Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

Commissioner Rob Manfred with White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks before last year’s Field of Dreams game. (The Athletic.)

Having a read of ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr.’s profile of commissioner Rob Manfred, I was almost convinced that maybe, just maybe, there really was more to Manfred than met the eye. Or, more than what comes forth in his stiff presence and often clumsy remarks.

Just maybe, the man isn’t the baseball-hating or baseball-illiterate Rube Goldberg-like abecedarian the caricatures so often portray. He did, after all, grow up a Yankee fan in upstate New York and can say proudly enough that he’s the only baseball commissioner ever who played Little League baseball. “All glove, no bat,” he remembers of being a Little League infielder.

My parents received a set of classic Revere copper-bottom cookware as a wedding present eight years before Manfred was born. (I still remember the fragrance of that special powder used to clean the copper bottoms, too.) Who knew Manfred (three years my junior) was the son of Revere’s production supervisor at their home plant in Rome, New York? An hour’s drive from Cooperstown, as it happens.

Born in 1958, Manfred took in his first live major league game at Yankee Stadium with his sports-obssessed father, sitting between the plate and first base on an Old Timers’ Day. Come game time, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle crashed a pair of home runs and the Yankees beat the Twins, 3-2. When he finally became the game’s commissioner, he handed his father the first baseball with his stamp upon it.

“This is really an unbelievable thing,” Manfred, Sr. told his son. “I can’t say I disagree,” Manfred, Jr. told Van Natta.

A couple of hundred fathoms down, though, Van Natta noted that “more than once” Manfred told him what few baseball commissioners have dared to admit, that being the buffer absorbing the heat that should go to his bosses, the owners, is part of his job. Even if it’s about as pleasant as your private parts being caught in the vacuum cleaner’s handle.

And then it came.

“Every time it’s me, it ain’t one of those 30 guys—that’s good,” Van Natta quoted Manfred as saying. “Look, who the hell am I? I don’t have $2 billion invested in a team. I’m just a guy trying to do a job. I mean it. [The owners] deserve that layer. I believe they deserve that layer of protection. I’m the face of the game, for good or for bad.”

Mr. Manfred, unless it’s to boo and hiss your heads off over this or that piece of mischief, you may rest assured that no baseball fan anywhere in this country is paying his or her hard-earned money to head for the ballpark to see you or your bosses.

But I’m going to do you a small favour, as if you know me from the greenest bat boy on any professional baseball team. I’m going to introduce you to the true faces of the game. The ones whom those fans do pay their hard-earned money to see at the ballpark regardless of the machinations and deceptions of your bosses and theirs.

Mr. Manfred, meet Mike Trout. This is the guy you blamed once upon a time for not being baseball’s face, based upon his committing no crime more grave than letting his play and his clubhouse presence and his agreeability with fans before and after games speak for themselves, with no jive about the magnitude of being him.

Meet Shohei Ohtani. This is the two-way star who lights up the joint just by flashing that thousand-watt grin of his, never mind when he strikes thirteen out on the mound one night and belts baseballs onto the Van Allen Belt the very next. Between himself and Mr. Trout, you should be asking what on earth is wrong with the Angels that they still can’t find quality pitching enough to keep them in a race after they start in one but sputter unconscionably.

Meet Aaron Judge. This is the Leaning Tower of River Avenue who sends baseballs into the Delta Quadrant one moment and then, when made aware, goes out of his way to meet a Canadian kid to whom he’s number one among baseball men and who was handed one of his mammoth home run balls by an adult fan who knew the boy wanted nothing more than to catch one Judge hit out.

Meet Joey Votto. This is the future Hall of Fame first baseman who got himself tossed from a game early last year, but—after he learned his ejection broke the heart of a little California girl to whom he’s a hero above heroes—sent her a ball with his handwritten apology and autograph on it, prompting his team to drop game tickets and a little extra swag upon her the very next day.

Meet Bryce Harper. This is the guy who never apologised for being on board with letting the kids play. The guy now on the injured list with a thumb fracture and surgery to repair it after getting hit by a pitch thrown with one of the baseballs you and yours still can’t see fit to manufacture uniformly and with allowance for fairness on both sides of it, fairness for the pitchers and for the hitters alike.

Meet Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. One is the son of a Hall of Famer who did last season what even his old man never did: led his league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, and led the entire Show in total bases. The other is the son of a respected major league slugger, has quite a lethal bat in his own right when his swing is right, and currently leads his league in trips to the plate. Together they’ve put some zip back into the Blue Jays.

Meet Oneil Cruz. The bat has yet to come to full life but the footwork, the glove, the throwing arm, have shown so far that you can be as tall as Frank Howard, J.R. Richard, and Randy Johnson and still play shortstop as though the position was created for you and not the Little Rascals in the first place. They’re falling in love with him in Pittsburgh, which needs all the love it can get, but they ought to fall in love with him all around the Show—except when he’s going so deep into the hole grabbing a grounder or a hopper that an enemy batter loses his lunch when he’s had a base hit stolen from him.

Meet Clayton Kershaw. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s a Hall of Fame lock as maybe the best pitcher of his generation. He’s still a quality pitcher and a class act. They still buy tickets on the road when they know he’s going to take the ball for the Dodgers. He’s faced his baseball aging curve with grace under pressure. And, for good measure, he’s the one active player who was seen fit to be part of the ceremony when the Dodgers unveiled that statue of their Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax this month, and you know (well, you damn well should know) what a class act Koufax was on the mound and has been in the decades since off it.

(You’re not still P.O.ed that Koufax waxed your Yankees’ tails twice while his Dodgers swept them in the 1963 World Series when you were seven, are you?)

Meet Justin Verlander. Missed a year plus recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.23 ERA and a 3.53 fielding-independent pitching rate so far this season. For any pitcher that’d be a remarkable return so far. For a future Hall of Famer who’s still suiting up at Jack Benny’s age (that’s a joke, son), it’s off the chart so far.

Meet Verlander’s 25-year-old Astros teammate, Yordan Álvarez. He’s leading the entire Show with his .667 slugging percentage, his 1.081 OPS, and his 206 OPS+. If there’s one untainted Astro who’s must-see viewing whenever he checks in at the plate, it’s him.

Meet Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The left side of the Red Sox infield is a big reason why the Olde Towne Team yanked themselves back up from the netherworld into second place in that rough and tumble American League East. Did I mention that Devers currently leads the entire Show with 177 total bases?

Meet José Ramírez. The Guardians’ third baseman is giving Devers a run for his money in the All-Star balloting that closes today. That thumb injury has put a crimp into his bat for now, and it’s had its role in the Guardians’ sudden deflation at the plate, but this guy just may be the face of his franchise right now. He ought to be one of the faces of this game.

Meet Mark Appel. This is the guy who went from number one in the draft to injuries as well as pressures and even to an exit from the game only to try giving it one more try—and finally coming up with the Phillies, nine years after that draft, and tossing a scoreless inning . . . at age 30. That’s as feel good a story as it gets for the oldest former number one to make his Show debut, no matter what happens with the rest of what remains of Appel’s career. They don’t all go to hell and back.

Those are only some of baseball’s faces, Mr. Commissioner. They’re the ones the fans want to see and pay through the nose to see. Despite your tinkerings. Despite your often erroneous readings of the room. Despite your inability or unwillingness to demand the same accountability of umpires that you do of players, coaches, and managers.

Despite your inability to let your professed deep love of the game come through without tripping over itself because, as an improvisor, well, if you were a musician the consensus would be that Miles Davis you ain’t.

The Phlying Phillies

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches his seventh-inning blast off the Miller Park scoreboard behind the center field fence Thursday. Would you have predicted a seven-game winning streak for the Phillies  including six straight since Joe Girardi’s execution?

Don’t look now, but that’s a seven-game winning streak the Phillies have now posted, six of which—including Thursday’s 8-3 demolition of the Brewers in Milwaukee—have happened since Joe Girardi was thrown off the bridge in favour of his bench coach and longtime associate Rob Thomson.

From the moment they took down the Giants in what proved Girardi’s final game on the bridge, the Phillies’ thought-formidable offense went from sputtering to out-scoring the opposition 53-19. Living up at last to their preseason billing as a threshing machine at the plate, they posted an .877 team OPS entering Thursday’s game largely by way of hitting eighteen home runs during the streak.

They’ve also pitched above and beyond enough to make it matter. Entering Thursday, the Phillie streak showed a team 3.00 ERA and—better, yet, by far enough—a 2.38 team fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate.

They even helped take another manager down while they were at it, sweeping the Angels last weekend and thus putting Joe Maddon into a guillotine that may have been built for him before the season began. Sweeping the National League Central-leading Brewers doesn’t measure their skipper Craig Counsell for beheading just yet. But still.

Before they beat the Giants last week the Phillies looked so lost, so unable to shake the late-inning deflations and bullpen arsons, that calling them by their ancient Phutile Phillies nickname seemed more than an exercise in phutility. Since beating those Giants, it looks as though it’s phun to be a Phillie again.

Even being out-hit by the Brewers 11-9 on Thursday, and opening by Brewers starter/defending Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes striking them out in order, the Phillies still found a way to turn a measly one-run lead after six full innings into a five-run margin of triumph.

It only began with Bryce Harper, whose UCL injury limits him to designated hitting, leading off the Philadelphia seventh with a parabolic home run banging off the scoreboard well behind the center field fence. Giving him three bombs in his past four games.

Then with outfielder Mickey Moniak aboard on a two-out walk in the top of the eighth, Kyle Schwarber hit a hanging 2-1 sinker 432 feet over the right center field fence. And in the top of the ninth, Harper set the table with a first-pitch base hit to right center and Odubel Herrera dined on a hovering changeup—after fouling off four straight—to prove practise makes perfect, sending it into the right field seats.

A first-inning blast from former Ray Willy Adames and a leadoff bomb in the sixth by Hunter Renfroe were the only damage the Brewers could do until former Phillie (and former longtime Pirate standout) Andrew McCutcheon singled Christian Yelich home with two outs, before Phillies reliever James Norwood got the game-ending ground out from Brewers third baseman Jace Peterson.

“Someone put the fear of God into them,” says a lady of my acquaintance regarding the suddenly Phlying Phillies. Considering Girardi’s reputation as a by-the-book, nuclear-intense martinet, perhaps it was more as though someone removed the fear of God from them. Most of it, anyway.

When they finished sweeping the Angels this past Sunday, the big blows were Harper’s grand slam and rookie third baseman Bryson Stott, Stott walking it off with a three-run blast against the Angels’ own wavering bullpen arsonists. Harper was almost beside himself over Stott’s blast.

“I’m so happy for the kid, man,” the defending National League Most Valuable Player crowed after that 9-7 win.

What an at-bat. What a situation for him. Being able to put our trust in our young guys the last couple days, and really let them just play . . . it’s been great. And it paid off today. The thing about Bryson is he’s got to play. He’s used to playing every day. From high school, to college, to minor league baseball, to now. He’s used to playing every day, and that’s what we’ve got to do for our young guys . . .

Our young guys have got to play. When you want your young guys to have success, they have to play everyday. And when they have those opportunities, I think they’re going to take full advantage of that. If that’s Bryson, if that’s [Nick] Maton, if that’s [Alec] Bohm-er or anybody else . . .

From Girardi’s difficulty in trusting his youth to Thomson’s apparent fearlessness in trusting the young guys to just play. There were those taking Harper’s commentary as a veiled shot at Girardi, and you can understand why to a small extent. On the other hand . . .

“We needed to get going,” Harper said after the Phillies finished sweeping the Brewers. “Everybody knew that. It’s just a different vibe. I think we’re just playing good ball right now.”

Maybe a change of managers doesn’t always ramp up into immediate winning streaks. But remember the 2009 Rockies pinking Clint Hurdle and installing former Dodger manager Jim Tracy on the bridge. Tracy took the gig with the Rockies when they were 18-28. They started 2-4 under him but then hit an eleven-game winning streak that turned into fourteen of fifteen and launched them toward the National League wild-card game.

Ironically enough, Hurdle took the Rockies bridge after Buddy Bell was executed in 2002 . . . and they won six straight to begin the Hurdle era. And, 107 years ago, Pat Moran took the Phillies bridge to open the season, went 8-0 out of the chute, and ended up in the World Series, where they lost to the Red Sox who featured a kid pitcher named Babe Ruth.

On the other hand, there were 81 mid-season manager switches from 1987-2010, eighty of which came courtesy of executions. Only nineteen of those teams changing skippers mid-season finished those seasons with .500 or better records for the year, and out of those nineteen only five—Tracy’s Rockies, the 2004 Astros, the 2003 Marlins, the 1989 Blue Jays, and the 1988 Red Sox—reached the postseason, with one (the ’03 Fish) going all the way to win the World Series.

Nobody wants to spoil the Phillies’ party now. But the precedents don’t favour them entirely, either. Savour it while you have it, Phillieppine Island. For however long it proves to last. And if the currently Phlying Phillies manage to make the postseason at all, count your blessings and your miracles. They don’t happen as often as we’d like.

The real batting champions of 2021

Shohei OhtaniBryce HarperTrea Turner finishing the 2021 season with a .328 “batting average” is the National League champion. Right? And Yuli Gurriel finishing with a .319 “batting average” is the American League champion. Right? Only if you continue accepting the fraudulence of the traditional batting average.

Yes, I wrote “fraudulence.” There’s a reason for it. The “batting champion” is determined by dividing hits by official at-bats, but it also treats all hits as equal. The champion is also determined based on having had a minimum number of plate appearances—and yet those PAs that don’t end in base hits don’t count otherwise. No matter what he did in them.

Can you really determine a batting champion without giving him due credit for bases on balls, too? For sacrifice flies? For being hit by pitches? “Official at-bats” make those types of plate appearances vanish. Thin air. Why on earth are we not allowing the whole picture of a man at the plate to factor into his “batting championship?”

Is it truly fair to anoint a “batting champion” when mere hits divided by mere official at-bats treats his singles equal to his doubles, his triples, his home runs? When that quotient treats his doubles like his triples and home runs? His triples equal to his home runs? When it says his home runs are worth nothing more than his singles, his doubles, his triples? When it says his triples are worth nothing more than his singles and doubles? When it says his doubles are worth nothing more than his singles?

Do you really watch a baseball game and believe every hit a player gets is equal? Well, they’d be equal if he goes 4-for-4 with four singles, or four doubles, or four triples, or four home runs. If he hits for the cycle, that’s a remarkable achievement. But you know bloody well that each hit in the cycle was not equal.

Here, we’re going to determine the real batting champions by—you guessed it—my concept of a Real Batting Average. For those ten of you who’ve read my prior writings about it, bear with me for the sake of those new to it.

Real Batting Average (RBA) adds total bases, walks, intentional walks, sacrifice flies, and hit-by-pitches, and divides that total by total plate appearances. We begin with total bases because that number most accurately credits a batter’s hits they way they deserve to be credited—unequally.

Why intentional walks, especially when the other pitcher doesn’t have to throw four wide ones deliberately to make it stick anymore? Very simple: why shouldn’t that batter get credit when the other guys would rather he take his base than their pitcher’s head off?

Why sacrifice flies, since the batter’s making an out? Well, a runner on third scores on the fly, right? That batter didn’t check in at the plate planning to make an out for any reason. So yes, he gets the credit for the only really, truly productive offensive out in any baseball game.

Why are you leaving sacrifice bunts out of the formula?!? Why, I reply, do you insist on a batter getting credit for a pre-meditated out? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—outs to work with are the most. precious. commodity. a lineup has to work with when it’s their turn to bat in an inning. Handing the other guys a free defensive out relieves them of one full third of the responsibility of trying to get your lineup out of an inning without damage.

Sacrifice bunts don’t just waste precious offensive outs. In four out of six known sac bunt situations, a team is generally worse off, not better off, after that bunt, in terms of how likely it is for a run to score as a result of that bunt. In only one such situation (men on first and second and nobody out) is a team mostly better off after that bunt; in one more such situation (man on second, nobody out) is a team no better or worse off after that bunt.

I’m going to say it again: the only times any batter should even think about dropping a bunt are a) when he’s being overshifted defensively and has the gift of all that succulent free territory to work with (even and especially if the other guys are stupid enough to give it to him while protecting their pitcher’s no- or one-hitter); or, b) when he sees an infield full of stone hands he can exploit accordingly.

But I digress. If you’re unfamiliar with RBA, you want to know why I’m counting hit by pitches in the equation. Very simple—they want to plunk you, you ought to get extra credit for taking one for the team. They put you on base with malice aforethought, you take your RBA credit with cheerful afterthought. Hopefully, without taking a concurrent hole in the head the way Bryce Harper damn near did in April.

Now that you know (or remember) the thinking behind RBA, here’s the formula once again: TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP / PA.

So, how about we get to the good part—determining each league’s real batting champions according to RBA. Since Trea Turner’s .328 hitting average led the entire Show among qualifiers, who needed 501 PA or more to qualify, let’s begin with the National League—where Turner comes out number fifteen:

2021 NL Qualifiers PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Bryce Harper 599 300 100 14 4 5 .706
Juan Soto 654 268 145 23 5 2 .677
Fernando Tatis, Jr. 546 292 62 6 4 2 .670
Joey Votto 533 252 77 6 4 4 .644
Nick Castellanos 585 306 41 5 6 7 .624
Max Muncy 592 262 83 5 1 11 .611
Tyler O’Neill 537 270 38 0 4 13 .605
Bryan Reynolds 646 292 75 9 4 8 .601
C.J. Cron 547 249 60 3 4 13 .601
Freddie Freeman 695 302 85 15 2 8 .593
Will Smith 501 205 58 4 11 18 .591
Brandon Crawford 549 252 56 6 5 5 .590
Pete Alonso 637 291 60 6 4 12 .586
Austin Riley 662 313 52 2 8 12 .585
Trea Turner 646 319 41 2 4 6 .576
Paul Goldschmidt 679 310 67 2 5 4 .571
Mookie Betts 550 227 68 2 5 11 .569
Manny Machado 640 276 63 10 11 2 .566
Trevor Story 595 262 53 2 5 11 .560
Nolen Arenado 653 293 50 8 7 3 .553
Kris Bryant 586 247 62 4 2 9 .553
Avisail Garcia 515 226 38 5 5 11 .553
Jonathan India 631 244 71 1 4 23 .544
Josh Bell 568 237 65 2 3 2 .544
Justin Turner 612 251 61 0 6 12 .539
Andrew McCutchen 574 214 81 2 7 4 .537
Javier Baez 547 248 28 2 3 13 .537
Adam Duvall 555 252 35 1 3 4 .532
Mike Yastrzemski 532 214 51 4 3 9 .528
Ozzie Albies 686 307 47 2 7 3 .523
Jesus Aguilar 510 206 46 4 7 3 .522
Jake Cronenworth 643 261 55 6 3 10 .521
Luis Urias 570 218 63 3 3 10 .521
Eduardo Escobar 599 259 48 1 1 1 .518
Ryan McMahon 596 237 59 2 5 4 .515
Chris Taylor 582 222 63 2 3 8 .512
J.T. Realmuto 537 209 48 5 2 11 .512
Dylan Carlson 619 237 57 2 8 11 .509
Dansby Swanson 653 264 52 4 7 5 .508
Ian Happ 535 202 62 0 1 5 .505
Eugenio Suarez 574 216 56 0 5 8 .497
Francisco Lindor 524 186 58 4 3 5 .489
Trent Grisham 527 191 54 2 4 6 .488
Tommy Pham 561 182 78 3 4 4 .483
Charlie Blackmon 582 211 54 1 3 11 .481
Josh Rojas 550 199 58 1 3 0 .475
Jonathan Villar 505 189 46 2 0 3 .475
Jazz Chisholm 507 197 34 0 3 4 .469
Kyle Farmer 529 201 22 1 5 18 .467
Adam Frazier 639 237 48 2 1 10 .466
David Peralta 538 196 46 3 2 3 .465
Eric Hosmer 565 201 48 2 2 5 .457
Pavin Smith 545 201 42 1 1 4 .457
Miguel Rojas 539 194 37 0 1 5 .440
Jean Segura 567 224 39 3 4 9 .439
Tommy Edman 691 248 38 1 4 6 .430
Raimel Tapia 533 181 40 2 4 1 .428
Kevin Newman 554 160 27 3 3 1 .350

So, considering Yuli Gurriel’s .319 hitting average, how do the American League title qualifiers stack according to RBA? Fair warning: Gurriel isn’t in the top twenty.

2021 AL Qualifiers PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Shohei Ohtani 639 318 96 20 2 4 .689
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. 698 363 86 7 2 6 .665
Matt Olson 673 305 88 12 11 9 .632
Jose Ramirez 636 297 72 10 5 7 .615
Kyle Tucker 567 282 53 5 5 1 .610
Aaron Judge 633 299 75 2 5 3 .607
Rafael Devers 664 318 62 7 4 7 .599
Brandon Lowe 615 280 68 4 3 9 .592
Marcus Semien 724 351 66 0 3 3 .584
Yordan Alvarez 598 285 50 3 3 8 .584
Salvador Perez 665 337 28 4 4 13 .580
Giancarlo Stanton 579 263 63 1 3 3 .575
J.D. Martinez 634 295 55 6 5 3 .574
Cedric Mullins 675 312 59 3 4 8 .572
Joey Gallo 616 228 111 5 1 6 .570
Nelson Cruz 584 255 51 10 9 7 .568
Jared Walsh 585 270 48 6 3 4 .566
Josh Donaldson 543 217 74 2 8 4 .562
Teoscar Hernandez 595 288 36 1 2 7 .561
Xander Bogaerts 603 261 62 2 7 5 .559
Jose Abreu 659 272 61 3 10 22 .558
Carlos Correa 640 269 75 2 6 4 .556
Jose Altuve 678 294 66 3 6 4 .550
Jorge Polanco 644 296 45 0 6 5 .547
Hunter Renfroe 572 261 44 0 6 1 .545
Mitch Haniger 691 301 54 2 8 9 .541
Ryan Mountcastle 586 260 41 2 7 4 .536
Randy Arozarena 604 243 56 4 5 14 .533
Yuli Gurriel 605 245 59 2 12 4 .532
Miguel Sano 532 219 59 2 1 2 .532
Austin Meadows 591 237 59 3 8 6 .530
Bo Bichette 690 310 40 0 4 6 .522
Enrique Hernandez 585 228 61 0 7 9 .521
Robbie Grossman 671 231 98 3 6 8 .516
Ty France 650 254 46 1 6 27 .514
Jeimer Candelario 626 247 65 1 0 4 .506
Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. 541 233 32 1 6 2 .506
Yoan Moncada 616 214 84 1 2 10 .505
Kyle Seager 670 264 59 2 4 4 .497
Austin Hays 529 225 28 0 1 9 .497
Nathaniel Lowe 642 231 80 2 3 2 .495
Trey Mancini 616 240 51 4 1 8 .494
Tim Anderson 551 247 22 1 1 1 .494
Alex Verdugo 604 232 51 6 5 4 .493
Matt Chapman 622 213 80 0 9 4 .492
Mark Canha 625 201 77 0 2 27 .491
Adolis Garcia 622 264 32 0 4 5 .490
Andrew Benintendi 538 218 36 0 6 2 .487
Michael Brantley 508 205 33 1 1 5 .482
Yandy Diaz 541 180 69 4 4 3 .481
Jonathan Schoop 674 271 37 0 8 6 .478
Joey Wendle 501 194 28 4 3 10 .477
Jed Lowrie 512 182 49 1 4 2 .465
Randal Grichuk 545 216 27 0 4 3 .459
Hunter Dozier 543 192 43 0 6 7 .457
Cesar Hernandez 637 220 59 2 3 5 .454
Miguel Cabrera 526 182 40 0 9 5 .449
Amed Rosario 588 225 31 0 4 3 .447
Whit Merrifield 720 262 40 1 12 4 .443
D.J. LeMahieu 679 216 73 2 5 4 .442
Carlos Santana 659 193 86 3 5 3 .440
J.P. Crawford 687 233 58 1 4 5 .438
Gleyber Torres 516 168 50 1 4 1 .434
Nicky Lopez 565 188 49 0 3 4 .432
Jose Iglesias 511 189 21 0 1 6 .425
Nick Solak 511 166 34 0 2 15 .425
Myles Straw 638 196 67 0 4 2 .422
Michael A. Taylor 528 172 33 0 5 5 .407
David Fletcher 665 203 60 1 1 1 .400
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 677 227 28 2 2 11 .399
Elvis Andrus 541 159 31 2 4 6 .373

You knew Ohtani was having a season so far off the charts for its unicorn nature—a pitcher who could hit well enough to be a designated hitter on the days he didn’t pitch? a hitter who could pitch well enough to lead his team’s starting pitchers in both earned run average (3.18) and fielding-independent pitching (3.52), not to mention strikeouts per nine (10.8)? You knew he could and did hit for breathtaking power enough to finish third in the American League home run race with his 46.

But did you realise Ohtani really was that good at the plate all year? Would you have expected him to beat Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. out among qualifying American League batters and finish second in Show among them with a .689 RBA? Now do you get why Ohtani wasn’t just the most must-see-television among the otherwise hapless (and still pitching-challenged) Angels in the too-long injury-compelled absence of Mike Trout?

What about Harper? Isn’t it time for his critics to shut the hell up once and for all? The guy who led the entire Show in on-base plus slugging (OPS) with his 1.044 this year also led the entire Show with his .706 RBA. Not to mention all but dragging his Phillies back to where they got thatclose to sneaking off with the National League East title—until they met the Braves last week, and ran out of gas or whatever, letting the Braves pin them to the mats and out of the runnings.

Harper opened the season with a lifetime .610 RBA. He closed it pushing his career RBA to (wait for it!) .620. That was despite that pitch off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist taking something off his swing for almost a month.

(It’s also to lament that that torn calf killed Trout’s 2021 after just 36 games played in April and May. When he went down for keeps, his RBA was .733. I’m pretty sure that allowed a full season he would have kept pace and finished with an RBA in the .700+ range. It wouldn’t have done the Angels any good so long as they still couldn’t build a viable full pitching staff, but think about a full season Trout and Ohtani combining for a .650+ RBA.)

So meet your real 2021 batting champions—Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani. Everything else considered, it may not be unrealistic to say that you’ve just met your 2021 Most Valuable Players as well.

The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

Manny Machado teaches a hard-learned lesson

Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis, Jr.

Machado gestures emphatically while putting Tatis in his place in the fifth Saturday night.

More often than I care to admit, I miss the real fun stuff. That’s when I have to play catch-up as best I can with what I have.

On Saturday night, I watched my Mess (er, Mets) lose to the Phillies, 5-3, because the game was available to me on Fox Sports via Hulu.

But out in St. Louis, there were Padres veteran Manny Machado and boy wonder Fernando Tatis, Jr. having it out as the sides began changing in the middle of the fifth in St. Louis.

There, moreover, was Machado actually behaving like a team leader in the bargain. Go ahead and say it, until now you thought putting Machado and “team leader” in the same sentence was the equivalent of mining a diamond with a dental pick. But hear me out.

In both games, both sides spent enough time chirping over, shall we say, floating strike zones—the Mets and the Phillies about plate umpire C.B. Bucknor’s, the Padres and the Cardinals about their plate umpire Phil Cuzzi’s. That isn’t exactly new business when it comes to that pair of arbiters.

But the worst out of either the Mets or the Phillies  about Bucknor in Citi Field was chirping. In Busch Stadium, Tatis didn’t just take it when Cuzzi rang him up on a called, full-count, third strike from Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright leading off the top of the fifth.

The Padres led 2-0 at the time, in a game they absolutely had to win to stay alive in the National League wild-card race. First, Tatis gave an obviously frustrated sigh. Then, he bent his head over his left shoulder and made a few body-language movements plus some utterances . . . but he did it facing away from Cuzzi.

The bad news is that replays showed Cuzzi actually called the pitch right. It hit just under the strike zone ceiling. The worse news for the moment was Padres manager Jayce Tingler hustling out of the dugout to argue the call, trying to protect his player, but getting himself tossed post haste.

As Tingler got the ho-heave, Tatis returned to the dugout and banged the bench a few times in his frustration. Then, apparently, he continued grumbling about that third strike as the inning went forward, with Jake Cronenworth stranded on second following a one-out double. Machado is known to have befriended Tatis personally, but he’d also had more than enough of whatever bellyaching Tatis continued during the inning.

The next thing anyone knew, Machado could be heard hollering clearly enough at Tatis, Go play baseball! You play baseball. You can’t worry about that sh@t! You go play baseball! [Fornicate] that sh@t! Tatis must have tried to interject something about the disputed strike right there, because Machado then hollered, No, it’s not. It’s not about you! It’s not [fornicating] about you! Go [fornicating] play baseball.

Then the Padres’ veteran third baseman and their youthful superstar shortstop went back to the field to continue [fornicating] playing baseball.

The Padres lead held until the bottom of the eighth, when Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman lofted a one-out sacrifice fly, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt wrung Padres reliever Emilio Pagan for a walk, and left fielder Tyler O’Neill hit a 2-2 cutter into the left field bullpen.

Perhaps ironically, two innings before that blast, O’Neill was no more thrilled with Cuzzi’s strike zone than any Padre on the night. He simply didn’t let mere frustration turn into a fuming that might require a Cardinal veteran or two dressing him down on the spot before the ump might throw him out.

“That was a great job by him not getting too animated there,” said Wainwright, who’d surrendered only a pair of RBI singles to Victor Caratini and Tommy Pham in the top of the fourth. “If we lose him right there, we probably lose the game . . . That was a lot of maturity by him to not get thrown out right there on some tough calls.”

O’Neill’s blast overthrew the lead Padres starter Yu Darvish handed the Padres bullpen after seven shutout innings during which he’d allowed a mere three hits while striking nine Cardinals out. The Padres had no answer in return against Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos in the top of the ninth, with their own veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer striking out swinging on a slightly high fastball to end it.

Machado and Tatis had to be separated by Padres coach Ryan Flaherty before they returned to the field. Post-game, Tingler said only that the dustup wasn’t viewed “negatively” around the team that’s now lost 23 of their last 33 games after entering the season practically crowned the World Series winners-to-be by an awful lot of people now dining on roast crow.

“I’m sure people on the outside think it’s whatever they think, but we’re family,” Tingler told the press. “We’re not going to discuss the details, but we care. There’s passion, there’s frustration. Those are all emotions that are natural and those things happen. But it comes down to a group of men caring.”

The details were captured on more than one video that went slightly viral within moments of the dustup ending, as things turned out. Then the real focus became Machado, who once had a reputation for just the kind of petulance over which he’d now dressed Tatis down so dramatically and, shall we say, colourfully.

Those trying to score the dressing-down as just another example of Machado still being a self-centered pain in the rump roast might be shocked to discover a former Padre, Will Middlebrooks, tweeting very much otherwise in the immediate wake:

I know people will take the angle of “Machado is a bad teammate”…but you couldn’t be more wrong here. This was a leadership move. Let’s not forget FTJ is still 22. A phenomenal player, but still a lot to learn. Tatis can’t get tossed in the 5th inning of a game they need to win.

During an exchange featuring more than a few dissenting tweeters, Middlebrooks added, “History tells me that Machado had the experiences to know better. He’s grown up a lot and learned from his past.

The Padres didn’t make either Machado or Tatis available to the press after the game. But a week earlier, Machado spoke to Athletic writer Britt Ghrioli, during a weekend on which the Padres lost twice to the Dodgers. Machado only began by saying he’d learned some things at last.

There’s a time and place for everything. In Baltimore, I was young. I was just there to play. There were other guys that were leaders—Adam (Jones), J.J. (Hardy), (Matt) Wieters . . . Now, obviously, it’s different. Guys are looking up to me.

I think what’s happening now in this game is we are losing track of the older guys, the respect of the veterans, guys who have been here and done it a long time. You got to earn that respect; you got to earn that role. It’s not just given. A lot of players now are just expected to be the guy [when they reach the majors]. But I’m old-school baseball; I want to teach it how I was taught.

When you are young you make a lot of mistakes. You make mistakes as you grow and hopefully you learn from them, you gain experience. You [fornicate] up again, give your thoughts and learn from it again. That’s what it’s about. I messed up a lot at a young age, like a lot of people, but you take that and you try to learn from it. I’m at the point now where — I’ll be 30 [next year], I want to win. I just want to win.  And I think we can do that here.

“I would say Manny’s done a good job with all his leadership throughout the year,” Tingler said, though he refused again to speak of the deets involving the dugout dustup. “But I would say Manny being able to share his experience and share his past experiences of coming up in the league is a good thing.”

It hasn’t turned Machado into a grump refusing to let the kids play. He still has clear fun playing the game. It’s simply made him one of the adults in the room who knows from bitter experience when the kids can’t afford to get sent to bed without their supper and tries to stop it as best he can with what he has.

While all that happened, I was watching Phillies second baseman Jean Segura hit a pair of solo homers in the first and third off Mets starter Carlos Carrasco. I watched Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo hit a one-out triple off the top of the right field wall and score on an infield ground out in the sixth to cut the deficit in half.

But I also watched Bryce Harper hit a two-run double in the seventh off Mets relief retread Brad Hand to put the game just out of the Mets’ reach. The other guys have now hit .357 off Hand since the Mets lifted him from the waiver wire at the beginning of this month.

And, after Mets reliever Miguel Castro sank into but escaped a bases-loaded jam with no further Phillies scoring in the top of the eighth, I saw Nimmo hit one over the right field fence to lead their half off but no further Met scoring the rest of the way.

It put the Phillies a mere game behind the Braves in the NL East, with the Braves losing to the Giants, 2-0, in San Francisco. It also kept the Mets five and a half out of first in the East but pushed them to seven games back in the wild card race. The Phillies knock on the door of improbability; the Mets—now losers of five straight—are only a step or three from going through the floor.

Catching up to the Padres and their once-unexpected adult in the room in St. Louis proved just as intriguing.