The 2021 MLB regular season is roughly 30 percent complete and things are looking more and more normal. For example, there are no longer any qualified batters hitting over .400. We are still averaging close to a no-hitter a week, however, and that is decidedly not normal. A no-hitter a week the rest of the season would be something else.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at a team changing ballparks midseason, a breakout slugger, and one team's historic road woes. Last week we broke down a rookie's improbable week, a veteran hurler's adjustment, and a league-wide offensive trend.
Blue Jays leavin' Dunedin
The nomad Blue Jays are on the move again. On Monday, the Blue Jays played their 21st and final home game of the season at TD Ballpark, their spring training ballpark in Dunedin, Florida. The Blue Jays began a six-game, two-city road trip Tuesday night, .
"I know you guys are not here but it was almost like playing a home game for the Rays," Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters, including Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, about playing the Rays in Dunedin this past weekend. "It's funny, somebody mentioned, 'Yeah, it was louder here than it was in the Trop.'"
Twenty-one games is not much of a sample, though in those 21 games, TD Ballpark was an extreme hitter's ballpark. There were 234 runs scored in those 21 games (11.1 per game) compared to 207 runs in 26 Blue Jays road games (8.0 per game). There were 71 home runs in the 21 home games (3.4 per game) compared to 63 in 26 road games (2.4 per game).
Statcast park factors have TD Ballpark has the major's second most hitter-friendly ballpark this year, right behind Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. It inflated offense to 11 percent more than the league average. Last year Sahlen Field was roughly neutral (neither a pitcher's nor hitter's park), and Rogers Centre in Toronto has always skewed neutral despite a penchant for home runs.
Here's where the Blue Jays ranked offensively following Monday's TD Ballpark finale (MLB ranks in parenthesis):
In Dunedin, the Blue Jays have been an offensive powerhouse this year. Arguably the best hitting team in the league. On the road, they've been closer to the bottom of the league, offensively. We know better than to take road numbers and assume that is a team's (or player's) true talent level, but the difference has been substantial two months into the season.
This cuts both ways, it should be noted. In their 21 home games Toronto's pitchers have a 4.34 ERA and allowed a .250/.329/.443 opponent's batting line. On the road, it's a much more manageable 3.65 ERA and .233/.302/.402 opponent's batting line. Blue Jays hitters are going to miss TD Ballpark, I reckon. Their pitchers? Probably not so much.
It is looking increasingly unlikely the Blue Jays will return to Toronto this season. Sahlen Field has been renovated and upgraded since last year, so it'll be a better experience for the players (and fans), though it's still a Triple-A facility. As far as playing conditions go, no team has had it harder than the Blue Jays the last two years. Now they're changing home parks (and cities) midseason.
"They're just going to play and compete wherever that is," Montoyo told Harrington. "I know we don't have any control over when we're going to go to Toronto. So right now, I don't see a challenge because our mindset is just, 'OK, we've got to go to Buffalo. We've got to play in Buffalo,' and that's what it is."
Winker's power breakout
Going into Tuesday night's games, the major-league leader in slugging percentage (.684) and the National League leader in OPS (1.096) and OPS+ (183) was not Ronald Acuna Jr. or the resurgent Kris Bryant or some other household name. It was Reds outfielder Jesse Winker, who is quite possibly the second most well-known player in his own outfield behind Nick Castellanos.
"This has been an evolution of a guy that has always had a reputation that he can hit, and that's great," Reds manager David Bell told reporters, including MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, following Winker's three-home run game last Friday. "Once he has established himself as a major leaguer, in his mind, he has continued on in an effort to become great at this level. There's so much work and preparation that has gone on in the offseason when no one is looking, year round. He wants to be great."
Winker hit three home runs Friday, another home run Saturday, and then another home run Sunday, giving him five homers in 14 plate appearances over the weekend and 13 homers in 174 plate appearances overall (with a deadened ball, remember). Last season Winker hit 12 homers in 183 plate appearances. In 2019, it was 16 homers in 384 plate appearances.
"He continuously repeats and sticks to his plan. If you make him look bad one at-bat, I am willing to bet a lot of money on the next at-bat, he won't do that again," Tyler Naquin told Sheldon about Winker, who Baseball America once called "the best hitter in every lineup he appeared until he played with Joey Votto."
Winker, now 27, has always possessed military-style plate discipline. He rarely expanded the zone and racked up big walk totals even as a young hitter trying to establishing himself in the league. That plate discipline still exists (Winker owns a career 11.9 percent walk rate), and now he's pairing the walks with power as he enters his prime.
Early on in his career, Winker always showed the innate ability to hit the ball hard, posting top end exit velocities on par with the game's premier power hitters. He was always held back by a propensity to hit the ball on the ground, however. Over the last two years though, Winker has matured as a hitter and is now getting the ball airborne more often.
Winker is not much of an outfielder (he is Exhibit A in defense of the universal DH) but he is a fantastic hitter, truly one of the best in the league. This is his fifth MLB season and his career low is a 107 OPS+ in 2017, and only once has he finished a season with a sub-125 OPS+. For most of those five years, Winker didn't have much power. Now he's elevating and a dominant all-around hitter.
"I think we're just having fun playing baseball. I really think so," Winker told Sheldon. "To be honest with you, I'm not really paying attention to statistics. I just want to help the team win."
Rockies' road woes
Monday night at Citi Field, the Rockies did something they've done on only two other occasions this season: they won a road game. Following Tuesday's loss to Jacob deGrom and the Mets, Colorado is now 3-18 on the road, and if that's not bad enough, they've been shut out seven times in those 18 losses. The Rockies are averaging 2.7 runs per game away from Coors Field. Yikes.
"As a team, it doesn't need to be said," shortstop Trevor Story told reporters, including Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post, this past weekend. "We've got to be better on the road. It's just not acceptable the way we have been playing. We are trying to do whatever we can to fix that, whatever it may be. We need to figure this thing out."
Coors Field is a competitive disadvantage unlike any other in the sport. We're accustoming to thinking Coors Field inflates offense because the ball carries well at altitude, and it does, but there is also a hangover effect when players go on the road. Pitches at Coors Field move differently than pitches at sea level because the air is less dense and there's less resistance on baseball.
Imagine being a Rockies pitcher and having your pitches break one way at home and a different way on the road. Now imagine being a Rockies hitter and seeing, say, Clayton Kershaw at Coors Field one week and again at Dodger Stadium the next week, and his pitches are moving differently because he's no longer pitching at altitude. How do you hit that?
Based on this season, you don't. Colorado's home/road splits are massive (MLB ranks in parenthesis):
Rockies pitchers have a lower ERA at home (4.50) than on the road (5.24) this year, which reeks of small-sample-size noise more than a meaningful statistic. Come September, I reckon their hurlers will have a higher ERA at home than the on the road, as his been the case throughout the franchise's history.
Without giving specifics, Story and Rockies manager Bud Black told The Athletic's Nick Groke the club has developed a plan to better prepare their hitters for road games. "We're confronting this thing and trying to be creative in the ways we can figure this out and not have those big home/road splits. I won't go into the details of what we'll do, but everyone is on board," Story said. They've scored four runs in two road games since.
Of course, the Rockies were expected to be bad this season, so having a terrible road record isn't too surprising. Colorado went 26-34 last year, including 15-31 in their final 46 games, then they traded away franchise player Nolan Arenado over the winter. It seems likely Story will be traded at the deadline this year seeing how he's an impending free agent.
Not including the 60-game 2020 season, here are the worst road records in baseball history:
- 1935 Boston Braves: 13-65 (.167)
- 1916 Philadelphia Athletics: 13-64 (.169)
- 1945 Philadelphia Athletics: 13-63 (.161)
- 1909 Washington Senators: 15-62 (.195)
- 1904 Washington Senators: 15-61 (.197)
No other team in baseball history has had a sub-.200 winning percentage on the road. The worst road record in a 162-game season belongs to the 1963 Mets and 2010 Pirates, both of whom went 17-64 (.210).
The Rockies must go at least 11-49 (.183) in their final 60 road games to avoid tying the record for the fewest road wins in a non-60-game season, and they must go at least 15-45 (.250) to avoid tying the record for the fewest road wins in a 162-game season. To avoid a sub-.200 road winning percentage, they have to go at least 14-46 (.233).
I have faith, perhaps irrationally, the Rockies can win 15 of their final 60 road games. They still have eight road games remaining against the Mariners, Pirates, and Rangers, plus six more road games against the free-falling Diamondbacks*. I think the Rockies can find 15 wins among their remaining 60 road games. Even if they do, they're still likely to have one of the worst road records in recent memory.
* Shoutout to the Diamondbacks, who have lost their last 13 road games. Their last road win was.