would be decent choices for ones as well. There may not be an award for “break out player of year”, but there should be and Marco Estrada should be it! 13-8, AL fifth-best 3.13 ERA over 181 innings highlighted a year that saw him go from journeyman to star.
I’ll be happy if baseball writers agree with me … but of course, the one player award I’d really like to see go to a Blue Jay this year awaits- World Series MVP!