Smarts in Houston, suicide in Cleveland

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani took perfection into the sixth, where a bunt couldn’t do what a subsequent base hit did . . .

Shohei Ohtani didn’t just flirt with perfection Wednesday, he almost seduced it. A twelve-punchout performance on the mound; a two-run double to finish the first-inning carnage against Astros starter Jake Odorizzi; a perfect game broken with one out in the seventh. And his Angels in sole possession of the American League West’s penthouse. For now.

But right before Astros catcher Jason Castro fisted a base hit over second base into short center with one out in the Houston sixth, their own second baseman Niko Goodrum tried to break the would-be perfecto in a manner that usually brings the wrath of the Sacred Unwritten Rules chauvinists down upon the miscreant. On 0-1 leading the inning off, Goodrum tried to bunt an Ohtani slider up the third base line.

This time, the chauvinists didn’t rain acid down upon Goodrum. For one thing, the Angels put an overshift on against the lefthanded-hitting Goodrum. Just why the Angels thought a .133/.133/.200 slash line on the season to date required an overshift escapes for the moment.

But Goodrum did exactly the right thing receiving so much free, delicious real estate upon which to hit. His team down six, and knowing he wouldn’t be wasting an out with a bunt, Goodrum did absolutely nothing wrong sizing the scenario up and dropping a bunt toward that free territory—except the ball bounding over the chalk into foul territory halfway up the third base line.

Which was the spot to where Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon ran from his positioning adjacent to second base and grabbed the ball just in case, with Ohtani also bounding over from the mound. Back on the mound, Ohtani and Goodrum wrestled to a 2-2 count before Goodrum swung and missed at a nasty curve ball hitting the outer edge of the zone.

Maybe if Goodrum had pushed a successful bunt up the line and landed on first base practically on the house, the SUR chauvinists would have gone nuclear. Maybe. It’s become a little more acceptable according to the SURs to drop a bunt if the other guys are silly enough to think an overshift is a good way to keep a batter below the proverbial Mendoza Line from breaking it up the old fashioned way.

Come to think of it, Ohtani himself put on a demonstration of one of the only other times it’s wise to bunt—if you think you can get a base hit out of it without a full shift against you. With one out and nobody on in the Angels’ sixth, against Astros reliever Cristian Javier, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani faced a slight overshift, slight enough to move Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to a more standard shortstop positioning but still leaving him room to move if he wanted to drop one.

On 1-2 Ohtani chopped a beauty toward the third base side of the mound and blasted out of the box. Javier pounced as best he could but he threw a rising sailer over and past the upstretched mitt of leaping Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an exercise in futility, considering Ohtani would have beaten a cleaner throw by about a step on the play, and considering the Angels stranded him on first for the inning.

Goodrum and Javier have a teammate who understands, ahem, perfectly about perfecto-breaking bunts. Justin Verlander had it happen to him, while still pitching for the Tigers on 21 June 2017. He took a perfect game bid against the Mariners into the sixth, with the Tigers up 4-0 to that point.

With one out, Seattle’s swift center fielder Jarrod Dyson squared, bunted one between the mound and first base, and ran himself into a base hit. Unlike Goodrum’s attempt Wednesday, Dyson’s successful bunt that day kicked off a three-run Mariners inning that pushed Verlander out of the game. It also preceded a four-run Mariners seventh at the expenses of Tigers relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson.

That was the part that roiled Verlander far more than any perfecto-breaking bunt ever could. “It was a perfect bunt,” Verlander said of Dyson. “That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”

Goodrum played smart baseball, even if his bunt bid bounded foul before he finally struck out swinging. Even if the Angels finished what they started, a 6-0 shutout to take two of three from the Astros in Houston after losing three of four at Angel Stadium to open the season. At least neither manager, Dusty Baker (Astros) nor Joe Maddon (Angels), fell asleep at the proverbial switch Wednesday.

Dallas Keuchel

. . . but Keuchel looks to be praying for mercy amidst an unconscionable nine-run second/ten-run total beating before he was lifted too little/too late.

That dishonour belonged to White Sox manager Tony La Russa in Cleveland earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader. Despite a well-enough rested bullpen thanks to a week-opening pair of rainouts, a pen that hadn’t exactly been overworked in a preceding set against the Rays, either, La Russa inexplicably left his veteran starter Dallas Keuchel in to take an early ten-run beating on a day Keuchel’s stuff didn’t exist from the outset.

Keuchel had enough trouble trying to shake off a first inning during which a pair of White Sox defensive miscues helped cost him a run before he surrendered a hit. He never got out of the second alive: a leadoff throwing error; four straight singles two of which pushed runs home with the bases loaded; a grand slam; three straight singles more, a wild pitch advancing the first of those Guardians to second and the third sending another run home; a run-scoring ground ball turned into another White Sox error; and yet another RBI single.

Finally, La Russa got Keuchel out of there and brought in Tanner Banks. He got a prompt step-and-throw double play at first and a ground out right back to the box for the side.

Joe and Jane Fan can bleat all they want, as one or two I saw aboard social media did, that sometimes you just have to take one for the team, sometimes you just have to try to  “save” your bullpen even if it means getting murdered, and it’s just one April loss against a long season to come, and the goal is to win two of three, innit?

“I’m 100% certain LaRussa knew Keuchel didn’t have it,” said one such fan, in fact. “Sometimes the decision to leave guys in or take them out is more about 162 games than 1 game. As is the case here. He was hoping Keuchel could survive that inning and make it thru an inning or two more.”

A Hall of Fame manager, even coming out of retirement for one more turn, knows he should be thinking of every game until or unless his team is eliminated mathematically from a pennant race. He should know well enough when his starter doesn’t have it. Knowing that, and knowing he had a reasonably rested bullpen, just how does a conscientious manager not get that poor starter the hell out of there before the game goes from a small leak to a flood?

Keuchel came into the game throwing little more than meatballs and matzo balls as it was, before Jose Ramirez—the Guardians third baseman flush with a yummy new contract extension—stood in in that second inning with the bases loaded, three Guard runs in, nobody out yet, and sent a hanging 1-1 cutter over the left field fence.

If La Russa “knew” Keuchel didn’t have it before that, it shouldn’t have been allowed to go there in the first place. Especially if he was going to go to Banks to clean up the mess. Banks hadn’t pitched since the previous Sunday. He also hadn’t surrendered an earned run in his three previous relief gigs. And what did he do when La Russa brought him in?

After getting that step-and-throw double play to end the second inning before the Guards could have made the case against their human rights violations any worse, Banks threw three more hitless, shutout innings, before Matt Foster and Anderson Severino finished with only one further Guards run to come—when Steven Kwan singled Myles Straw home off Severino in the ninth.

There was a time when La Russa would never have let a game get that far out of hand that soon if his starter didn’t have it going in. That’s part of how La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings in the first place. “The manager didn’t get them ready to play,” La Russa said of his team after that blowout loss, and before the White Sox lost the nightcap, 2-1. “I take the heat for that.”

Lucky for him and them that there is still a long season to play yet.

Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

The universal DH: “Evidence over ideology”

Bruce Hurst

As a hitter, Bruce Hurst was an excellent 1986 World Series pitcher.

Long before I got religion about the designated hitter, George F. Will did. I didn’t have a specific road-to-Damascus moment, merely a lot of re-thinking based upon a lot of evidence I’d ignored previously. Will’s road-to-Damascus moment came watching Game One of the 1986 World Series, which opened in New York’s Shea Stadium.

The ill-fated Red Sox (weren’t they always ill-fated from 1919 through the end of 2003?) were stripped of their DH playing in the National League ballpark. Their Game One starting pitcher Bruce Hurst was compelled to bat for, possibly, the first time since high school during the Ford Administration.

From the moment the Red Sox drafted Hurst in round one, 1976 draft, until that World Series game, he had exactly one professional plate appearance, in the minor leagues—and struck out. Now, in his first three major league plate appearances, Hurst struck out three times. Permit me to remind you of those three plate appearances.

Top of the third, two outs, against Mets starter Ron Darling: Three pitches, three swings, one strikeout, and one home plate umpire, John Kibler, laughing his fool head off over the absurdity of it.

Top of the fifth, two outs, a man on first (Dave Henderson, after a one-out base hit up the middle), also against Darling: A slightly miraculous 2-2 count, then swinging strike three. Runner stranded.

Top of the seventh, two outs, against Darling yet again: Well, what do you know. With Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman on second, after his grounder to second resulted in Hall of Famer Jim Rice scoring on an errant throw home, Darling walked shortstop Spike Owen—a .231 hitter on the regular season, but a .429 hitter while the Red Sox won the American League Championship Series—to pitch to Hurst.

After his well-reported harrumphing, “I’m serious,” Hurst on 1-2 swung and missed. Kibler really couldn’t help himself that time.

“Umpires are carved from granite and stuffed with microchips,” Will wrote then. “They are supposed to be dispassionate dispensers of Pure Justice, icy islands of emotionless calculation . . . Nothing that causes such a collapse of decorum can be in the national interest.” Neither was yet another rally killed by a pitcher with a pool noodle bat, in a game in which the unearned run Rice scored off the Gedman grounder was the game’s sole run.

A veteran ESPN writer, Tim Kurkjian, laments the advent of the universal DH because we will have a little less “magic” in the game: “The universal DH, for all of its uniformity, practicality, and Shohei Ohtani, saddens a small few of us, for it eliminates one of the game’s underappreciated elements: pitchers hitting, or not hitting, which, for 150 years, has provided great statistics, stories and smiles.”

Kurkjian’s roll of outliers—and, Ohtani to one distinct and extremely-extreme outlying side, outliers is what they are—kicks off with Michael Lorenzen, for seven years a Reds relief pitcher until signing as a free agent with the Angels last November. As pitchers go at the plate, Lorenzen is an outlier with his .233/.282/.429 career slash line at the plate. In 2018, he hit .290, and the entire 2018 Reds pitching staff hit .101.

Three years ago, as Kurkjian celebrates nostalgically, Lorenzen pitched and was credited with a pitching win, hit a two-run homer, and played center field in the same game, against the Phillies on 4 September.

Lucky for him. What Kurkjian omits is that Lorenzen got positioned for a win credit only because he’d served Jay Bruce a 1-2 pitch meaty enough to hit over the center field fence and tie the game at five in the top of the seventh. Lorzenen got the next five outs before getting to bat with a man on in the bottom of the eighth and hit Phillies reliever Blake Parker’s first service into the left center field seats.

You saw that how many times a season? A decade? A century? From how many members of the collective class that (ha! you thought you’d avoid me saying it one more time) has hit .162 from the end of the dead ball era’s final decade through the end of last season?

Now, riddle me this, and be absolutely honest about it for once: You saw how many more rallies destroyed by a pitcher who might as well have a cardboard paper towel tube on his shoulders when compelled to hit with a man or two on base in the early innings, because he was pitching too well to lift just yet—but rally dead because he struck out swinging or whacked into an inning-ending forceout or double play?

Smugger-than-thou National League-loving “traditionalists”—whose league once introduced carpet baseball, and who forget the DH concept was first conceived by a National League owner—love to harrumph about baseball’s diminishing entertainment thanks to managers bereft of “strategy” with the presence of the DH. Very well.

A lot of the same “traditionalists” kvetch concurrently about the alleged and unentertaining epidemic of strikeouts. (Funny how we hate strikeouts unless the pitchers we root for ring them up.) Guess which batters struck out in the highest percentages of their plate appearances last year? (44 percent.) And, a decade earlier? (37 percent.) That’s entertainment?

The age of analytics presents us with things such as the spectacle of its enemies stuck for answers when asked why they oppose more, deeper, truer  information about the game they profess to love. Long before the age arrived, however, baseball’s best managers did 90-95 percent of their “managing” before games even started.

Military pilots obtain encyclopedic, detailed knowledge of enemies and their aircraft before take off, but no conscientious air group sends them up without their parachutes. The universal DH means no baseball manager equipped with any level of knowledge before a game goes into it with the hole in his parachute that a pitcher at the plate normally proves.

In-game strategy isn’t going the way of the Pontiac yet. Like the military pilot, the manager still faces enough moments with minus one second to make the choice that proves the difference between survival and disaster.

I write as a man who was stubborn enough to ignore the evidence before him for a very long time, on the field and in the records alike. Even while watching pitchers wasting outs with sacrifice bunts that in only one out of six known “bunt situations” leave their teams a better chance of scoring after the bunt than before it. Even while watching nine and a half out of ten pitchers swing bats as if trying to swat flies with single sheets of paper. Even while watching poor Bruce Hurst at the plate in Game One of the ’86 Series.

“The real case for the DH is this: it represents the triumph of evidence over ideology,” Will wrote. “The anti-DH ideology is that there should be no specialization in baseball, no division of labor—everyone should play ‘the whole game.’ That theory is slain by this fact: most pitchers only go through the motions at bat. The DH is a way of facing that fact. It says: only serious batters shall bat.”

No one did what Lorenzen did on that 2019 day that since Babe Ruth did it in 1921. “I have a baseball card with only me and Babe Ruth on it,” Kurkjian quotes Lorenzen as saying. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.” Reds fans bereft of the entertainment in winning a World Series since just after the death of freshly-retired conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein might beg to differ.

The Edgy Angels?

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it . . . There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.—Mike Trout.

Ask manager Joe Maddon, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, how long he wants to keep managing, and he’ll smile when he says it even if he’s not kidding. “As long as Mick Jagger performs,” the skipper replies. Well, now.

Maddon’s Angels aren’t exactly the Rolling Stones of baseball, even if the team was created three years before the original Stones lineup cut their first record in England. The Angels have had disasters in their midsts, too, but nobody to the best of anyone’s knowledge has been killed during an Angels game. Yet.

There were times over the years when you might have thought the Angels might have wanted to kill a manager or two, if not each other, but no edition of the Angels was ever as willing to fight each other as the 1972-74 Athletics.

For several years, now, two themes have attached to the Angels: 1) They find everything they need except quality pitching. 2) It might be easier to pass the proverbial camel through the proverbial eye of the proverbial needle than to get the Angels back to the postseason before Mike Trout earns the last dollar on his contract. (In 2030, if you’re scoring at home.)

This is a team that’s had the single greatest player of his and many generations (Baseball Reference lists him as the number five center fielder of all time), a guy who plays a solid center field and whose five top comps as a batter through age 29 are, in descending order, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.), Barry Bonds, and Frank Robinson.

And he hasn’t seen even a sliver of a postseason since his Rookie of the Year 2012, through no fault of his own. Trout exercised maybe baseball’s greatest sense of loyalty when he decided to forego his first entry into the free agency market to sign that $330.1 million contract extension just a sliver over two years ago. Questioning the Angels’ loyalty to him—as in, a team their and baseball’s best all-around player could be proud of—was wholly appropriate.

But Rosenthal now gives the Angels two cheers. Not just because the Angels in this abbreviated spring training look healthy and even happy, but because second-year general manager Perry Minasian has impressed the living daylights out of just about everybody in an Angel uniform, from the manager to Trout to all the way down the roster.

“It starts from the front office, the desire to win, the desire to be better every day,” says one of Minasian’s signature signings, former Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a guy who’s been to the World Series and to two postseasons total. “I see a lot of what I saw in 2015, just the overall grit and badass persona, playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s been a while since the Angels made the playoffs. This is my first year here. The overall tone is they’re kind of all sick of this s—.”

If anyone has credentials to discuss badass personae, it’s the guy who thought nothing of opening Game Three of the 2015 World Series by dropping Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar—who’d gotten a little too comfortable at the plate in the first two games—right onto his seat with the first pitch, before striking him out emphatically. Perhaps coincidentally, it was the only Series game those Mets won in a set during which their then-porous defense blew three other games they could have won.

That was then, this is now. Syndergaard isn’t the only Angels pitcher saying they’re sick of all that you-know-what. “I see a bunch of guys that are hungry, that know the pressure is on us,” says young starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval. “Everyone says the Angels’ rotation is a question mark every single year. The guys like me, Shohei [Ohtani] and [Jaime] Barría, we’ve heard it for three years now. We’re kind of sick of it.”

Minasian also did what was once thought unthinkable, never mind undoable in the recent Angels past. He overhauled the bullpen, $92.75 worth of overhaul, keeping closer Raisel Iglesias (2.83 fielding-independent pitching rate last year) on a four-year deal, and guaranteeing former Met/Ray/Padre/Phillie/Blue Jay Aaron Loup (2.45 FIP last year) plus former White Sox/Cub/Jay Ryan Tepera (2.56 FIP) two years each.

The Angels also think that a healthy Trout and Anthony Rendon married to Ohtani’s bat in the lineup makes them a little more formidable at the plate. They may not be wrong. Especially playing under the new rule that allows Ohtani, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, to stay in a game as the designated hitter when his starting pitching assignment ends for the day. Just as he did in last year’s All-Star Game.

Trout is even doing something a little more overtly now that he did only by example his first ten seasons: leading. What he began when he made himself the team’s public face in the shock of Tyler Skaggs’s death in 2019 he’s continuing more verbally than he ever has in the past.

He spoke often of what Skaggs meant as a person as well as a pitcher. (This was well enough before we learned sadly enough that Skaggs was badly hooked on painkillers, a hooking that may have gone back to his Tommy John surgery and may have been abetted by his own agent urging him to pitch through pain regardless.)

Maybe the most staggering and surreal recent memory for Angel fans was their first home game after Skaggs’s unexpected death. When Trout opened the evening’s proceedings against the Mariners with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first, launching a combined no-hitter (by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena) and a 13-0 blowout.

“When I first came up, I kind of just went out there and played my game, let my game speak for itself,” Trout admitted to Rosenthal.

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it. I’ve had a lot of talks with the front office and players. There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.

Trout’s coming-out party as a conscious leader came before this lockout-abbreviated spring training began. When commissioner Rob Manfred announced that first set of canceled games, Trout was distinctly unamused. The guy who did his talking with his bat, his glove, and his personal fan-friendliness fired back.

“I want to play, I love our game, but I know we need to get this [collective bargaining agreement] right,” he tweeted on 2 March. “Instead of bargaining in good faith-MLB locked us out. Instead of negotiating a fair deal-Rob canceled games. Players stand together. For our game, for our fans, and for every player who comes after us.”

Maybe it’s the Angels about to play their first full season since Albert Pujols’s departure last year, but Maddon thinks it’s just a question of Trout having the chance to lead. “He wants to lead,” the manager says. “To me, that means, on a daily basis, when you walk in the building to put everybody else before you. He’s definitely got that in him. He’s very empathetic. He wants to win. He’s willing to share his knowledge. He’s got all the ingredients. He just needed the opportunity.”

And he doesn’t mind pulling others up with him. When Ohtani hogged the headlines last year, after the calf tear put paid to Trout’s season prematurely, Trout enjoyed Shohtime as much as anybody else.

“Shohei’s season was nothing short of electric,” he said when Ohtani won the MVP. “At times, I felt like I was back in Little League. To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible. What impresses me the most about him, though, is the way he carries himself both on and off the field. With so much on his plate daily, he still manages to do it with a smile.”

Imagine that. The Smiling Angels. Whom FanGraphs projects to a seventh-best 82 wins among American League teams. Not so fast, Rosenthal warns:

Projections are largely pointless except as a discussion point, especially in a season when injuries might be more prevalent after a shortened spring training. But the Angels face so many “ifs,” it’s difficult to imagine them being better than the six teams ahead of them — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, White Sox, and Rays. They also might not be better than the Twins and Mariners, the two teams immediately behind them.

I have more than the usual skin in this game. Somehow, I managed to score tickets for what was first the Angels’ mere home opener but, thanks to the owners’ lockout and Commissioner Nero’s first cancellations, is Opening Day, period, at Angel Stadium. Ohtani is already announced as their starting pitcher. My 28-year-old son and myself will be seated in our standard perch down the right field line.

We’ll look for two things at minimum: 1) Whether there will remain Angel fans willing to hammer the visiting Astros with inflatable trash can bangings and other signs, shouts, and sneers over Astrogate. 2) Whether these Smiling Angels, these Edgy Angels, these Fed Up With All That You-Know-What Angels, show just how fed up they are at the plate and in the field through those edgy new smiles.

Being an Angel fan has been many things in the decades since they were born in the American League’s first expansion. Dull hasn’t been one of them, though being dulled–if not sent to their nineteenth nervous breakdowns—has been something else entirely. And living on that 2002 World Series triumph got tiresome well before they wrapped their silks around a big fish named Trout.

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.