The dog days of August will soon turn into the postseason races of September. There's a little more than five weeks remaining in the MLB regular season and still so much to be decided. As of Wednesday morning, 15 teams are within five games of a postseason spot.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at two young players coming into their own, and one player's pursuit of obscure history. Last week we broke down Max Scherzer's offense, the Reds finding their shortstop, and the Marlins maybe finding their center fielder.
McKenzie's August resurgence
Cleveland is all but certain to miss the postseason for only the second time in the last six years, and there's no shortage of blame to go around. The offense aside from José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes has been unimpressive, ace setup man James Karinchak has struggled since the foreign-substance crackdown, and the rotation hasn't been as good as expected.
Injuries to Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac help explain the underperforming rotation, plus others like Logan Allen and Sam Hentges didn't pick up the slack when called upon. Triston McKenzie, last year's feel-good story and breakout rookie, was also part of the problem. He had a 6.11 ERA in 63 1/3 innings on July 31, and had to spend time in Triple-A.
Over the last month, however, the 24-year-old right-hander is beginning to live up to his immense potential. He's made four starts in August, allowed six runs total, and held opponents to a .126/.153/.232 batting line. McKenzie has struck out 28 and walked only two in 28 innings. Two starts ago he came within four outs of MLB's first perfect game in nine years.
McKenzie was the No. 42 pick in the 2015 draft and he ranked among Cleveland's best prospects every year since. This isn't some out of nowhere success story. Injuries slowed McKenzie in recent years, however, and earlier this season he got himself into trouble with walks. He walked 45 batters in those 63 1/3 innings through July 31. In August, he's walked just the two in 28 innings.
"It's more just a progression from the beginning of the season to now," McKenzie told reporters, including MLB.com's Mandy Bell, about his recent success. "Just building blocks. Learning that not throwing in the zone isn't going to get you outs. Learning that not throwing in the zone isn't going to get you deep into the game. It's more just understanding what this team needs to get wins, what I need to do to get wins consistently is to throw in-zone."
In McKenzie's case, it really is just a matter of throwing more strikes and trusting his stuff. He's a young player gaining experience, basically. McKenzie hasn't changed his pitch selection (he still throws his mid-90s fastball roughly 60 percent of the time and his curveball and slider about 20 percent of the time each) or his mechanics or anything. It's just a young pitcher taking the next step.
Cleveland comes into Wednesday nine games out of a postseason spot, so they're going to spend the final five-and-a-half weeks of the season auditioning players for next year, and figuring out who's a keeper and who's just a stopgap. Earlier this year, McKenzie struggled so much it was difficult to count on him. Now things are clicking, and he's becoming part of the club's long-term core.
"I feel I've always had confidence in my stuff, I've always had confidence in myself," McKenzie told Bell. "It's more just a comfortability thing. Coming up and not wanting to be the rookie that's over-stepping his bounds or not being the guy that's going out there and doing too much. Just finding my place and feeling comfortable with the guys and being able to go out there and perform and doing it not for myself, more for the guys around me."
Varsho's breakout season
This has been a disaster season for the Diamondbacks. At one point they lost 40 times in 45 games, MLB's worst 45-game stretch in at least 50 years, yet they're not bad enough to get the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft. The Orioles are winning the race to the bottom, so Arizona will likely miss out on slugger Elijah Green, next year's presumed No. 1 pick and a potential generational talent.
One positive to come out of this lost season for the D-Backs is catcher-slash-outfielder Daulton Varsho, who is coming into his own and establishing himself as a no-doubt big leaguer. Varsho made his MLB debut last season and was largely overmatched, hitting .188/.287/.366 in 115 plate appearances. This year was more of the same: .200/.309/.350 in his first 162 plate appearances.
Carson Kelly's broken wrist forced Varsho into the lineup full-time in June, and while things were initially rocky, Varsho hit his stride in mid-July. In his last 26 games, the 25-year-old is hitting .333/.416/.744 with eight home runs in 90 plate appearances, and he's struck out in only 21.1 percent of his plate appearances too. Last year it was 28.7 percent.
"A big portion of it goes to that," Varsho recent told reporters, including Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, about the role regular playing time has had in his breakout. "The consistency of at-bats and seeing pitches every day. But, I mean, a lot of it, too, is just kind of having fun. Since the All-Star break, collectively as a group it's let's go have fun, let's be ready to play."
Varsho, a left-handed hitting catcher, has shown all-fields power and plate discipline, plus he's athletic enough to play the outfield. He's a unicorn in that regard. Varsho has the tools to catch long-term but also the speed and instincts to play all three outfield spots. Here are the last five players to start at least 10 games at catcher and 10 games in center field in a single season:
|Team||Starts at catcher||Starts in center field|
Prior to Biggio, you have to go all the way back to John Hines with the 1926 Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues for the last player to start double-digit games at catcher and in center. (Ed Kirkpatrick came close with the 1971 Royals. He started 12 games in center field but only nine at catcher.)
Going into last season Varsho ranked among the best prospects in baseball, and it's easy to understand why given his skill set. He's a lefty hitter with power and a history of contact and very good plate discipline, he's versatile enough to catch and play the outfield (Varsho has played the corner outfield in deference to Ketel Marte in recent weeks), and he's fast. Throw in MLB bloodlines (his father, Gary Varsho, played eight years in the big leagues) and you have a player who looks like a cornerstone for a D-Backs team that badly needs them.
"I think he's slowed it down to the point where he's looking in the right lane, looking for the right pitch, and he's not missing it," D-Backs manager Torey Lovullo told Piecoro about Varsho. "There's a tremendous amount of bat speed with every swing that he takes. I know he's got some God-given ability, but he's not relying on it. He's been a student. He's accepted the coaching that he's gotten. He goes out there every day with the right mind-set. It's been working very well for us."
Zunino's pursuit of unusual history
It took a little longer than the draft pundits and prospect mavens expected, but Mike Zunino has finally became a force at the plate. The No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft made the All-Star Game this season and is hitting .209/.296/.554 with 26 home runs. Yes, the low batting average and on-base percentage (and 37.5 percent strikeout rate) are eyesores, but catchers with this much power are rare.
"I think that's probably been the biggest change for me mentally is that, honestly as crazy as it sounds, I'm not chasing statistics," Zunino told reporters, including MLB.com's Jordan Horrobin, following a four-game home run streak earlier this month. "It's one of those, 'How disciplined can I be every day and every pitch to try to give myself the best chance to let everything else happen?'"
The Rays have 36 games remaining and Zunino has a chance to do something that hasn't been done all that often in baseball history: finish the season with more home runs than singles. He currently has 26 homers and only 18 singles. Here are the last five players to finish a season with more homers than singles (min. 300 plate appearances):
Only 10 times in history has a player had more homers than singles while batting at least 300 times and those are the five most recent. Barry Bonds did during his record- setting 2001 season (49 singles and 73 homers), and the other four seasons all belong to Mark McGwire. He had more homers than singles in 1995 (35 to 39), 1998 (61 to 70), 1999 (58 to 65), and 2001 (23 to 29).
Bonds, Gallo, and McGwire are the only players in baseball history with more homers than singles in a 30-homer season regardless of playing time, and Zunino has a pretty good chance to join them. It's a quirky little stat and, depending on your feelings about the modern game, perhaps a sign of baseball's problems. Too much swinging for the fences, too little shortening up for singles.
Either way, I try to appreciate the weirdness of baseball when it presents itself, and more homers than singles certainly qualifies. That Zunino is doing it while providing big defensive value at the game's most demanding position only makes it that much more notable to me.