ATLANTA — Perhaps it’s the hitting background at Sun Trust Park. Or perhaps the Chicago Cubs simply can’t give up their affinity for striking out a lot.
After whiffing just twice in a Monday game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field, the Cubs reverted to their old ways once the series shifted south. They’ve struck out 26 times over the past two games against the Braves, including 11 times in a 4-1 loss on Wednesday.
“When they run out arms throwing 100 mph with a slider, sometimes it’s tough just to hit the ball, just in general,” third baseman Kris Bryant said after the loss. “Today, [Brandon] McCarthy had a great sinker and cutter playing off of that.”
Bryant is about the only Cub who has hit in Atlanta this series. He was 3-for-4 on Wednesday — driving in the Cubs’ lone run — but was left stranded each time he reached base. The Cubs were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. It’s an old tune that gets updated every so often.
“We need to do a better job at the plate,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We had an opportunity to score more runs.”
Getting the leadoff man on base in innings 4-8 but scoring only once is the storyline for this loss — not Maddon pulling starter Tyler Chatwood in a 1-1 game in the sixth despite Chatwood having thrown only 79 pitches. Could Maddon have left Chatwood in the game? Sure. But the lefty/lefty matchup he eventually got on Nick Markakis worked out as the .340 hitter bounced into a double play.
Saving his bullpen is an important narrative for another day as Maddon admitted Chatwood pitched great and said he would have left Chatwood in the game — if the Cubs had any sort of a lead. That won’t happen when the strikeouts pile up as they are right now. Javier Baez, for example, struck out three times Wednesday and hasn’t drawn a walk in more than 130 plate appearances.
“He’s opened it up a bit,” Maddon said of Baez’s hitting mechanics. “That’s what I’m seeing.”
Batting right after Baez, Kyle Schwarber whiffed twice, while the two combined to leave nine men on base.
“Hitting is contagious and I feel like striking out and bad at-bats can be contagious, too,” Bryant said.
Maddon added: “Chasing. Just chasing. Getting out of our zones.”
It’s just a couple of games, but every so often Cubs fans will be reminded they’re watching an offense in transition. Focusing on putting the ball in play hasn’t been part of the players’ DNA in the past; the coaching staff is trying to inject them with that ability as the players mature.
Despite having a solid run differential, the Cubs are third-to-last in getting a runner home from third with less than two outs, and are below league average in getting a runner from second to third with no outs. Ian Happ had that chance after a leadoff double by Addison Russell in the seventh inning on Wednesday, but flied out to short right. At least there was contact. There were plenty of other times when the Cubs fanned with men on base.
“I want us to maintain the good work to this point and not start opening up a little bit,” Maddon said. “That was our issue tonight. We were just out of our zones again in RBI situations. We have to force the pitcher over the plate, find your pitch and move it.”
MLB — Cincinnati Reds risk overpaying to finally land Sonny Gray
The long-rumored trade of Sonny Gray to the Cincinnati Reds came through on Monday, with Gray and minor league reliever Reiver Sanmartin going to Cincinnati, infielder Shed Long going to the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Josh Stowers and a 2019 competitive balance pick (from the Reds) going to the New York Yankees. It’s a puzzling deal for the Reds, some value for the Yankees in moving a player they didn’t want, and I’m not really sure why the Mariners are here unless Jerry Dipoto was bored.
Gray’s tenure in New York was a disaster, but the Reds are hoping that reuniting him with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, who came over from the Brewers and was with Gray at Vanderbilt, will help him rediscover his form.
MLB — Does Sonny Gray trade make Cincinnati Reds better, or just more interesting?
Hey, at least the Cincinnati Reds will be interesting for the first time in five years. I don’t know if they’ll be good, but they’ll be interesting.
The Reds continued their whirlwind offseason, acquiring Sonny Gray from the New York Yankees for second-base prospect Shed Long and a compensation draft pick. As part of the deal, Gray negotiated a three-year, $30.5 million extension with a $12 million club option for 2023, on top of his $7.5 million salary for 2019. The Yankees then flipped Long to the Seattle Mariners for outfield prospect Josh Stowers, Seattle’s second-round pick in 2018.
Gray is coming off a rough season with the Yankees in which he went 11-9 in 23 starts and seven relief appearances, but with a 4.90 ERA. The Reds are obviously banking that Gray’s home/road splits reflected some sort of mental block about pitching in Yankee Stadium:
Home: 59 ⅓ IP, 6.98 ERA, 11 HR, 1.29 SO/BB ratio
Road: 71 IP, 3.17 ERA, 3 HR, 3.55 SO/BB ratio
The differences are so stark, especially in Gray’s strikeout-to-walk ratio, that maybe something unrelated to actual pitching ability did happen. The armchair psychologists are rarely right, but the “Sonny Gray couldn’t handle New York” idea can’t be completely dismissed. While he battled injuries in 2016 when he posted a 5.69 ERA, he was apparently healthy in 2018 and his radar readings were barely off his career norms with an average fastball velocity of 93.8 mph.
The concern about going from New York to Cincinnati, however, is that if Gray was freaked out by the short porch at Yankee Stadium, the Great American Ballpark isn’t exactly going to be more soothing to the soul. Over the past three seasons, according to the “2019 Bill James Handbook,” the Gap has the fourth-highest home run factor in the majors (although Yankee Stadium was highest).
Still, it’s not unreasonable to expect a better season from Gray — it’s just a question if he can be No. 2-quality starter or simply more of a back-end guy. To be fair, the Reds need back-end guys after allowing the most runs in the National League in 2018.
Coming off a 67-95 season — their fifth consecutive losing season — the Reds are determined to field a more competitive ballclub in 2019. Besides Gray, they’ve added five other players:
Tanner Roark: 9-15, 4.34 ERA, 180 ⅓ IP, 3.0 WAR (Nationals)
Alex Wood: 9-7, 3.68 ERA, 151 ⅔ IP, 1.3 WAR (Dodgers)
Yasiel Puig: .267/.327/.494, 23 HR in 405 AB, 2.7 WAR (Dodgers)
Matt Kemp: .290/.338/.481, 21 HR in 462 AB, 1.1 WAR (Dodgers)
Kyle Farmer: .288/.333/.451 at Triple-A Oklahoma City (Dodgers)
In the process, the Reds managed to dump Homer Bailey’s contract, but also traded away two very good prospects in Long and shortstop Jeter Downs. While Long and Downs are intriguing players, neither is a guaranteed star and Downs in particular is a long ways from the majors after playing in the Midwest League in 2018. Long, who hit .261/.353/.412 at Double-A Pensacola, is closer to the majors, but also likely blocked at the position in the future if Nick Senzel — a top-10 overall prospect in the game — takes over from Scooter Gennett at the keystone in 2020.
Still, the trades are interesting because it’s basically all-in for a longshot attempt at contending in 2019. While the Reds signed Gray to the extension, Roark, Puig and Kemp are all free agents after 2019 and Wood is under control only through 2020. Considering the Reds finished 28.5 games out of first place, pushing this team to playoff status in a tough division feels unlikely.
Because of that, the moves have been met with a fair amount of criticism, particularly if Gray is viewed as declining goods rather than a potential rebound candidate. On the other hand, the critics can’t have it both ways: You can’t blast teams for not trying win and then blast them for trying to build a better team. As a small-market franchise, the Reds aren’t in position to go out and sign Bryce Harper or Patrick Corbin, so arguably their only bet is to improve around the margins by bringing in some veteran contracts that other teams are willing to discard. Otherwise, it would be more of the same and preaching patience. (We also shouldn’t completely dismiss the idea of the Reds signing a big free agent, given that they once gave Bailey a $105 million extension and Joey Votto a $217 million extension.)
I don’t think the Reds are better than the Brewers, Cubs or Cardinals in the NL Central, but I also don’t think they destroyed the future of the franchise here. They still have Senzel and Taylor Trammell and Jonathan India and Hunter Greene in their system. In fact, Dick Williams, president of baseball operations, said the Reds aren’t done after this deal. That could mean adding a center fielder rather forcing Puig or Scott Schebler to play there — A.J. Pollock is a perfect fit — or maybe even trading one of those top prospects for Corey Kluber or another top-tier starter.
The Reds still need a lot to go right to contend in 2019. They need Gray and Roark to pitch better than they did last season, and Luis Castillo to break out in the rotation, and Joey Votto to re-discover his power stroke, and Jesse Winker to play a full season with a .405 OBP, and Amir Garrett to emerge as a dominant lefty in the pen and Puig not to get bored away from the L.A. limelight.
At least it will be fun to watch all this unfold. Now, go out and get Pollock and Kluber.
2019 Hall of Fame ballot — who did our voters pick?
The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the Baseball Writers’ Association of America election results Tuesday. Based on ballots that have been made public, Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay and Edgar Martinez appear likely to earn induction.
The ballots of nine voters from ESPN are listed below, with a breakdown of whom they voted for and some short thoughts on their decisions. Candidates need 75 percent of the total vote to be elected into the Hall.
Voted for (9): Roy Halladay, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker
I didn’t vote for Walker last year and did this year. I had a hard time coming to that decision because the home/road splits bothered me a lot about his time in Colorado. But Walker wouldn’t be the first guy in the Hall who hit better at home than he hit on the road. Who am I to say I know for sure who saw the ball better in his home ballpark and who didn’t? At that time, a lot of people were hitting well at Coors Field.
Voted for (6): Roy Halladay, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mariano Rivera, Omar Vizquel
I don’t know if voting for the late Roy Halladay in his first year of eligibility was a “hard choice” as much as it was an eye-opening exercise. Because, well, with “only” 203 career wins, the big right-hander did not pass the eye test immediately. But a deeper dive? Yeah, that did it. Especially if you value a guy — sans a hint of performance-enhancing drugs — being dominant at his position in his era. Halladay may have had flashier contemporaries, but the eight-time All-Star won a Cy Young in each league and had seven top-five Cy Young finishes overall, as well as a pair of top-nine MVP finishes. And those came late in his brilliant 16-year career. Tough call? Halladay’s dominance made it easy.
Voted for (10): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker
There were several tough decisions, all created by the problem with cutting down to 10, because there’s more than 10 guys on the ballot who belong. Probably the most controversial thing I considered was dropping Mariano Rivera — he’s a slam-dunk Hall of Famer who didn’t need my vote to get in, and I would rather have guaranteed that guys like Sosa, Sheffield and Andruw Jones were on the ballot in the years to come. Because of the rule of 10, any vote for someone hurts everyone you don’t vote for, risking their elimination. But I also didn’t want to deal with the inevitable “You didn’t vote for Mo!” hysteria, since that’s what people would have gotten hung up on, not the continuing problem of limiting voters’ ballots to 10 names.
Voted for (10): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Larry Walker
As always, my biggest challenge was ballot management. I had a hard time leaving off several players, but the hardest was Todd Helton. He was a .300/.400/.500 guy who finished with a career OPS of .953. He won three Gold Gloves. And former Rockies manager Buddy Bell once told me that Helton “understands the competition of the game” as well as anyone.
Voted for (10): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Andruw Jones, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, Larry Walker
Keith Law wrote about voting for the Hall of Fame for the first time for ESPN+. Here’s an excerpt from that column:
My last spot came down primarily to three names: Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Todd Helton. Ramirez had the highest pure WAR total, but unlike every player on my ballot, actually tested positive twice, once for a masking agent and once for testosterone. Sheffield was a far better hitter than Helton and was one of the worst defensive players in history by any available metric, grading out poorly wherever he played. If a player’s bat is clearly Hall-worthy — Sheffield is tied for 25th all time in adjusted batting runs — should he go into the Hall regardless of his defensive ineptitude? I believe the Hall should include the best players, even those who were elite in one significant way but flawed in a smaller one.
Voted for (9): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker
Not voting for Fred McGriff in his final year on the ballot was my toughest decision. It was tempting, as I selected nine candidates and had an opening at No. 10 and do appreciate that McGriff is a dignified figure who was never associated with PEDs while competing in the steroid era. But I see McGriff the way I see Jeff Kent and Omar Vizquel — as very distinguished players who are just a notch below the Hall of Fame standard. And though I’ve often voted for the maximum 10 candidates, you’re not charged to vote for the best 10 on the ballot. You’re charged to vote for those players you believe are worthy of Cooperstown, and this year I saw nine.
Voted for (8): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera, Sammy Sosa
Listen, I know Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez are the most unpopular check marks on my ballot. (Along with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.) I get it. But until being caught cheating — which Ramirez was twice — makes you ineligible for induction, I am basing my picks solely on the numbers. In Ramirez’s case, you cannot argue with the numbers. His comparables include names like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Jimmie Foxx. Think what you want about Sosa the person — and I covered him for six seasons, so I have my own thoughts — but for a stretch that lasted nearly a decade, his numbers were silly or, more accurately, worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Voted for (10): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Omar Vizquel, Larry Walker
Enrique Rojas wrote about his first time voting for the Hall of Fame for ESPN Deportes. Here’s an excerpt from that column:
When Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame candidacy is discussed, journalists and fans alike use Ozzie Smith as a comparison, which is not really fair. Did you know that there are 24 players in Cooperstown who spent the bulk of their careers as shortstops and not all of them defended like Smith or hit like Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr.? Have you read about Dave Bancroft, Joe Tinker, Rabbit Maranville and Travis Jackson? Well, they are all shortstops who are in Cooperstown.
Voted for (8): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Omar Vizquel
Who is a bona fide HOF starting pitcher? I harken back to Jim Kaat’s answer when he was asked if he belonged in Cooperstown. Jim said he felt he rather belonged in the Hall of the Very Good. Using that measure leads me to differentiate between a Roy Halladay and a Mike Mussina.
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