By Paul Sullivan
From Chicago Tribune
Seven-inning games in doubleheaders. Ghost runners in extra innings. Pitchers checked for illegal substances coming off the mound. Your favorite players on the injured list with a hamstring, calf or oblique injury.
Well, maybe that last one isn’t true, though “abundance of caution” is the M.O. when it comes to any sort of physical pain or mental anguish.
Either way, baseball finds itself in an altered state at the midway mark of a pivotal season that could affect its short- and long-term future. Halfway through the 2021 season, which will be more than twice as long as the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, we’re seeing more injuries, lower batting averages, fewer starters lasting six innings, increased strikeouts and a record number of no-hitters.
All in all, a combo platter of yuck.
“It’s just a game that sometimes is unwatchable,” Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “You see guys you talk to and they don’t even like watching games because there is nothing that goes on in them.”
“Seinfeld” was a show about nothing that will last forever in reruns. But a game with nothing happening is a death knell in an age of short attention spans. Now it’s up to MLB and the players union to figure out a way to keep the game alive.
Baseball responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with necessary changes to try to avoid the virus’ spread. The seven-inning games in doubleheaders and extra-innings rules were applauded. Though most teams have reached the 85 percent threshold of fully vaccinated, tier-one employees this season, it’s hard to imagine MLB returning to the old norms soon.
Less is more. Commissioner Rob Manfred and the players decided that baseball fans have spoken, and what baseball fans want to see is less baseball.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of pitchers using illegal substances that go by the generic term “sticky stuff” caused MLB to insert in-season rules mandating umpire checks during games. It led to early confrontations with pitchers unbuckling their pants on the field but seems to have done what Manfred set out to do.
The league batting average was .232 with a 24.4 percent strikeout rate in April, .239 with a 24 percent strikeout rate in May and .240 with a 23.8 percent strikeout rate in June, according to FanGraphs. How much of that is because of summer weather and how much is because of the absence of the sticky stuff is up to the experts to decide.
Either way, baseball is at another crossroads in its never-ending attempt to deal with players looking for any edge to win—and make tens of millions of dollars along the way.
The Fab Five
There are many big names in baseball, but we head into Tuesday’s All-Star Game with only five current, bona fide superstars: Los Angeles Angels pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani, New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, Angels center fielder Mike Trout, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Apologies to Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Max Scherzer and all the other nine-figure stars. You’re still great but part of baseball’s recent past, not its post-pandemic future.
Unfortunately for Fox Sports, which will televise the All-Star Game, only three of the five superstars will be participating: Trout is on the IL with a calf strain and deGrom opted out to save his arm for the second half.
That leaves it up to Ohtani, Tatís and Guerrero to put on the kind of performance that leaves one speechless, either in the game or Home Run Derby, in which Ohtani is set to compete.
With 33 home runs entering Saturday, Ohtani is chasing the single-season record of 73 set by Barry Bonds in 2001 while also dealing on the mound, making him the first great two-way star since Babe Ruth.
But in essence he really is chasing Roger Maris’s old home run mark of 61 set in 1961. The top-six totals on the list are held by three players—Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—whose feats have been rendered illegitimate by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which has refused to elect any into the Hall of Fame because of their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
They still remain in the record books without an asterisk, so technically their numbers are legit. But if Ohtani can pass Maris, many will consider him the true single-season home run king. And if he can win a Cy Young Award as well, it might be remembered as the greatest season in major league history.
DeGrom also is on the path to immortality with a 1.08 ERA, which would eclipse the 1.12 ERA former St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson recorded in 1968, before the mound was lowered to increase offense. Gibson ranks 11th on the all-time single-season ERA list after MLB’s decision to certify the Negro Leagues as a major league.
The current record belongs to Negro League pitcher Eugene Bremer, who posted an 0.71 ERA in 1937 with the Cincinnati Tigers. But Bremer made only six appearances, including five starts, and threw only 50 2/3 innings. In comparison, Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel had a 0.57 ERA through Friday, throwing 31 2/3 innings. Gibson’s 1.12 ERA over 304 2/3 innings in 1968 remains the modern standard deGrom should be shooting for, even if it’s not the record.
Guererro, 22, quietly has put himself in position to win the American League Triple Crown in only his third season. He led the major leagues in average (.337) and RBIs (73) while ranking tied for second to Ohtani with 28 home runs.
Unfortunately for baseball fans, Guerrero plays for the Blue Jays, who relocated from Toronto to Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y., during the pandemic, playing home games in two minor league ballparks. The Jays aren’t in a market ESPN cares about, so they rarely if ever are on “Sunday Night Baseball.” So try to catch Guerrero early in the All-Star Game before he disappears from view again.
Tatís, the former White Sox prospect and heir apparent to David “Big Papi” Ortiz as the game’s most beloved extrovert, was awarded a 14-year, $330 million deal in February, spoiling one owner’s claim of “biblical” losses that franchises were suffering during the pandemic. Tatís has backed up the Padres’ faith in him with his bat, glove and marketing-to-millennials skills. His swag is so respected that Cubs left fielder Joc Pederson began to perform Tatís’ home run trot stutter-step during his home runs, like a rapper sampling a classic rock song in his music.
One Thing Is for Sure … You Never Know
As always, baseball has had its fair share of surprises in 2021, including the success of the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, and utter disappointments such as the New York Yankees, Cardinals and Minnesota Twins.
We’ve even seen a hybrid in the Cubs, who went from disappointments to big surprise to disappointments again in successive months. The next step is the sell-off.
The return to the old playoff format—with only two wild-card teams in each league—should make for a more interesting second-half race for postseason spots with a possible all-West matchup in the NL wild-card game looming and perhaps an all-East matchup in the AL.
Teams have enjoyed spurts of dominance, but no team has truly dominated in either league. Still, the White Sox, Red Sox, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays can all start blocking out hotel rooms for the first week of October, along with the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Brewers in the NL.
The two oldest managers, the White Sox’s 76-year-old Tony La Russa and Astros’ 72-year-old Dusty Baker, could be headed to an ALCS showdown, adding another chapter to their legendary rivalry. The Astros remain vilified for the 2017 sign-stealing scandal but have by far the best-hitting team in the first half with many of the same characters.
Shooting stars have been interesting to watch, both in flight and while plummeting. Career minor leaguer Yermín Mercedes became the first player with eight consecutive hits to start a season but scuffled in May and June and was back in Triple-A by July. Aroldis Chapman was untouchable … and then he was not—an 0.39 ERA over his first 23 appearances and a 22.94 ERA in his next nine outings.
Trevor Bauer, the pitcher/social media innovator/critic-at-large, cashed in during free agency with a three-year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers, including a staggering $40 million in 2021. Now he could be a $102 million albatross after being place on administrative leave by MLB following allegations of sexual and physical assault by a woman Bauer reportedly met on social media.
Bauer was Manfred’s worst nightmare for years because of his constant criticism of MLB. The alleged actions—which his attorney claims was wholly consensual—now make Bauer baseball’s worst nightmare.
Homecomings did not go well for players such as outfielder Adam Eaton, who was designated for assignment Wednesday after his return to the White Sox, or Cubs legend Jake Arrieta, who was placed on the IL on Wednesday with a hamstring injury manager David Ross traced to May.
“Mentally, sometimes just a little bit of a breather of not having to go out and compete in a big league game and try and do a lot for your team,” Ross said, referring to the “mental strain” on Arrieta.
An old Cubs philosopher once said, “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.” Can that sage advice save Jake? Who knows?
The only thing we know for sure after the crazy first half of 2021 is that unwritten rules are made to be broken.
Everything else is just a wild guess.
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