SoSH Weekly Baseball Notebook: October 3, 2016

While impact rookies, lackadaisical runners, and farm animals on the loose require their own articles, lots of things happen in baseball every week. SoSH Baseball typically doles out expert analyses, but we also try to cover the joy of baseball – the rules, the terms, the strange, the historic, and the just plain weird. Dave McCullough has no GMs on speed dial or anonymous quotes, but he does have a love for the old-timey baseball notes column.

Start Up The Middle

Even in this, The Year of the Second Baseman, it would be criminal to overlook the sheer number of talented, young shortstops popping up all over the Major League Baseball landscape. 2016 saw the record for most shortstops with more than 20 home runs obliterated: 12 players topped the mark this season, besting the previous high-water mark of eight in 2007. On this list is just one repeater – Troy Tulowitzki – who was just getting started in ‘07 and now, nearly a decade later, is the elder statesman at the position.

Further, while Asdrubal Cabrera and Danny Espinoza also qualify as grizzled veterans, the rest of the names on the list are up-and-comers with many years of hearty production and club control remaining. Pacing the field is the Los Angeles Dodgers likely Rookie of the Year winner and MVP candidate Corey Seager, who has walloped 26 dingers on the year. Fellow rookie,Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies, has one more than that – and his season ended in late July because of a thumb injury.  Oakland’s Marcus Semien has tied Story at 27 in this, his fourth MLB season.

Tampa Bay’s Brad Miller paces the group, having smashed 30 for the year. His fellow AL East competitors – Boston’s Xander Bogaerts and New York’s Didi Gregorius – also topped 20 this season. Meanwhile, in the National League, Freddy Galvis of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Addison Russell of the Chicago Cubs have also topped the 20-dinger plateau. Perhaps the brightest future star among all of these excellent players, Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, also slugged more than 20 over the outfield fence.

Teams search high and low for players with the skills to play shortstop: the most important defensive position on the diamond requires quickness, a strong arm, and excellent footwork, as well as a modicum of baseball instincts and awareness. Old-time baseball emphasized the player’s glove over his bat, and the exemplars of the position included such light-hitting defensive wizards as Mark Belanger (career line: .228/.300/.280) and Rabbit Maranville (.258/.318/.340). Shortstops with power were rare; while Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez represented the position with valor, they were seen as the exceptions to the rule: shortstops were fielders first, and power hitters infrequently.

But with 12 of the 30 “regulars” at the position blasting more than 20 homers in a season, the qualifications have most certainly changed. While defense remains a priority, the ability to put the ball over the fence is also now an attribute of many shortstops. Additionally, we may be entering a “golden age” for the position, given the age and ability of so many on the record-setting list: Bogaerts, Correa, Russell, Seager, Story, and Francisco Lindor are all under the age of 25, and presumably improving.

Relieving the Pressure

Playoff baseball is pressure packed, and no innings are fraught with more tension than those after the 7th-inning stretch in a close game. Teams with a reliable bullpen are deserved favorites while clubs with shaky relievers have fans and managers reaching for the antacids. 538.com recently ranked the bullpen management skills and effectiveness of MLB’s dugout bosses since the year 2000. Unsurprisingly, former Yankees skipper Joe Torre finished at the head of the class. Of course, Torre – and fellow top-5 finisher Joe Girardi – had the benefit of baseball’s most decorated and successful closer, Mariano Rivera. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma here: Was Torre great because of Rivera or was Rivera’s talent perfectly deployed by Torre? Setting that aside, the point is one of baseball’s winningest managers also measures out as one of the best at handling a bullpen.

It may surprise some casual fans to see Tony La Russa’s name among the worst bullpen managers, given the way his usage patterns are copied by so many modern managers. However, it is La Russa’s strict adherence to handedness and frequent, short use – resulting in appearances everyday, codified roles, and fatigue – that leads so many bullpens to ruin over the long season. La Russa was loathe to use his closer outside the 9th inning most of the time; Torre would routinely summon the Sandman in the 8th to snuff out rallies, and the life out of opponents. La Russa’s prominent reputation with respect to the bullpen was built on the brilliance of Dennis Eckersley as his closer – a Hall of Famer – so it’s not like Torre rode Rivera to the top of the list while La Russa made do with Doug Jones or Bob Wickman or Jeanmar Gomez.

Pertinent to this year’s postseason is the appearance of the Washington Nationals ruiner of pitchers, Dusty Baker. The veteran skipper has long had the reputation of being a below-average handler of the bullpen: Will that be a factor in the NLDS? He has always followed the La Russa template for bullpen management, and he has talented – but not Hall of Fame level talent – just beyond the outfield wall in Washington, with Mark Melancon handling his 9th innings. Meanwhile, Boston fans have lamented possible Manager of the Year John Farrell’s questionable bullpen decisions all season. Then again, these are the same fans who saw Farrell manage his bullpen conventionally in the regular season during 2013 and then dramatically improve during the 2013 postseason, resulting in a World Series title. Farrell is blessed with a statistically dominant closer, and potential Hall of Fame candidate Craig Kimbrel in his bullpen. Will Farrell – and Baker – more closely emulate La Russa or Torre this postseason?

The Week In Tweeting

One of these teams is not like the others:

Speaking of Joe Torre, he used to be a very good hitter (and a decent catcher / third baseman) in the big leagues, too. However, even very good players have very bad days at the office, as the Houston Astros rookie Yulieski Gurriel found out:

More Yankees, more shortstops, more future and potential Hall of Famers, and more Carlos Correa:

The National League Cy Young race really got no easier to predict this week, and it is because of stuff like this that makes it so difficult to judge:

The Rangers bullpen tied a record held by the National League champion, 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers:

The dangers of a once-a-week column is that some things end up being sorta old. But since the AL MVP race is somehow a contest, this factoid just needs you to note the date:

I dunno about you, but this adds to Ichiro Suzuki’s Hall of Fame resume:

Adrian Beltre is a future Hall of Famer whether he’s playing third, hitting, or positioning the outfield defense on his day off:

Hunter Pence is one of baseball’s most entertaining individuals and his sense of style is as unique as his personality:

Speaking of unique individuals:

The GIFs and Videos Of The Week

Jose Fernandez’s untimely death left the baseball world in shock, and mourning this week. There is no better tribute to the power of baseball, and Fernandez’s loss, than his Miami Marlins teammate Dee Gordon’s homer:

Rest in peace, Jose. You will be missed.

Andrelton Simmons is ineligible for the Defense Play of the Week award, else we would never see anyone else’s highlights. But some of his exploits just cannot be ignored:

Haruki Nishikawa of Nippon did his best to earn recognition:

But the winner – and a nominee for ‘Heads Up Play of the Year’ – is this brilliant application of fundamental lessons in playing catcher from Kansas City’s Santiago Perez. The Royals backstop plays this perfectly, hustling into position to make the play, and then flawlessly remembering his Little League lessons about how to execute the rundown:

The phrase “intentional walk attempt” is another way of saying, “oh my god, look at that” in pity and wonder:

Aroldis Chapman’s fastball is a life-threatening thermometer reading of 104:

Finally, Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals tried, but he fell flat on his face:

News, Notes, and Nuggets of Information

  • Vin Scully scarred me for life. I was ten-years-old in 1986 – up way past my bedtime – when a little roller down the line at first… yeah. So while I associated his voice with baseball, it was tinged with the bittersweet pain of having my childhood dreams of a World Series crushed by one of the most iconic and memorable calls by a broadcaster ever. Scully will be missed, and the Dodgers facebook page has all you could ever want to know about baseball’s living legend. And while I’ll never quite get over Buckner, I’ll also never, ever forget Scully’s call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch hit home run in 1988.
  • Hunter Renfroe of the San Diego Padres made his major league debut in a most unusual way this week: an intentional walk in his first plate appearance.
  • Professional baseball’s most intriguing player is Shohei Otani, the 22 year old right handed pitcher and right fielder playing for Nippon. He’s posted a 10-4 record with 174 strikeouts in 140 innings and an ERA of 1.86. He’s also slashed .322/.416/.588, with 22 homers and 18 doubles in 386 plate appearances.
  • The reigning Korean Baseball MVP is ex-major leaguer Eric Thames, and he made news this week by getting himself suspended for 9 games, including playoff games, for a DUI.
  • The knuckleball is such an oddity that someone, somewhere is writing about how weird it is, and how major league teams have trouble accepting it.
  • Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles has been so good that he’s getting consideration for the AL Cy Young award. He’s given up only an absurd 4 earned runs this season in relief.
  • Finally, congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, who have set the major league record for fewest sacrifice bunts in a season with eight, breaking the mark held by the 2005 Texas Rangers.
  • There are 137 days until Spring Training, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

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