AL dragons vs. NL dragonslayers

Houston Astros

The Astros celebrate winning the AL pennant Sunday night in New York. The AL’s dragons get to tangle with some NL dragonslayers from Philadelphia in the World Series.

Maybe the Astros would have found ways to beat the Yankees yet again regardless. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Aaron Judge could have tied Game Four of the American League Championship Series with one intercontinental ballistic launch and sent it to extra innings.

The Astros won their third American League pennant at the Yankees’ expense Sunday night in Yankee Stadium. They did it in 2017, 2019, and now this year. But if Game Four proves to be free agent-in-waiting Judge’s final game as a Yankee, it couldn’t have ended more ignominously for him and for them.

The engaging, still-young man who pushed Roger Maris aside as the AL’s single-season home run champion, already 1-for-14 in the ALCS when he checked in against Astros reliever Ryan Pressly with two out in the bottom of the ninth, swung on a slider somewhat outside on 1-2.

The guy who can hit a ball of yarn past the Van Allen Belt grounded it right back to Pressly, who speared it one-handed coming off the mound toward first base. Pressly trotted a few steps further before underhanding it to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for game, set, sweep, and the Yankees heading home for the winter.

It continued the second-longest Yankee pennant drought since 1979-1994. It made the Leaning Tower of 161st Street resemble the giant who’d carried an entire town on his shoulders from one end of the hemisphere to the other only to collapse under its weight at long enough last.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there,” Judge lamented after Game Four ended. “But what it comes down to is they just played better than us.”

The Yankees spoiled themselves leaning on Judge as their in-house extraterrestrial. The Astros, say what you still will about them, didn’t make that mistake. They didn’t lean too heavily upon any single big man, either winning the second-most games in the regular season or sweeping their way to the coming World Series.

Leaning that heavily upon one big man merely held the Yankees’ other issues aloft too high. Their bullpen was injured and inconsistent. They lost key secondary elements such as D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi to injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton weren’t consistent second bananas to the Judge Show. If Harrison Bader proved a pleasant surprise at the October plate, it wasn’t enough to overcome Judge and Stanton combining to go 6-for-32 the entire postseason.

Oh, the Astros had some heroics of their own, of course. Yordan Alvarez looked like Paul Bunyan earlier in the postseason, enough so that enough thought he alone might be the one to blast the Astros forward. But he was awful quiet in the ALCS. There lay the Astros’ real secret weapon this time, though: if one guy falters, there are others too happy to pick up the slack.

Rookie Jeremy Peña said, “Sure, no problem-o.” A kid whose regular-season on-base percentage fell well enough short of just .300 tied Game Four in the top of the third, with two on aboard back-to-back inning-opening walks, when an ailing Yankee starting pitcher Nestor Cortes hung a cutter and Peña hung it down the left field line and over the fence fair past the foul pole.

“It’s surreal,” said Peña postgame, after he was named the ALCS’s Most Valuable Player. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid.” Nobody among his teammates cared two pins that he was a rookie stealing the thunder.

“If you’re in this clubhouse, you’re one of us,” said Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros’ Game Four starting pitcher. “You don’t need to earn your stripes with us. You don’t need service time. If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a day or you’re here for seventeen years.”

“It’s been a blessing to play with this group,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who’d sent Peña home with what proved the insurance run in the seventh, after yet another fielding mishap that came to define the Yankees’ postseason collapse the way their deflation from 15.5 games atop the AL East to a 10-18 August defined their regular-season descent from surreal to mere division champion.

Alvarez may not have provided strategic bombing in this ALCS, but after Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres flipped what should have been a seventh inning-ending double play-starting toss past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, he re-tied the game at five each by swatting Peña home with an RBI single off Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisaga.

Just like that, the Yankees handed the Astros the means to end the lead Bader handed his team in the bottom of the sixth, when the former Cardinal caught hold of Hector Neris’s first two-out pitch to him and sent it into the left field seats.

When Gurriel clutched Pressly’s underhand toss for the final series out, it handed baseball its first day with both pennants clinched since 1992. It handed the Astros yet another chance to give manager Dusty Baker yet another chance at the one thing that’s eluded him in his long and mostly distinguished managing career—a lease to the Promised Land.

Baker took on the Astros after Astrogate cost them A.J. Hinch, whose failure to put the brakes on the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation could have broken both the game and the organisation in half when it was exposed after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

He might be the sentimental favourite come Series time—individually. The Astros will be up against a Phillies team that electrified their city and maybe most of the country with their own pennant conquest at home Sunday afternoon. Baker may be America’s manager but the Phillies may be America’s team this time. And Bryce Harper just may be America’s man within America’s team, if that’s the case.

No Astro delivered quite the transcendent blow Sunday that Harper did in the bottom of the eighth. Judge’s record-breaking 62nd home run merely broke a hallowed AL and Yankee team record and guaranteed his coming free agency riches. Harper’s deficit-overthrowing two-run homer held up to mean the pennant, in a rainy game that looked as though the Phillies and the Padres did more mud wrestling than ball playing.

The pitchers couldn’t grip properly or resist their landing feet sliding more than single inches on the muddy mound. The hitters changed batting gloves as often as they could. Batting helmets shone with rain water on top. New York wasn’t exactly paradise but Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was practically a swamp. And no fan dared leave until it was done.

Harper stunned the Padres first by taking a tumbling Robert Suarez changeup on which he might have swung otherwise, once upon a time. He anticipated Suarez bringing a fastball soon enough, hoping only to find an outfield gap into which to send one, enough to bring J.T. Realmuto home from first with a tying run.

He got and did better than he hoped. He got a cutter hovering over the outer half of the plate and swung. The ball traveled about three or four rows the other way into the left field seats. The city that once hosted a record label proudly calling its brand of soul music The Sound of Philadelphia now had a new sound: bedlam.

The Biblical admonition goes that the last shall be first. The Phillies entered the postseason aboard the new three wild card system with the weakest regular season record of any postseason entrant and the eleventh-best record in the Show.

They’d survived an early season hump prompting their front office to throw out the first manager of the year. They’d survived injuries, including the two-month loss of Harper who needed the rest of the regular season to get his groove back. Both the Phillies and the Padres hit a partial re-set button at mid-season and burrowed their ways to their wild cards.

The Padres slew the NL dragons out of New York and Los Angeles. The Phillies slew those out of St. Louis and Atlanta. Then the Phillies won the pennant by taking four of five from the Padres. They ground, pushed, thumped, slashed, and thundered their way to the Series.

They reminded you that, when the dragonslayers meet each other, one of them gets fried.

They’re going to go up against an Astro team that still isn’t America’s favourite team thanks to the continuing taint of Astrogate. Never mind that only three position players from those 2017-18 cheaters remain with the team. Never mind mind that one (Jose Altuve) actually rejected being part of it. I say again, sadly: the taint won’t dissipate until the last member of the Astrogate teams no longer wears their uniform.

The Phillies haven’t won a World Series ring since the final months of the second George W. Bush administration. The Astros still hunt their first un-stained World Series rings. If the Astros think the Phillies can be taken as readily as the Yankees, the Astros may be in for a Series that’ll only feel as long as the Yankee winter now begun.

The Yankees rock and troll

Yankee Stadium

A spent champagne bottle placed on home plate after the Yankees won a trip to the ALCS Tuesday night. The Yankees had to celebrate their win in a hurry—they open against the Astros Wednesday night.

The good news is, Year One of Comissioner Rube Golberg’s triple-wild-cards postseason experiment isn’t going to have an all also-ran World Series, after all. It still yielded a pair of division-winning teams getting to tangle in the American League Championship Series.

The bad news is, those two division winners are still the Yankees and the Astros, after the Yankees sent the AL Central-winning Guardians home for the winter with a 5-1 win Tuesday that wasn’t exactly an overwhelming smothering.

What it was, though, was the game for which the Guardians shot themselves in the proverbial foot. Specifically, two Guardians, one of whom is old enough to know better and the other of whom needs a definitive attitude adjustment.

Guardians manager Terry Francona has more World Series rings this century (two) than Yankees manager Aaron Boone (none). Francona is considered by most observers to be one of the game’s smartest managers who’s made extremely few mistakes and learned from one and all; Boone is one of those skippers about whom second-guessing is close enough to a daily sport in its own right.

But when push came to absolute shove for rain-postponed AL division series Game Five, Boone proved willing to roll the dice Francona finally wasn’t.

After Gerrit Cole held the Guards off with a magnificent Game Four performance Sunday but the rain pushed Game Five from Monday to Tuesday, Boone was more than willing to throw his original Game Five plan aside—Jameson Tallion starting and going far as he could to spell the beleaguered Yankee bullpen—and let Nestor Cortes pitch on three days’ rest for the first time in his major league life.

Francona wouldn’t even think about changing his original Game Five plan, opening with his number-four starter Aaron Civale, who hadn’t even seen any action this postseason until Tuesday, then reaching for his bullpen at the first sign of real trouble. He wasn’t willing to let his ace Shane Bieber go on three days’ rest for the first time in his major league life.

Mother Nature actually handed Francona one of the biggest breaks of his life when she pushed Game Five back a day. Either he missed the call or forgot to check his voicemail. “I’ve never done it,” said Bieber postgame Tuesday, about going on three days rest. “But could I have? Sure.”

“It’s not because he can’t pitch,” said Francona after Game Five. “It’s just he’s been through a lot. You know, he had [a shoulder injury in 2021] and he’s had a remarkable year, but it’s not been probably as easy as he’s made it look.”

It might have been a lot easier on the Guardians if Francona handed his ace the chance to try it, with reinforcements ready to ride in after maybe three, four innings. Even year-old-plus shoulder injuries deserve appropriate consideration, of course. But Bieber surrendered a mere two runs in five-and-two-thirds Game Two innings. Francona’s hesitation when handed the chance helped cost him a shot at another AL pennant.

Civale didn’t have it from the outset. He had as much control as a fish on the line jerking into death out of the water. Giancarlo Stanton slammed an exclamation point upon it when he slammed a hanging cutter the other way into the right field seats with two aboard and one out.

The Guards’ pen did surrender two more runs in the game, including Aaron Judge’s opposite field launch the next inning. But they spread those runs over eight and two-thirds innings’ relief while otherwise keeping the Yankees reasonably behaved. They gave the Guards every possible foot of room to come back and win it.

That was more than anyone could say for Josh Naylor. The Guards’ designated hitter had already raised temperatures among enough Yankees and around a little more than half of social media, when his Game Four home run off Cole resulted in him running the bases with his arms in a rock-the-baby position and motion.

Naylor intends the gesture to mean that if he hits you for a long ball he considers you his “son” in that moment. It wasn’t anything new for him or for those pitchers surrendering the 20 bombs he hit on the regular season. And Sunday’s blast was the third time Naylor has taken Cole into the seats in his major league life. He was entitled to a few bragging rights.

Cole himself thought the bit was “cute” and “a little funny.” He wasn’t half as offended as that half-plus of social media demanding Naylor’s head meet a well-placed fastball as soon as possible. Yesterday, if possible. The Yankees found the far better way to get even in Game Five than turning Naylor’s brains into tapioca pudding.

“We got our revenge,” Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres all but crowed postgame. Torres even did a little rocking of the baby himself in the top of the ninth, after he stepped on second to secure the game-ending force out. “We’re happy to beat those guys,” he continued. “Now they can watch on TV the next series for us. It’s nothing personal. Just a little thing about revenge.”

Naylor was also serenaded mercilessly by the Yankee Stadium crowd chanting “Who’s your daddy?” louder with each plate appearance. Every time he returned to the Guards’ dugout fans in the seats behind the dugout trolled him with their own rock-the-baby moves. And his most immediate postgame thought Tuesday was how wonderful it was that he’d gotten that far into their heads.

Some say it was Naylor being a good sport about it. Others might think he was consumed more with getting into the crowd’s heads than he was in getting back into the Yankees’ heads. The evidence: He went 0-for-4 including once with a man in scoring position Tuesday.

Oh, well. “That was awesome,” he said postgame of the Yankee Stadium chanting. “That was so sick. That was honestly like a dream come true as a kid—playing in an environment like this where they’ve got diehard fans, it’s cool. The fact I got that going through the whole stadium, that was sick.”

Josh Naylor

Rock and troll: Yankee fans letting Josh Naylor have it on an 0-for-4 ALDS Game Five night.

Did it cross his mind once that his team being bumped home for the winter a little early was a little more sick, as in ill, as in not exactly the way they planned it? If it did, you wouldn’t have known it by the way he continued his exegesis. “If anything, it kind of motivates me,” he began.

It’s fun to kind of play under pressure. It’s fun to play when everyone’s against you and when the world’s against you. It’s extremely fun.

That’s why you play this game at the highest level or try to get to the highest level: to play against opponents like the Yankees or against the Astros or whoever the case is. They all have great fanbases and they all want their home team to win, and it’s cool to kind of play in that type of spotlight and in that pressure.

Wouldn’t it have been extremely more fun if the Guardians had won? Did Naylor clown himself out of being able to play up in that spotlight and its pressure this time? Those are questions for which Cleveland would love proper answers.

So is the question of how and why the Guards didn’t ask for a fourth-inning review that might have helped get Cortes out of their hair sooner than later, after a third inning that exemplified the Guards’ hunt-peck-pester-prod limits.

They went from first and second and one out in the top of the third—one of the hits hitting the grass when Yankee shortstop Oswaldo Cabrera collided with left fielder Aaron Hicks, resulting in a knee injury taking Hicks out of the rest of the postseason—to the bases loaded and one out after Guards shortstop Amed Rosario wrung Cortes for a four-pitch walk. They got their only run of the game when Jose Ramírez lofted a deep sacrifice fly to center.

Now, with two outs in the top of the fourth, Andres Giménez whacked a high bouncer up to Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had to dive to the pad to make any play. The call was out, but several television replays showed Giménez safe by a couple of hairs. Perhaps too mindful of having lost three prior challenges in the set, the Guardians’ replay review crew didn’t move a pinkie. Francona seemingly didn’t urge them to do so.

Never mind that it would have extended the inning and given the Guards a chance to turn their batting order around sooner, get Cortes out of the game sooner, and get into that still-vulnerable Yankee pen sooner. Francona’s been one of the game’s most tactically adept skippers for a long enough time, but not nudging his replay people to go for this one helped further to cost him an ALCS trip.

These Yankees don’t look proverbial gift horses in the proverbial mouths. An inning later, with Torres on first with a leadoff walk and James Karinchak relieving Trevor Stephan following a Judge swinging strikeout during which Torres stole second, Rizzo lined a single to right to send Torres home. That was all the insurance the Yankees ended up needing.

Especially when these so-called Guardiac Kids, the youth movement whose penchant for small ball and for driving bullpens to drink with late rallies, forcing the other guys into fielding lapses, winning a franchise-record number of games at the last minute, had nothing to say against three Yankee relievers who kept them scoreless over a final four solid shutout innings.

Especially when they actually out-hit the Yankees 44-28 and still came up with early winter. The trouble was, the Guards also went 3-for-30 with men in scoring position over Games One, Two, Four, and Five, and had nobody landing big run-delivering blows when needed the most. Their ability to surprise expired.

Now the Yankees have a chance for revenge against the Astros who’ve met them in two previous ALCSes and beaten them both times. They had to hurry their postgame celebration up considerably—the ALCS opens Wednesday night.

The Guardians could take their sweet time going home for the winter and pondering the season that traveled so engagingly but ended so ignominiously.

“Winning the division was the first part,” Hedges said postgame. “Wild-card round. Put ourselves in position to beat the Yankees. And we wanted to win the World Series, but that’s a good Yankees team. The cool thing is, now we have a bunch of dudes with a ton of playoff experience in the most hostile environment you can imagine.”

The Guards were bloody fun to watch for most of it. Then Cole, Stanton and Judge rang their bells in Games Four and Five, and they had nothing much to say in return. The Guardiac Kids were the babies who got rocked. There was nothing much fun about that.

RBA: Judge’s a .764 batter this year.

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge—Real Batting Average says there was a lot more to his 2022 than yanking Roger Maris to one side.

So Aaron Judge didn’t win the Triple Crown after all? Big deal. He pulled up short of passing Minnesota’s Luis Arraez for the “batting title.” When it comes to the batting number that should matter the absolute most—what I call a Real Batting Average (RBA)—the Leaning Tower of 161st Street did more than just bomb his way to the all-time American League single-season home run championship.

How does Judge being a .764 batter this year sound to you?

Judge bombed, slashed, swatted, and walked his way to an RBA 286 points higher than the Twins’ infielder did. It isn’t even close. He did likewise to the tune of 256 points higher than Jeff McNeil, the Mets’ infielder/outfielder who finished as the National League’s “batting champion.”

“Purists” seeing that and jumping up and down kicking, screaming, and throwing things, sit down and listen up.

I’ve argued this before, and I’ll die upon this hill: The so-called “batting average” is a fraud. It treats all of a player’s hits as equal, and the so-called “batting champion” needs a) a minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for the title despite b) the so-called “batting average” being calculated strictly by hits divided by official at-bats. From this point forward, any reference to it will be called hitting average.

Getting lots of hits is wonderful. Freddie Freeman led this year’s offense-challenged Show with 199. (The Show’s earned run average and fielding-independent pitching were each under four.) He also finished one point below National League hitting average-leading Jeff McNeil (Mets). You’re also going to see Real Batting Average saying Freeman was light years better than McNeil at the plate this year.

Why on earth should you give shrift to a statistic that thinks every hit you got was equal value? There’s only one reason: you think a single is as good as a double, a double’s as good as a triple, a triple’s as good as a home run. You don’t even have to pass third-grade math to see that and know it’s about as credible as a 70-dollar bill.

A few years ago, I reminded myself that total bases treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated—unequally. Let’s use Judge to explain. He had 177 hits this season and they were good for 391 total bases. He had 87 singles, 28 doubles, no triples, and 62 home runs. (Notice that almost exactly half his hits were singles, you who still dismiss him as just another all-or-nothing slugger.)

That’s 87 bases on singles, 56 on doubles, and 248 on his record-smashing home runs. Add them up. It’s 391. It’s a shame that his walks don’t count toward total bases, the way they do toward his on-base percentage (for 2022, it’s .425) because that would make his 2022 total bases 402.

The RBA formula I developed, seeking a way to explain a batter’s value simpler than weighted runs created (wRC), simple enough for a child of five or an old fart of 95 to comprehend, is as follows: Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. If you’d like to see it again in a non-intimidating mathematic formula, here it is:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP
PA

The old/ancient school looked upon walks as either accidents or detriments, not stopping to ponder that a batter working out a walk if he couldn’t find something reasonable on which to swing was actually exercising a skill profound enough. Time was when observers kvetched about even the greatest hitters taking “too many” walks on too many “hittable” pitches, without asking themselves how hittable those pitches really could have been.

But why single intentional walks out, too, when calculating an RBA? Aren’t they part of the walk total for the season? Well, yes, to the latter. To the former, the answer is simple: If you’re at the plate, and the other guys would rather you take your base than their pitcher’s head off, why should you not get credit for it? There’s something they don’t want to deal with when they can deal with a lesser bat behind you to try doing the clutch hitting. To that, RBA says, basically, yay, you.

Yes, sacrifice flies are outs. But unlike sacrifice bunts, they’re not premeditated outs. You didn’t check in at the plate to make a deliberate out, which is the very definition of a sacrifice bunt. (Do I have to say it again? In four out of six “bunt situations” you have less chance of scoring the player you “sacrificed” ahead a base after the bunt than before it; in one, you have an even chance; in only one more—first and second, nobody out—do you have a slightly better chance.)

You checked in at the plate looking for a base hit. You didn’t think to yourself, “Boy, am I gonna put a thrill into those people in the stands by flying out deep.” (Well, you might, if the fly ball carries all the way to the fence.) But your fly out was deep enough to send that man on third home. You get credit for a run batted in but otherwise it’s as though you didn’t exist at the plate, because a sacrifice fly is counted no further as an at-bat than a walk. RBA says to a walk and a sacrifice fly: We know you were at the plate, that wasn’t a figment of our imagination. You’re going to get the credit you deserve for it.

Shohei Othani

Top ten in RBA; sub-3.00 ERA and FIP plus 11.9 K/9 on the mound. At $30 million for next year, Shohei Ohtani might still be underpaid . . .

We also know that, unless you’re Ron Hunt or Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, you weren’t up there looking to get hit by a pitch. But if the other guys’ pitcher is careless enough, control-less enough, or headhunting enough to plunk you, RBA’s going to give you credit for it—because you reached base. That’s another prospective run on the scoreboard. You might have preferred drilling a hole in the infield, putting a dent in the fence, or dialing the Delta Quadrant, but you became a baserunner on their dollar. Let it be to your credit and on their heads.

On the assumption that I haven’t lost you, or prompted you to send the Cuckoo’s Nest Coach to my driveway yet, what follows are this year’s top forty “batting title” qualifiers across the Show board according to Real Batting Average. Those with .300 or better hitting averages are marked with (*). (If you must throw things, please throw them through an open window facing your backyard, not with your spouse, your significant other, your children, or other family or friends in the line of fire.)

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Aaron Judge (Yankees) * 696 391 111 19 5 6 .764
Starling Marte (Mets) 505 218 97 26 0 13 .701
Yordan Alvarez (Astros) * 561 288 78 9 7 6 .692
Rafael Devers (Red Sox) 555 289 50 11 3 6 .647
Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) * 651 324 79 1 4 5 .641
Jose Ramirez (Guardians) 685 309 69 20 9 6 .603
Pete Alonso (Mets) 685 309 67 16 9 12 .603
Shohei Ohtani (Angels) 666 304 72 14 3 5 .598
Jose Altuve (Astros) * 604 281 66 2 1 10 .596
Freddie Freeman (Dodgers) * 708 313 84 12 7 5 .595
Manny Machado (Padres) 644 307 63 10 2 1 .595
Nolan Arenado (Cardinals) 620 297 52 3 4 7 .585
Austin Riley (Braves) 693 325 57 1 4 17 .583
Julio Rodriguez (Mariners) 560 260 40 4 1 8 .559
Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. (Blue Jays) 706 306 58 6 4 6 .538
Taylor Ward (Angels) 564 234 60 0 5 4 .537
Nathaniel Lowe (Rangers) * 645 292 48 2 0 4 .536
J.T. Realmuto (Phillies) 562 241 41 1 5 12 .534
Carlos Correa (Twins) 590 244 61 2 4 3 .532
Andres Gimenez (Guardians) 557 229 34 4 3 25 .530
Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) * 631 254 57 2 7 10 .523
Yandy Díaz (Rays) 558 200 78 2 1 6 .514
José Abreu (White Sox) * 679 268 62 2 4 12 .513
Jeff McNeil (Mets) * 589 242 40 1 5 11 .508
Justin Turner (Dodgers) 532 205 50 1 8 6 .508
Trea Turner (Dodgers) 708 304 45 1 6 3 .507
Brandon Nimmo (Mets) 673 251 71 0 3 16 .507
J.D. Martinez (Red Sox) 596 239 52 1 5 5 .507
Bo Bichette (Blue Jays) 697 306 41 0 2 2 .504
Ty France (Mariners) 613 241 35 3 5 21 .498
Alejandro Kirk (Blue Jays) 541 195 63 2 4 4 .495
Dansby Swanson (Braves) 696 286 49 0 4 3 .491
Luis Arraez (Twins) * 603 230 50 2 3 3 .478
Steven Kwan (Guardians) 638 225 62 2 4 7 .470
Andrew Benintendi (KC/Yanks) * 521 184 52 0 5 2 .466
Nico Hoerner (Cubs) 517 197 28 4 2 6 .458
Alex Verdugo (Red Sox) 644 240 42 2 6 3 .455
Alec Bohm (Phillies) 631 233 31 1 10 4 .442
Amed Rosario (Guardians) 670 257 25 0 4 4 .433
MLB RBA .456

What probably doesn’t surprise you: the top ten guys for RBA this season. What might come a little more clear to you: just how much the Mets really missed Starling Marte—the National League’s RBA champion this year—in the lineup for most of September and most of this month so far with that finger injury, especially when the Mets couldn’t muster offense enough to overthrow the Braves last weekend.

What might surprise you a little bit: Matt Olson didn’t get anywhere near the top forty for hitting average, but his .548 RBA shakes out as 47 points lower than the guy the Braves let walk as a free agent right before dealing for him. I’m not convinced yet that the Braves got the better end of letting longtime franchise face Freddie Freeman walk into the Dodgers’ arms. (The Braves also won ten fewer than the 111 game-winning Dodgers did.)

What might jolt you a little bit more: The Guardians and the Mets (four each) have more men in that RBA top forty than anyone else this season.

What might jolt you a little bit more than that: A certain unicorn finished in the top ten for RBA in the same season during which he posted an 11.9 strikeout-per-nine rate, a 4.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 2.33 earned run average, and a 2.40 fielding-independent pitching rate. That helped him earn an American League-leading 9.0 total wins above a replacement-level (WAR) player for the year. Across the board, that was second only to Judge’s 10.6.

Shohei Ohtani finished eighth for RBA among the top forty hitting titles and had a pitching season that might be a Cy Young Award season in a different year. He ducked offseason arbitration by signing a one-year 2023 deal for $30 million. He might still be getting underpaid.

And, what of his future Hall of Famer teammate Mike Trout? Well, now. Trout missed a third of the season on the injured list. And he still finished the year with 6.3 WAR (an All-Star-worthy season level), 40 home runs, an OPS one point shy of 1.000 . . . and a .691 RBA. (If he’d qualified in the “batting title” race, Trout would have finished one tick behind Alvarez.)

This ought to tell you why the best news for Angel fans this year—other than Shohtime; other than Trout returning down the stretch of a race out of which the team fell eons earlier—was the news that owner Arte Moreno (who learned and showed all others the hard way that marketing genius doesn’t equal team-building savvy) intends to sell the franchise.

Depending on the eventual buyer, Angel fans may feel the way Met fans did upon the end of the Wilpon Era. It would only begin with those fans singing “Happy Days are Here Again.”

Meanwhile, the Leaning Tower of 161st Street towers over all in this year’s RBA. Judge was so much more than just Roger Maris’s conqueror, but there isn’t a jury on earth who’d rule his 62 home runs anything less than the individual story of the season. With future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols—revived by the advent of the designated hitter in the National League, managed prudently by Oliver Marmol in St. Louis, and finishing the season with 703 home runs lifetime—tied with his former Angel teammate Ohtani for an extremely close second.

If you find a panel that would rule that way, you ought to demand an investigation into jury tampering.

Summary Judgement: 62 in ’22

Aaron Judge

“I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.—Aaron Judge became the AL’s new single-season home run king at last Tuesday night in Texas.

Maybe Aaron Judge should be playing things like the stock market. Without making as grand a show of things as observers paid to be so grand (and perhaps foolish), he gambled early that he could turn his first walk year into something big when he achieves his first free agency.

He probably didn’t think he’d smash a longstanding American League home run record along the way. Certainly not in a season in which hitting across the major league board was at one of its lowest levels in the professional game’s history and he could never be certain he’d get a miniature medicine ball or a turbocharged orb to launch.

But smash it Judge did Tuesday night. In the second game of a doubleheader in Texas. If you’re going to slam the season’s biggest exclamation point down but you can’t do it in front of the home audience, there are few places bigger than there to do it.

Batting leadoff for the 106th time at all this year, and batting first in the lineup for the 34th time, Judge squared up Rangers righthander Jesus Tinoco’s slightly hanging slider on 1-1 and drove it parabolically several rows up the lower left field seats. Even the Globe Life Field audience couldn’t contain their pleasure in seeing the Leaning Tower of 161st Street make American League history.

Almost a full week after he met Roger Maris, with the Yankees having banked the AL East title in the same week, the tall swinger from California passed the comparatively compact swatter from the Dakotas. And unlike Maris’s abusively unfair experience in 1961, Judge got there with almost universal approval from the moment it looked as though he had a serious shot at getting there.

There was nothing unfair about Judge’s achievement, unless you count that this is a young man to whom you can throw a ball of Play-Doh and he can still hit it across the county line. Tinoco had never faced Judge before and had only surrendered one home run in 19.2 innings work on the season before Judge rang his and history’s bells.

“We knew it was going to happen and nobody wants to give it up,” said Tinoco—a reliever but pitching as the Rangers’ second-game opener Tuesday night, “but it’s part of the game. I challenged him and he hit it. That’s my job. All I can say is ‘congratulations’ to him.”

“I know he has a nasty sinker and a nasty slider,” said Judge postgame. “We were kind of waiting to hear who the starter of Game Two was gonna be. When I heard it was him, I saw what he did the night before and I said, ‘This isn’t a good matchup to start the game off with a guy with high velocity like that and a good off-speed pitch.’ So going into it, I think that helped me relax: ‘Hey, this is a good pitcher. Let me go up there and let’s see what happens’.”

Maybe he pressed a little too much between home runs 61 and 62. Maybe the opposition pressed a little hard trying to pitch around him until Tinoco’s slider didn’t slide enough. Maybe, too, Judge clung just hard enough to his insistence that, sure, it’d be great to do it, but he had more important things such as postseason prep to think about.

But maybe even this still-boyish looking galoot who softens the most when interacting with the children who like and admire him while maintaining his privacy otherwise without an ostentatious harrumph wanted the record so badly he could taste it even up with whatever he’d had for a meal before and after his long day’s work of play Tuesday.

The Yankees won the first of the twin bill without Judge going long. They ended up losing 3-2 in the nightcap Judge opened so historically, before he was given the rest of the night off by manager Aaron Boone, following a second-inning strikeout and a double switch of second baseman Oswaldo Cabrera to Judge’s position in right field, shortstop Oswald Peraza to second, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa out to play short.

A few hours after the second game ended and he’d run the gamut of reporters and well-wishers, Judge reportedly found some quiet in the clubhouse until a small voice reached his ears. Asking who was there, Judge then found himself spending a little time with Yankee catcher Jose Trevino’s little son, Josiah.

The gentle giant who helped make a Toronto kid’s week after seeing the kid in tears of joy when an adult Blue Jays fan handed him a ball Judge sent into the Rogers Centre upper deck in May spends as much time entertaining his teammates’ kids as he does entertaining fans in the stands with blasts past the ionosphere.

It may not yet have hit him completely that he’d claimed one of the most sacred pages in the AL record book for his own. And it may take the length of the postseason, however long the Yankees prove to stay there, before it does.

“In my book,” the Leaning Tower of 161st Street said after the second doubleheader game, “it’s just another day. I wish we would have gotten the win, that would have made it a little sweeter I think. But I’m going to try to soak it in, soak in the moment with my family, and get ready for the game tomorrow. I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.”

That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Even through his very visible effort to suppress his patented big snaggle-tooth grin as he rounded first heading for second. Even with his teammates swarming from the dugout starting about two seconds after he dropped his bat to run the bomb out. Even with his wife, Samantha Bracksieck, and his parents, Wayne and Patty Judge, leading the loud ovation.

“We just wanted it to happen so bad,” said Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole postgame. “I don’t know if that’s pressing, or just hoping hard. We were all just hoping really hard, I think.”

Maris’s 1961 teammates pressed just as hard for him to make it once Mickey Mantle fell out of that unwarrantedly-controversial chase with a hip abscess. But they were almost alone there. Thanks to a capricious conflicted-of-interest commissioner and a particularly nasty contingency in the baseball press of the time, Maris was denied his due for driving a baseball idol (some think sacred cow) to one side.

Judge has tried to sustain his sense of proportion throughout the entire run. Maybe come the postseason he and his wife will kick their shoes off and romp and play in wild celebration. First, he has his sixth postseason in as many seasons of being a Yankee to play.

Maris, a refugee from the then-Indians and the Kansas City Athletics, and the AL’s defending Most Valuable Player while he was at it, was en route his second consecutive World Series in a Yankee uniform. They lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the Pirates in 1960 but won a five-game laugher against the upstart Reds in 1961.

For daring to challenge and pass the Sacred Babe, Maris was battered unconscionably in ways that would be called child abuse if done by a parent to a child.

“At the plate, he heard obscene abuse from the creeps who think that a ticket to the game entitles them to horsewhip the entertainers,” wrote sportswriting legend Red Smith, then still with the New York Herald-Tribune.

Off the field he was badgered ceaselessly by fans, the press, radio-TV, press agents, promoters. Only on rare occasions did this quiet, candid young man let his temper slip, and then it was due to some especially outrageous question or repeated references to “pressure,” with the implication that he was choking up.

Some social media idiots thought and said the same about Judge as he laboured almost that full week to get from 61 to 62. For those who care about incompetent irrelevancy, let it be recorded that it took Judge two fewer plate appearances to hit 62 than it took Maris to hit 61.

Milton Gross of the New York Post, perhaps the only other writer in New York unwilling to even think about trying to beat Maris into submission or worse, had dinner with Maris and his wife plus their closest New York friends, Julie and Selma Isaacson, the evening that followed Maris’s money blast. When Isaacson toasted Maris, Gross wrote, Maris thanked him but added: “This was the greatest experience of my life. It has to be, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again for anything.”

Soon afterward, a teenage girl approached Maris politely for an autograph and asked him likewise to include the date. “What is today’s date?” Maris asked. Isaacson chimed in at once: “The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did.”

On 4 October 2022—65 years to the day after Sputnik launched the space race—the Leaning Tower of 161st Street did what nobody else in the American League ever did. You could hear Ruth and Maris together in the Elysian Fields, clinking glasses and quaffing a cold one in praise.

“I’d trade my past for his future,” the Babe must have said, knowing that Judge blasted himself toward a payday that might come close to equaling the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual budget.

“I’d trade your past for his future, too,” Maris must have cracked. “His future, and two stock splits to be named later.”

Just . . . no*

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge has an embrace with his mother, Patty, after the game during which he hit his 61st home run of the season. (Mom now has the ball her son launched.) And there’s nothing wrong with calling him tied as just the American League’s single-season home run record holder now, either.

I had better things to ponder approaching this weekend. Things such as the showdown between the National League East-leading Mets and the second-place, defending World Series champion Braves entering the weekend a game behind the Mets.

Things such as the Triple-A championship game being played in Las Vegas Ballpark Sunday starting at 4 P.M. Pacific time, which I plan to watch in person from a choice field-level seat several rows up behind home plate.

But no. I had to bump into yet another analysis of Aaron Judge meeting Roger Maris as the American League’s single-season home run champion. That wouldn’t be a terrible collision by itself if not for the fact of the Associated Press writer offering it, David Brandt, joined Roger Maris, Jr. wading into waters that never really existed in the first place.

Maris, Jr., intends to be there when Judge passes his father before the regular season expires. He inserted the ginger into the tails in the first place when he opined that Judge should be branded, hallowed, and hosannaed as the actual, no-questions-asked, all-time, across-the-board single-season home run champion when he hits 62 or more.

A few sentences after citing that, Brandt saw and raised, sort of, after nodding toward the debate over whether National League bombardiers Mark McGwire (who broke Maris’s Show record in that memorable 1998 chase), Sammy Sosa (who settled for three 60+ home run seasons including ’98 yet didn’t win home run championships in those years), and Barry Bonds (whose 73 in ’01 yanked McGwire to one side) remain tainted because of their actual/alleged ties to actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances.

“For its part, MLB doesn’t appear eager to embrace the use of asterisks,” Brandt writes. “Neither does the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.” Uh-oh.

MLB has been down that road before. Maris’ record had an asterisk attached to it for 30 years because he played a 162-game schedule instead of 154 like Babe Ruth did when he hit 60. It remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by former commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record-holder.

Maris’s record had nothing of the sort. Once and for all. It had controversy. It had a country arguing passionately over whether the plainspoken, media-shy Dakotan “deserved” to even think about chasing ruthsrecord (once again, that’s the way they said it then) when his matinee-idol Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle was the “rightful” aspirant if anybody was.

But it had an asterisk only in the public imagination, stoked by a baseball commissioner laden with a fat conflict of interest and a sportswriter about whom “instigator” is one of the more polite epithets attached to his name and memory.

Ford Frick, remember, was once a Ruth ghostwriter. He also loved to engage dinner crowds with stories about how he’d been at Ruth’s bedside the day before Ruth finally lost his battle with throat cancer. Frick would sooner have been caught selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Empire than abiding anyone, no matter whom, pushing the Sacred Babe to one side in the records.

New York Daily News writer Dick Young was only too willing to abet Frick when he called a press conference midway through that 1961 season to expose himself as feeling just that. Together the compromised commissioner and the irascible columnist made poisoned applesauce of a singular achievement.

With the American League’s first expansion and a schedule change from 154 to 162 games, Frick cringed at the thought that somebody, Yankee or otherwise, would knock Ruth’s hallowed 60-bomb season in 1927 out of the record books at once. As recounted by Allen Barra in his 2002 book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century, Frick proclaimed:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.

At which point Young piped up and all but hollered, “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.”

Revisiting the controversy in the Village Voice in 2011, after another Daily News writer (Phil Pepe) published a book reviewing the 1961 home run chase, Barra told it as it actually was: Frick did nothing more than put on a show on behalf of his old benefactor. “Frick had no power whatsoever to make a ruling on the subject,” Barra began.

To put it simply, he was grandstanding. What escaped most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to escape the sports media today, is that major league baseball had no “official” record book and didn’t have one until Total Baseball got the job in the late 1990s. So, in essence, Frick was trying to pressure publishers over whom he had no authority to print his version of the Maris/Ruth home run chase.

Over a decade later, Frick published his memoir, Games, Asterisks, and People. (The front jacket featured a photograph of Frick side by side with Ruth.) The title to one side, Frick himself declared the asterisk on Maris’s record didn’t really exist, Dick Young notwithstanding: “No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment . . . ,” Frick wrote in that book. “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” 

Around the time Total Baseball finally got the official record book designation, another commissioner, Fay Vincent, appointed a Committee on Statistical Accuracy. They voted to purge any asterisk from Maris’s record, never mind that no asterisk existed lawfully in the first place. Not for the first time and hardly for the last, baseball’s government sold the nation a bill of goods about as valid as a 27-cent piece.

“Thus,” Barra observed, “a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied every having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s ‘removal’ of it.”

Along came Maris’s son, after his father was met by Judge Wednesday night, to plead for something about as close to a bona-fide asterisk as possible:

[Judge]’s clean, he’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way and I think it gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just a guy who did it in the American League. He should be revered for being the actual single-season home-run champ. That’s really who he is if he hits 62. I think that’s what needs to happen. I think (the MLB) needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.

Well, Judge is “clean”; major league players face mandatory drug testing and Judge hasn’t flunked once. But does it really matter that Judge is a Yankee? Since when was the single-season home run record ruled to be exclusive Yankee property? Would Judge be any less legitimate tying Maris if he’d been a Met? A Brave? A Cardinal? A Guardian? A Dodger? An Astro?

Then a Cardinal, McGwire embraced the Maris family publicly when it looked as though he had a shot at meeting and passing Maris in 1998. (Maris, Sr. finished his major league career with two seasons as a Cardinal.) They returned the embrace just as publicly. It was one of the signature embraces in the year once thought to have been the year that saved baseball, after the lingering clouds of the 1994 owners-provoked players’ strike.

If you saw Billy Crystal’s film 61*, you couldn’t forget the voice of Bob Sheppard, the longtime Yankee Stadium announcer, over a fading image of Barry Pepper as Maris hitting the money shot at film’s end, by referencing the Vincent committee and finishing with, “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged . . . to him.”

Crystal and his staffers must not have read Edward Kiersh’s Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio, a 1983 catch-up with a host of former players—including Maris. “I know I have the record,” Maris told Kiersh, “and that’s what counts.” Unconscionably, he just wasn’t allowed to enjoy having achieved it in the first place. From the best of intentions Crystal perpetuated Frick’s and Young’s asterisk fraud.

But only one man could have pushed Ruth to one side in the single-season record book. (It took that man five fewer plate appearances and 34 more pitchers faced on the year to do it.) Only one man going from there could push Maris to one side. Tainted or no, McGwire was the one. Only one man going from there could push McGwire to one side. Tainted or no, Bonds was the one.

You might wish to remind yourself, too—aside from baseball taking no formal action against actual/alleged PEDs until after the Mitchell Report and that parade before what George F. Will called the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids—that, if the only thing you needed to hit baseballs over fences was a chemical cocktail, any behemoth in the NFL, the WWF, the alphabet boxing councils, or on the bodybuilding circuit could have broken Maris’s record.

When McGwire eventually faced that House committee (don’t kid yourself that they cared more for the health of the game than for making suspect players do a perp walk to public humiliation), he was blocked by his legal team from owning up. (“I’m not here to discuss the past,” he said to the panel infamously.)

When he returned to baseball as a Cardinals batting coach in 2010, McGwire owned up in full: he said publicly he dipped into the PED waters in a bid to continue playing through frequent injuries, not to enhance what he could do already. However late, his confession was true enough. He could hit a ball of weeds 450 feet whether as a 1987 Rookie of the Year or an injury-wrecked hulk (he doesn’t dismiss that PEDs also instigated a few final injuries) in what proved his 2001 farewell season.

McGwire even apologised to Maris’s widow, Patricia, after his public admission. “My mom was very touched by his call,” said another Maris son, Richard. “She felt sorry for Mark—that he’s going through this. She conveyed that we all make mistakes and move on from there.” Richard’s brother says, retroactively, “Not so fast, Mom.”

Maris, Jr. wants baseball to do something about that post haste. Preferably the split second it appears Judge’s 62nd home run will reach the seats, if not the Sea of Tranquility. You understand his position, too, but good luck with that.

Despise the Sosas and Bondses all you wish. (McGwire accepts that he’ll never reach the Hall of Fame, but his public admission whenever it came bought a lot of good will, regardless of who denies it.) But you can’t just erase the statistics arbitrarily. Any more than Elmer Fudd Frick and Dick Young could impose an asterisk the commissioner himself had no real power to impose.

Pace Brandt, calling Judge the American League’s single-season home run co-champion with Roger Maris isn’t just a euphemism for calling them the “real” single-season home run champions. Judge won’t get beyond the AL record unless he can find a way to send thirteen more baseballs out of the ballparks’ ZIP codes over his next and final eight regular-season games. Settling for being the AL’s single-season bomb king is far from the worst fate he can face.