As MLB’s 60-game emergency schedule ends, here is a long view on baseball life in the short run.
Central truths have been learned from this sprint schedule. This shortened season showed the difference between solid organizations and weak organizations even with a 16-team playoff cushion.
When Rob Manfred announced the 60-game season, I was one of the few writers who said they would definitely complete the season. It was clear to me that Manfred, for all his faults, was determined to get this season to the finish line so baseball could collect post-season TV money. And that is exactly what happened.
This game never changes: Follow the money.
Having said that, the team that showed us the most creativity, the most depth, the most consistency without having the kind of across the board talent as other teams and not having the same financial resources was the Tampa Bay Rays.
Tampa Bay took everything that was thrown its way.
That includes a small army of pitchers on the injured list, and they not only survived a tough schedule but flourished, proving once again that a development-based organization – with a strong manager that wisely uses analytics – is a model for all franchises.
Frauds fall by the wayside under these conditions.
The Rays Way is the best way.
Their players are flexible.
They adjust to the system and play fundamentally sound baseball. The sum of the parts make up the team.
“What we are seeing so much of this year,’’ one scout told BallNIne, “is guys who have skills but don’t have the fundamentals of the game down yet. That is why there are so many upside-down games. How many double-digit games where nobody can stop the bleeding?’’
The Rays know how to stop the bleeding.
During the playoffs last year at Minute Maid Park before Game 5 of the Division Series between the Rays and Astros, I was speaking with one of the Rays’ owners and he assured me that even if the Red Sox raided his front office – which is like an annual occurrence with teams getting their next head of Baseball Ops from the Rays (ie: the Dodgers) – and took Chaim Bloom, that would be fine because “we can replace those guys.’’
He wasn’t being arrogant. He was being honest.
Ji-Man Choi and the Tampa Bay Rays are well coached, well developed and ready to make a run deep into the 2020 postseason.
Rays owners have discovered what so many other teams can’t figure out. It’s not the analytics that create success. It’s the scouting and development side of the organization that breeds continued success. Numbers are merely a tool. If the system works, they can find people to be in charge of the system. That is what makes the Rays so successful.
For the AL East winning Rays it is the player development system that is irreplaceable, and the Rays once again showed their strength in that department.
They pitch well and they play defense. They are not scatterbrained on the bases. They find new parts to replace broken parts or parts that move on to other teams. They don’t have the big money or big names, but they have top development people and they keep them.
Some numbers to check: Rays relievers are fourth in the majors in ERA at 3.44 but here is the amazing part: 12 different Rays pitchers have earned saves this short season. Twelve.
Manager Kevin Cash is not afraid to call on anyone to get the save for his team. Their relievers have different arm angles and they thrive in the art of deception. That is taught.
“The Rays see what a guy can do and they make the most of it,’’ one evaluator told me. “Some teams just see what a guy can’t do.’’
The Rays relievers throw strikes, too. In all, 21 other teams’ relievers had more walks than Rays relievers and the Rays use their relievers a lot – the second most innings (251.1) in the majors behind the tortured Red Sox relievers. The Rays go after you and part of the reason for that is they trust their defense. The defense makes plays, starting with centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier.
If you want to see the difference in one play between the Rays and the other teams on defense, check out where Kiermaier threw out the Mets Pete Alonso on a bang-bang play at the plate. Kiermaier got behind the baseball, caught the single on one hop and made a strong throw to catcher Michael Perez. Perez fielded the ball like a second baseman applying the tag, not like other teams where the catcher is stagnant and the ball gets away.
.@KKiermaier39’s cooler than a polar bear's toenails@nikediamond pic.twitter.com/2jzMIMPZlK— Tampa Bay Rays - x (@RaysBaseball) September 23, 2020
It was textbook and gets back to talent and development.
Perhaps with that much depth in the bullpen when other teams can’t build bullpens is why first baseman Nate Lowe referred to his relievers as “The Zero Factory’’ after the Rays beat Jacob deGrom and the Mets this week. The Rays find a way to get it done no matter the obstacle.
It is a factory of different relievers that put up zeroes.
“And don’t overlook the fact the Rays are battle-tested in the playoffs,’’ one scout told BallNine.
Combine that with Cash’s ability to manage a game and the Rays will be a tough opponent in the 16-team postseason. Having said that, though, this first round is an up for grabs affair. Anything can happen. A team that sneaks in as a bottom feeder like the Blue Jays could score an upset because the Rays offense is limited, but the Rays solid defense and strength of pitching should push them deep into the postseason.
The Rays bullpen will have to come up big in the postseason. Last year they took the Astros to five games in that divisional round. For the Rays it will come down to offense. They are 14th in slugging with a .424 mark, 20th in average at .235 and 13th in on base percentage at .325 and 13th in OPS at. 749. Lately they have been striking out in double digits. The Austin Meadows oblique injury may be the straw that breaks their back, but the Rays somehow find a way.
The Rays are 13-5 this season in one-run games, a .722 winning percentage. Little things show up in one-run games.
If you are looking for a team that is the direct opposite of the Rays, you found them in Philadelphia. GM Matt Klentak never fixed his pitching problems and that has come back to haunt the Phillies, who keep spending more and more money every year but can’t get any better.
The Phillies are 8-9 in one-run games and 5-10 in 7-inning games.
Nothing destroys a team’s will to win more than blown saves and the Phillies relievers have put this team and Joe Girardi through pitching hell night after night. But it’s not like they couldn’t see it coming. Everyone in baseball but Klentak knew they had starting depth issues and a dreadful bullpen. How dreadful? The 7.21 bullpen ERA is historically bad. If your team doesn’t have a decent bullpen when bullpens have become so vital because teams have not been able to teach their starters how to stay in a game, you have no chance, no matter how big your payroll.
One of the most stunning recent developments in the game to me is that the most talented pitchers, the starters, are being coddled and not taught to go deep into games while relievers are being relied on more and more to carry the work load.
It’s backwards. But baseball goes on its merry way. Pitch counts are up for starters because even when they get ahead 0-2 they seem to always go to 3-2 as they nibble instead of attacking hitters, especially up and in. The hitters want to extend their arms, the pitchers are allowing it – and off goes the Manfred Ball into the opposite field seats.
You can't blame Joe Girardi for not wanting to watch while his relievers are on the mound. They own a historically putrid 7.21 ERA going into Wednesday's games.
If the hitters ever figure out how easy it is to beat the shift – you just have to leave your ego on the bench – pitchers would really be in trouble in this analytical age.
To top it off, Klentak & Co. never locked up J.T. Realmuto to a long-term contract and the catcher is expected to move on next season to someone like the Mets and Steve Cohen’s big money or the Rangers to play closer to home in Oklahoma. That trade with the Marlins cost them the talented Sixto Sanchez who would look pretty damn good in the Phillies rotation right about now.
The Yankees appear to be peaking and could go deep into this postseason. They’ve gotten their act together and Gerrit Cole is back to being his ace self. The A’s are talented but have played the softest of schedules. The White Sox are fascinating while the Twins always lose to the Yankees.
The Mets, meanwhile, are first in average at .274, first in on-base percentage at .352 and sixth in slugging at .456 and third in OPS at .808. How come they didn’t win the NL East?
Simple. Because they do so many little things wrong. They are in a desperate fight to make the postseason and that is an indictment on the organization as a whole. With those offensive numbers and Jake deGrom at the head of their rotation it is unfathomable to me how the Mets simply did not breeze into the easiest of postseasons. But when you watch them on a day to day basis and all the mistakes they make, their shortcomings become obvious. They are a perfect example of having good numbers but not playing the game well.
The Mets' Jake deGrom may be in line for his third consecutive Cy Young Award in 2020, but he can't do it all.
Some other short season thoughts.
FAN FAVORITES: What’s painfully obvious is how much the game misses the fans this year. Manfred should never again take the fans for granted and what baseball fans mean to the game. Not only do they make a ballpark a ballpark and bring life to the game, they also give players that extra boost of adrenaline.
I covered the Padres for many years and in 1996 the fans would meet the team at Qualcomm at midnight coming back from a road trip. Padre fans are probably the best, most devoted fans in the game and for them not to be able to celebrate with this exciting Padres team is a shame. We all pray that 2021 will be a regular season and not another Covid season. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the life of the party and is the fan’s choice for the most exciting player – and isn’t it interesting that Manny Machado is having such a good year with no fans in the ballpark? Machado is one of the most talented players in the game and I’ve known him from his rookie days when I first met him in the Dominican Republic but I’ve always felt Manny can be too sensitive. That’s also what a close friend of his told me through the years. When the fans are on the bandwagon that is great for Machado, but I believe he sometimes takes their criticisms too much to heart. If Machado can roll in the playoffs this year the Padres will shock the Dodgers in the NL.
The best comment I heard all year about missing fans in the ballpark came from Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
“We miss the interaction with the fans,’’ Votto said this week on MLB’s Intentional Talk. “I can’t wait for all the fans to come back, especially the Cincinnati fans, they come out early and stay late. You drive out of the parking lot you say goodbye, you’re signing autographs, you see a kid or you see someone in the community. At some point we will get through this, but it needs to be known that Major League Baseball players miss Major League fans. We have pictures in the stands now but at some point we will get back to everybody in the stands and be able to handshake, hug, take pictures, sign autographs. We miss it for sure.’’
SCOUTING TROUBLE: Everyone knows that baseball is a cold, hard business but that fact has been rammed home this year with the plan to get rid of 42 minor league teams and with the recent moves by teams firing long time scouts and development people using 2020 as an excuse. The game can be heartless. Every team is worth so much more money now than they were purchased (see the Mets agreement with Cohen) but it is the little guy in baseball that is getting the worst end of the deal with teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals making huge cuts and many more teams expected to do the same.
LOST LEGEND: The passing of scout Gary Hughes, 79, was a blow to baseball this week because Hughes was so beloved throughout MLB. He took the time to make the game human. His relationships go back generations and he always kept tabs on his people through his 54 years in baseball. To understand his importance, let me take you to the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel in lovely Cooperstown. That is one of the most picturesque scenes with the white rocking chairs overlooking Lake Otsego and Leatherstocking Golf Course.
Hughes was one of my roommates every year in Cooperstown. We would rent a house off Main Street, myself, Gary, the late Nick Cafardo (Boston Globe), Scott Miller (Bleacher Report) and Bob Nightengale (USA Today). Gary would regale us at the dining room table with stories but he was at his best at the Otesaga. We would go over early in the morning to have breakfast in a dining room and porch stuffed with Hall of Famers and baseball elite. Gary knew everyone. And everyone would come to see Gary. Whether it was Greg Maddux from their days together in Chicago or George Brett, or agents, front office people, everyone would gather around Gary to listen to his warm and wonderful stories about Key West to his beloved Serra High School (Class of ’59), home also to Jim Fregosi, Tom Brady and Barry Bonds. Gary gave life to the game. He gave the game romance and a sense of humor, but most of all it was family to him.
One scout who was hired by Hughes with the Marlins during their inception and was part of their 1997 run to their first World Series title told BallNine, “Gary created an atmosphere where we all cared about one another and we never got our feelings hurt. We did our jobs. Out of that closeness we became a family, we’ve all moved on to different places, but to this day, we still are family and that’s all because of Gary and the atmosphere he created.’’
The baseball world lost an all-timer, as legendary MLB scout Gary Hughes passed away this week at the age of 79. Pictured above is his WS Ring from the 2018 Champion Red Sox, as taken by Kevin Kernan last August.
INJURIES WORSEN: This short season exposed MLB to an even greater depth of injury. So many teams have been crushed. The Yankees went through it again with leg injuries to Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge and arm issues for James Paxton. Stanton and Judge are back. A ton of pitchers went down across baseball and oblique injuries seem to be everywhere again. Bryce Harper is having back issues. Kris Bryant is down with an oblique. Baseball is going to have to figure a better way to prepare its players. Over this short haul season there were long haul injuries. “There is no rest, no recovery this year,’’ said one talent evaluator. With playoff games stacked like cord wood it will be interesting to see if injuries pile up in the postseason as well. “The players just work too much, all off-season, all season,’’ the scout said. “They play a game and then they go work out. They never rest.’’ Hall of Famer Goose Gossage made a similar point to me earlier this year saying it is ridiculous players work out after games. “If you play the game right you should be exhausted after nine innings,’’ Goose said. Sounds like common sense. But as we all know Common Sense is on the injured list now, too.
FINALLY, THIS: My friend, Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy points out this little stolen fact: “Ty Cobb stole home 54 times. Babe Ruth stole home 10 times. But Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock and Maury Wills, the modern-day base burglars never stole home … not once, not any of them.’’