Fewer than two weeks remain in the 2021 MLB regular season and the postseason races are tighter than they looked like they'd be much of the summer. Hooray for that. Nearly half the league is within four games of a postseason spot right now.
Our weekly series examining various trends across baseball continues with a look at a potentially unique 40-homer season, a young player's breakout, and one franchise's record book getting rewritten. Last week we looked at Milwaukee's excellent back of the rotation, Blake Snell's dominance, and Boston's terrible defense.
Duvall chasing unique 40-homer season
Quick, do you know how leads the National League in RBI? It's Marlins-turned-Braves outfielder Adam Duvall, as I'm guessing you surmised from the header here. Duvall has driven in 107 runs this season (68 with Miami and 39 with Atlanta), tops in the Senior Circuit, and he has a chance to become the third player to lead his league in RBI while changing teams midseason. The list:
|Year||RBI||First team||Second team||Reason for team change|
107 (and counting)
Traded at deadline
Traded in three-team Minnie Minoso deal in April
Traded in Larry Doyle deal in August
The Braves non-tendered Duvall over the winter even though he finished third in the National League with 16 home runs last year. He hooked on with the Marlins, played well, then returned to Atlanta as part of their post-Ronald Acuña Jr. injury outfield facelift. Duvall's been a godsend for the first-place Braves, smacking 15 homers and driving in 39 runs in 45 games.
Overall, Duvall is hitting .229/.284/.503 with 37 home runs this season, giving him a chance to hit 40 homers with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. That has never happened in baseball history. Only seven times has a player hit 35 homers with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, and one player accounts for four of the seven instances:
1983 Red Sox
The lowest on-base percentage by a 40-homer hitter is .300 on the nose by Armas with the 1984 Red Sox (43 homers). The Braves have 13 games remaining. Assuming four plate appearances per game, Duvall needs to reach base in 25 of his 52 remaining plate appearance to push his on-base percentage over .300. Doable? Sure. Difficult? Very. Either way, he's been productive.
Duvall is a bit of a unicorn. He's a throwback as an old-school RBI guy even if the low on-base percentage is an eyesore. Duvall is also a bit of an analytics darling because he posts big exit velocities and barrel rates, and he's a very good defensive outfielder. He is the kind of player everyone can appreciate because he drives in runs and does enough other things well.
The Braves are on pace to win their fourth straight NL East title despite never really dominating. They sat around .500 most of the year -- it wasn't until Aug. 5 that they got over .500 for good -- and were bailed out in part by the rest of the division's ineptitude. Duvall has given them a lift though. Dismissing his contributions based on his low on-base percentage would be a mistake.
Tucker breaking out for 'Stros
It feels like he's been around for a decade now, but Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker is still only 24 years old, and this is his first full 162-game big league season. He made his MLB debut in 2018, spent most of 2019 in Triple-A (where he went 30/30), then was a regular during the shortened 60-game season in 2020. Now Tucker is finally get a chance to play a full, real season.
And this year the No. 5 pick in 2015 draft is emerging not only as a mainstay in Houston's lineup, but as a potential All-Star. He owns a .296/.354/.557 batting line with 27 home runs overall, and he's been even better since the cherry-picked date of May 9: .331/.387/.612 with 21 home runs and only 57 strikeouts in 389 plate appearances. That's nearly five months of MVP-caliber play.
"I've been seeing the ball really well and trying to hit it on the barrel and not chase pitches," Tucker told reporters, including the Associated Press, when asked about his breakout year earlier this month. "I am just trying to do my job and get on base and score some runs."
The underlying data loves Tucker. Based on the quality of his contact (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.), he's in the top three percent of baseball in both expected batting average and expected slugging percentage. His 15.7 percent strikeout rate and 9.2 percent swinging strike rate are much better than the MLB averages (23.2 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively), and he rates well defensively too.
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Two years ago Baseball America ranked Tucker the No. 12 prospect in baseball and said he "projects as a middle-of-the-order bat who can be a plus hitter with plus power," and that's exactly what he's become. The surface stats are excellent, the underlying data backs it up, and the scouting report said this is possible. It's a classic case of a highly regarded prospect reaching his ceiling.
Tucker is essentially the last piece of Houston's tanking era to come up through the farm system. They held the No. 5 pick in 2015 because they went 70-92 in 2014, the last year before they returned to the postseason. There are no more high draft picks coming up through the system now. Tucker's the last one and he's a stud. The rebuild has produced one last cornerstone player.
A's pitchers setting strikeout records
The last few weeks haven't gone great for the Athletics. They've lost 20 of their last 34 games and fallen out of a postseason spot, and their pitching has really struggled. The starters haven't been great (Chris Bassitt's unfortunate injury hasn't helped) and the bullpen has coughed up way too many late leads. All those blown leads are a primary reason Oakland may miss the postseason.
Although things haven't gone well in the standings the last few weeks, three Athletics starters are on the verge of making franchise history. Specifically, three different pitchers are on pace to break the team's single-season strikeout rate record (among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title). Check it out:
|Strikeouts per nine innings (K/9)||Strikeouts per plate appearance (K%)|
1. Frankie Montas, 2021: 9.93
1. Frankie Montas, 2021: 26.5%
2. Sean Manaea, 2021: 9.72
2. Sean Manaea, 2021: 25.6%
3. Chris Bassitt, 2021: 9.18
3. Chris Bassitt, 2021: 25.2%
4. Todd Stottlemyre, 1995: 8.80
4. Vida Blue, 1971: 24.9%
5. Gio Gonzalez, 2011: 8.78
5. Gio Gonzalez, 2011: 22.8%
As impressive as this accomplishment would be (the A's have been around forever and setting any sort of franchise record is pretty cool), it is heavily influenced by the era. There are more strikeouts these days than ever before, so yeah, strikeout records are going fall, occasionally even multiple times over in a single year.
For example, Blue's 24.9 percent strikeout rate in 1971 was 75 percent better than the 13.0 percent league average. Montas' 26.5 percent strikeout rate this year is only 14 percent better than the 23.2 percent league average. Context is important. In terms of absolute value Montas, Manaea, and Bassitt are rewriting the franchise strikeout record books. In terms of relative value, nah.
That little bit of context is important but I don't think it diminishes the accomplishment. Having three starters break the franchise's single season strikeout rate record in the same year is a cool thing, and I enjoy cool baseball things. Will those strikeouts and those pitchers lead the A's to a postseason berth? Unclear, but the A's record book will never look the same.