July 15, 2024

Where did baseball’s offense go? Plus, Mets’ turnaround and Blue Jays’ latest trip-up

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We’re gonna get to the bottom of the disappearing offense. Also: notes on the Braves, and the Mets and Blue Jays trend in opposite directions. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal, welcome to The Windup!

Where did baseball’s offense go?

We lead with a story that might be the best baseball journalism I’ve read this year.

For six months, our baseball team has been working on the “missing bats” project. It’s a five-part series (we’ll have one every day this week) going into incredible detail about a fundamental shift: Pitching is drastically better than it was even 10 years ago, and hitters are scrambling to catch up.

In today’s opener, Andy McCullough goes back to the mid-2000s, when PITCHf/x tracking systems were installed in every MLB stadium. The data — spin rate, release points, movement, etc. — quickly became a treasure trove of insights.

Some of the primary characters:

  • Josh Kalk, a math professor from West Virginia who joined the Rays after previously working on — are you ready for this? — “the so-called ‘top quark,’ once described as ‘an ephemeral building block of matter that probably holds clues to some of the ultimate riddles of existence.’”
  • Semiconductor engineer Mike Fast, who worked with the Astros as they were revolutionizing the careers of pitchers like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers Jr. (Fast now works with the Braves).
  • Former big-league pitcher Brian Bannister, who was an early adopter of PITCHf/x and helped his teammate Zack Greinke maximize his arsenal in Kansas City.

The short version of the findings? Offense is down because pitchers have learned to stop “pitching to contact” and aim for the most efficient out: the strikeout. The key to strikeouts? It’s not rocket science (except, apparently, when it is) — throw your best pitch more often.

I’m excited to see where this series goes this week. The game is changing, and has been for nearly two decades. This project will be so helpful in understanding those changes.

Ken’s Notebook: Braves-Yankees musings

Some notes I prepared for Saturday’s Braves-Yankees broadcast on Fox, and updated through Sunday’s games:

Braves at the deadline: A trade for a starting pitcher seems almost inevitable. Spencer Schwellenbach has solidified the fifth spot. AJ Smith-Shawver could return from a left oblique strain by early August. And Ian Anderson, coming off Tommy John surgery, has started a rehabilitation assignment. But Charlie Morton is 40, and the Braves have protected Reynaldo Lopez and Chris Sale by routinely using them on six or more days’ rest. A veteran innings-eater would be a useful addition.

Adam Duvall, Braves OF: A critical player for the Braves as the deadline approaches. If Duvall starts to hit and Michael Harris returns as expected in about a month, the Braves’ needs in the outfield will not be as acute, enabling them to focus more on pitching. For now, the Braves are trying to be patient with Duvall, who did not sign until March 14 and had an abbreviated spring. But in 190 plate appearances, he is batting only .170 with a .546 OPS.

Marcus Stroman, Yankees RHP: When asked what makes Stroman special, Yankees catcher Jose Trevino said, “The things he can do with a baseball are special. The way he manipulates a ball is elite.” Suggest a grip to Stroman, and he’ll say, “I’ve tried this before. I can probably do this.” Trevino said, “You don’t get a lot of guys who have feel like that. It’s fascinating.”

Austin Riley, Braves 3B: It has only been nine days since Riley’s beloved hitting coach, Mike Brumley, died in an auto accident. Riley’s last text from Brumley was after they worked together in Baltimore earlier this month. Riley went 1-for-13 in that series, and Brumley messaged him the next day. The message: “Clear what happened the first part of the year. Go be yourself. Know what you’ve accomplished.” Riley said he screen-shotted the text and hopes to keep it forever.

Ben Rice, Yankees 1B: The Yankees identified him as a target out of Dartmouth in 2021, but waited until the 12th round to grab him, knowing they had better insight into him than most clubs. The Ivy League canceled its baseball season because of COVID in both 2020 and ‘21. Rice and two Harvard players he grew up with, Tommy Seidl and Buddy Mrowka, organized workouts and pickup games at a facility in Northborough, Mass. Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer was living in that area at the time because his son was playing junior hockey. Area scout Matt Hyde also would watch the collegians play. But obviously no data was available, so the Yankees knew they had a hidden scouting secret.

PED suspension latest Toronto trip-up

The disappointment started this offseason when the fabled “Shohei Ohtani flight” turned out to be a farce. Ohtani signed with the Dodgers shortly thereafter, leaving the Blue Jays to pivot on their offseason plans.

It could have ended there. Keith Law’s preseason predictions columns had Toronto finishing ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox (sorry, Keith), and Jim Bowden had a combination of predictions that had Toronto both “under-performing” and finishing with a winning record.

Alas, they are currently 35-42, languishing in last place in the AL East. Alek Manoah is done for the season with an elbow injury, closer Jordan Romano had a setback in his throwing program, Bo Bichette is on the IL and Cavan Biggio is a Dodger.

Now comes the latest blow: Infielder Orelvis Martinez (No. 2 on Law’s Blue Jays prospect rankings, and 57th in the sport) has been suspended for 80 games for a PED violation.

  • Martinez was called up and made his big-league debut on Friday, going 1-for-3. He won’t be eligible to take his fourth at-bat until the final week of the season.
  • The 22-year-old said the positive test was the result of using a fertility drug that he was unaware contained a banned substance.

Bichette is eligible to come off the IL on Tuesday, so shortstop will be covered. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Martinez’s absence probably won’t be all that consequential for the outcome of Toronto’s 2024 season.

‘The Mets!’ (But in a good way)

It was the next-to-last day of May when I compared the Mets to “The Aristocrats.”

They haven’t lost a series since. (Don’t give us credit though; this is Grimace’s doing.) Let’s set the scene:

  • As May flipped to June, the Mets were 24-33. The only two NL teams with worse records? The hapless Rockies and Marlins.
  • But New York is 13-6 this month, leapfrogging the Giants, Reds, Cubs and Pirates, and is just one game out of an NL wild-card spot (the Diamondbacks, Nationals and Padres still stand in the Mets’ way).

Some of the turnaround has come from the younger players like Francisco Álvarez and Mark Vientos. But don’t count out the veterans. Brandon Nimmo (.950 OPS in June including last night’s home run), J.D. Martinez (.974) and Pete Alonso (.864) have been heating up as well, plus Francisco Lindor hit his 13th home run of the year yesterday.

Meanwhile, on the pitching side, the bullpen has been very good, with four relievers posting June ERAs under 2.00 — Sean Reid-Foley (0.00, recently placed on the IL), Dedniel Nuñez (1.04 before allowing two earned runs last night), Danny Young (1.42) and Adrian Houser (1.54).

An NL East title isn’t likely, with the Phillies playing like a machine and the Braves still chock-full of talent. But no fewer than nine NL teams could reasonably claim to have designs on the final two wild-card positions. As recently as the end of May, the Mets were the ninth of those nine.

More NL turnarounds: Sonny Gray was perfect through 6 2/3 yesterday, and the Cardinals — now in the second wild-card position — have the NL’s best record since May 12.

More Mets:

Handshakes and High Fives

Steven Kwan is hitting .390 (and with more power this year). Would you believe that the genesis of his hand-eye coordination came from … pinball

I think Grant Brisbee is the Jim Carrey of baseball writing — famous for the greatness of his silliness, but his serious stuff is so good. As evidence, here’s Grant digging in on old newspaper clippings to inform us that Willie Mays was a star from the very get-go. 

Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring) is back on the IL, and the Yankees are doing a bit of roster juggling. 

Remember when we told you how Cristopher Sánchez was avoiding walks at a record pace? He has now signed a four-year contract extension

Max Scherzer made his first start of the year, coming off the IL to throw five scoreless for the Rangers, as they notched their first three-game sweep of the year over the Royals.

We got our first walk-off pitch clock violation as the Nats lost to the Rockies over the weekend. (I still maintain the pitch clock should be turned off in the ninth inning.)

Houston’s pitching depth woes continue: Jake Bloss was called up from Double-A, and left his debut with a shoulder issue. The Astros still swept the Orioles, though.

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(Photo: Ron Jenkins / MLB Photos / Getty Images)