Keri the 10: The biggest turnaround team, Philly's youth movement, more MLB notes
Plus, the Dodgers are, apparently, beatable, Luis Castillo is quietly dazzling the NL and more observations
The 2017 season is shaping up as The Turnaround Year. The Rockies, Twins, and Brewers are just a few of the 2016 also-rans who've become contenders this year. For this edition of #KeriThe10, we'll look at the biggest turnaround team of all, the 2017 cellar dwellers that could emerge as threats in 2018, and much more.
1. Snakes In The Grass
Thousands of years from now, scientists will study the 2017 trade deadline and ask themselves one simple question: Why the hell didn't any team other than the Diamondbacks make a real play for J.D. Martinez?!
All the D-Backs had to give up to acquire the mashing outfielder were three B-level prospects that they'll likely never think about again. Even granting that power isn't as scarce as it used to be, in a season that's about to break the all-time record for home runs ... even acknowledging that Martinez can test free agency at the end of the season ... no one thought to bid a little higher?
Since that July 18 trade, Martinez has slugged a massive .660, while belting 18 home runs in 42 games -- an extremely nice pace of 69 homers over a full season. The coup de grace came Monday night against the Dodgers. Seeking a win to open a three-game set against their NL West rivals, the Diamondbacks instead got an annihilation, smoking L.A. 13-0. In the process, Martinez did something that had only been done 17 other times in major-league history: He pummeled four home runs in one game. The video of those home runs ...
... might actually come up a bit short when compared to the reactions of his teammates:
Martinez's power jag is far from the only force powering the Diamondbacks' franchise-record 13-game winning streak. Perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt led a deep lineup that included a big first half by third baseman Jake Lamb, and center fielder A.J. Pollock has returned from a long DL stint to regain his old, impressive form. Meanwhile, weeks and months before Martinez arrived, Arizona had engineered one of the biggest year-over-year improvements by any pitching staff. Zack Greinke led a deep rotation that included talented up-and-comers Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, and Zack Godley, and converted starter turned high-leverage shutdown reliever Archie Bradley paced a vastly improved bullpen. When even the highly flammable 40-year-old meme factory named Fernando Rodney is shooting arrows with regularity, it just might be your year.
Still, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Martinez is blasting a game- and maybe season-changing home run in the playoffs, potentially knocking out one of Arizona's National League rivals. The D-Backs sweeping the previously unbeatable Dodgers twice in nine days reminded us that anything could happen in a short amount of time, up to and including Martinez sending one of the teams that passed him over having their season ended by his bat.
2. The Dodgers are, apparently, beatable
After losing to the Rockies Thursday night, L.A. has dropped 12 of its past 13 games, ending recent lofty talk about a potential historic season. Fans get antsy during losing streaks, and going from kings of the world to getting pushed around by not only the potent Diamondbacks but also the punchless Padres has some Dodgers denizens feeling a little spooked.
For the most part, those worries are unfounded. The formidable pitching staff the Dodgers worked hard to build is now fully intact, and a starting quartet of Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Rich Hill, and Alex Wood is going to be a handful for any playoff opponents. The bullpen, a major weakness for years that led to Kershaw trying to carry the weight of the team on his shoulders, is now formidable. And while the offense isn't perfect, it's tough to quibble for the second-most potent attack in baseball (on a park-adjusted basis) ... and lineup catalyst Corey Seager should be back soon from an elbow injury. Leaving aside the randomness of the postseason and the fact that anyone can lose at any time, there's no reason to panic -- the Dodgers are an excellent team that simply hit a rough patch. Happens to the best of 'em.
Still, no team is perfect, and the Dodgers do have weaknesses they'll try to address before the serious business of October baseball begins.
The first such question mark is in center field. On Wednesday, Joc Pederson made his first major-league start in nearly three weeks, after working on his game at Triple-A following a brutal 2-for-41 slump with the big club. The 25-year-old lefty swinger appeared to be set as the bigger part of a center-field timeshare at the start of the season, having bashed 51 homers over the past two seasons, while playing capable defense at a premium position. But Pederson's made hard contact far less frequently this season, wrecking his offensive numbers. Massively talented top prospect Alex Verdugo could present another option in center. Manager Dave Roberts started looking for other options after Verdugo went a quiet 2-for-10 to start his major-league career, though he's said Verdugo should be back at that position during this weekend's series against the Rockies. Ultimately, Roberts might look at his October lineup card and choose to bite the bullet defensively without a natural center fielder, slotting superutility man Chris Taylor in center, Yasiel Puig in right, and a timeshare led by Curtis Granderson in left.
Second base could be trickier. The obvious move would seem to be platooning lefty-swinging Chase Utley and righty-swinging Logan Forsythe at the deuce. But while Forsythe has been a beast against left-handed pitching, neither he (.194/.317/.249) nor Utley (.236/.325/.388) projects as an adequate option against right-handers. The best-case scenario here would probably be for Pederson or Verdugo to catch fire, allowing Taylor to move to second and thus forming a more athletic, better-gloved lineup.
In the end, this might prove to be small beer. Every team has at least one Achilles heel, and the Dodgers' laser-focus on depth at least gives them multiple options at those unsettled positions. But in the you-never-know world of playoff baseball, it's entirely possible that a critical moment comes down not to Kershaw, Seager, or Kenley Jansen, but to one of the team's lesser lights. The challenge then is figuring out a way to make those rare weak links not quite as weak.
3. Philly's Youth Movement
Rhys Hoskins has taken the baseball world by storm, setting multiple records as the rookie who reached multiple home-run milestones faster than anyone else in baseball history. But he's not the only notable Phillies freshman to make the Show in the past few weeks. J.P. Crawford has finally arrived.
Touted as the top prospect in Philly's system pretty much from the moment the team tabbed him as the 16th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Crawford has also ranked as the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball in each of the past two seasons (per Baseball Prospectus). Crawford's combination of gap power, excellent batting eye, athleticism, and the defensive skills to handle the rigorous position of shortstop had talent hounds drooling over his eventual big league promotion.
Now, he's here. As Jayson Stark notes, Crawford has so-so season-long numbers at Triple-A (.243/.351/.405): He started raking after returning from the disabled list in late June. Ace Phillies beat writer Ryan Lawrence speculated that Crawford could see time at third base next season alongside Freddy Galvis, given Maikel Franco's sorely disappointing start to his own major-league career, and given Crawford immediately sliding over to that position after his promotion. Franco's future aside, Crawford's ability to make incredibly difficult plays at a position he barely knows speaks to a talented player who figures to be a key cog for the Phillies for years to come. Pairing a multi-skilled player like Crawford with a fearsome slugger like Hoskins is a great way to kick-start a rebuild.
4. Billy Hamilton can't catch a break
The Reds speedster broke his left thumb this week, an injury that could knock him out for the rest of the season. If that happens, Hamilton risks going through a third straight season in which a late-season costs him the league stolen-base title; Dee Gordon and Jonathan Villar passed him at the wire in 2015 and 2016, and Gordon has a chance to do so again this year.
Still, Hamilton's prolific basestealing evokes the glory years of speedsters, and his 2017 campaign would still go down as a memorable one even if it is indeed over. Count up four straight seasons of 55 or more swipes for Hamilton, and you get some impressive, even historic company.
5. Ian Happ trips on his own bat …
... and goes splat.
6. Maybe it wasn't the city?
On Aug. 14, Pablo Sandoval collaborated with a ghostwriter at The Players' Tribune to pen a piece explaining how wrong he'd been to accept the $95 million the Red Sox threw at him when he became a free agent after the 2014 season. Tough to blame him. Sandoval's tenure in Boston involved copious injuries, non-stop criticism from fans and media, and the dubious title, Least Valuable Player of 2015.
Players' skills erode. Failure can be hard, especially in the spotlight of professional sports. Sandoval's frustrations with how his career went after leaving San Francisco are, in that light, completely understandable. Moreover, Sandoval enjoyed many unforgettable moments in San Francisco, and nothing can take those moments away from him. But maybe, just maybe, blaming Boston missed the mark by a hair.
7. On now, this week's pick-me-up
On Thursday, Bleacher Report told the story of Hailey Dawson, a seven-year-old with a 3-D printed hand who's thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals and Orioles games, and is now on a quest to do so at all 30 major league ballparks.
8. Travis Wood might want to consider a second career
An effective swingman for much of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Cubs, Wood has scuffled mightily on the mound with both the Royals and Padres this season, posting a ghastly 6.00 ERA. If there's one skill he hasn't lost, though, it's his ability to rake. The same secret weapon who delivered a dramatic home run in Game 2 of last year's NLDS has now cranked two long balls in just 14 at-bats with San Diego. Wood's not quite in Madison Bumgarner territory yet, let alone Wes Ferrell territory. But if continues to mash, a clever team might reach the point where it decides that in this era of bloated pitching staffs and ultra-thin benches, Wood is a worthy 25th man ... even if he doesn't pitch all that well.
9. Luis Castillo pitched brilliantly -- and you probably missed it
Every week in this space, we open the floor for our resident pitching expert Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com to profile an intriguing hurler. Most of the time, that pitcher of the week is a known commodity, often an ace pitching for a contending team. But this week, Pollack brings us the tale of Luis Castillo, the Reds rookie right-hander who's quietly dazzled the National League.
After his eight-inning, one-run, 10 strikeout performance on Wednesday, the 2017 season is officially over for rookie Luis Castillo, as the Reds shut down the 24-year-old rookie to (hopefully) preserve his future health. With impressive numbers such as a 3.12 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 89 1/3 MLB frames (169 1/3 innings combined across the majors and minors this season), let's understand what makes Castillo look like the future ace in Cincinnati.
It starts with an impressive heater. Both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs average better than 97 mph, and he can even dial it up to triple digits to simply overpower batters:
But it's not just the sheer power of the pitch that impressed. His fastball command is startling, displaying the ability to locate on both sides of the plate, allowing him to put hitters on the defensive quickly as he sets up his secondary pitches. For example, watch this series to Josh Harrison as he throws 99-mph and 100-mph heat on the inside corner before locating a changeup in the exact same spot:
Castillo is pitcher, not a thrower. He doesn't simply hurl his pitches (as filthy as they are) toward the plate in any given at-bat. Instead his approach matches a veteran's, utilizing location and sequencing to debilitate batters. In the sequence above, he may have been able to get Harrison out simply by throwing a pair of high-octane fastballs followed by a changeup located anywhere on the plate. Instead it became a sure thing, thanks to pinpoint location. This is an art.
Let's talk about that final pitch, a beautiful changeup that Harrison couldn't help but swing through. Often we see flamethrowers turn to a massive breaking ball for the final blow – think Craig Kimbrel or Dellin Betances. But Castillo instead uses an elegant changeup to do his dirty work. Across the 309 he threw this season, the change earned a massive 22.7 percent swinging strike rate, while batters hit just .115 against the pitch. Castillo's changeup is not just a putaway pitch. It's also his favorite offering to get ahead early in counts, as he was able to throw the pitch inside the strike zone 41.1 percent of the time. Batters have no choice but to gear up for 97+ heat and with this consistent changeup in his back pocket, Castillo earns free strikes early in counts whenever he wants.
Castillo could make a living on these two pitches alone, but there's more: a devastating slider. To introduce the pitch, here is a GIF of Castillo's first at-bat in the majors as he faced Trea Turner of the Nationals:
After throwing three fastballs along the outside edge, Castillo turned to his hard breaking ball and there was nothing Turner could do about it. Neither can any other batter for that matter, as the pitch has allowed just one extra-base hit across the 213 thrown this year, while holding a 37.8 percent strikeout rate and inducing groundballs at a phenomenal 74.1 percent rate. It doesn't have quite the same polish as his changeup, but when it moves this much and in the opposite direction of his changeup, this slider will work wonders when sequenced with Castillo's blistering fastball and crafty change.
There are three questions to ask when assessing a new pitch in the majors: Does he have major-league velocity? Yes, his fastball ranks second in the majors among starting pitchers, trailing only Luis Severino. Does he have a strong repertoire? Without question as his changeup and slider are arguably better pitches than his blistering fastball. Does he have good command of all his pitches? With his stable mechanics and feel for his fastball, changeup, and slider, Castillo can pitch to both sides of the plate effectively while setting batters up like a seasoned veteran. Castillo checks all the boxes.
It's staggering to see a pitcher this mature in his rookie season, especially a pitcher who jumped Triple-A entirely. While no one is pleased to see his season end early due to precautionary measures, there will be plenty of celebration to come as Castillo gets more time in the majors. Don't be surprised if Luis Castillo quickly establishes himself as one of the premier pitching talents in the National League.
10. Burning Question of the Week
The blueprint for several of this season's biggest risers has been youth, with the Twins and Brewers in particular thriving as their best young talent bubbles to the surface. But I'm going to take the Blue Jays here.
Yes, the Jays have trotted out the oldest collection of position players in baseball this year, often a poor formula for improvement the following season. But Toronto figures to get a little younger next season with Jose Bautista and possibly another veteran or two on their way out. There's also young outfield talent poised to take over next season, with multi-tool talents Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford strong candidates to get major playing time in 2018. Moreover, we're talking about a Jays team coming off two straight ALCS appearances that fell apart largely thanks to injuries; Aaron Sanchez, Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis have all missed huge chunks of this season.
A cleaner bill of health, help from those young outfielders, a well-placed off-season move or two, some natural positive regression, plus the possibility of wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. surging all the way to the Show by next summer make the Blue Jays prime bounce-back candidates next year.
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