Baseball

vs.

 RECORDS: Nationals 69-57   Cubs 69-58

GAMETIMES: Friday-Sunday 1:20

TV: ABC Friday, NBCSN Saturday, WGN Sunday

THOSE CLOWNS IN CONGRESS: Federal Baseball

While the Cubs have been scorching at home since the break, the challenges in front of them wouldn’t exactly be called daunting. The Pirates, Reds (as annoying as they’ve been), and Padres are all at bottom halves of cycles at best. The Brewers are most definitely stuck in neutral, and the Giants are probably more neutral than they are despite what they’ve convinced themselves. Only the A’s are genuine playoff contenders, and the Cubs did manage two of three from them. That will get tuned up again this weekend, as the Nationals have been one of the better teams in baseball in the past couple months.

And these teams mirror each other in more than just record. They have very good rotations. They have offenses that are capable of needing geiger counters to measure them, but can also go the other way on you for little reason. And both watch their bullpens from the safety of a panic room.

Still, the Nats have harnessed that to the tune of a 45-24 record since June 1st, which was about the time everyone was fitting them for a toe-tag and telling Dave Martinez to get his resume ready. Since that date, they have the second most runs in the NL behind the Braves, the second best average as a team behind the Rockies, and third-best slugging mark. It’s not hard to figure out why, because there are weapons at almost every spot. Juan Soto has become a mutant at age 20 and is having one of the best age-20 seasons in history. Anthony Rendon is gong to make himself very rich this winter…or he would in a market that made any sense. Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, two players who have battled injury or ineffectiveness/learning curve, have joined the fun. Howie Kendrick has mashed, which is a thing he’s done for a decade now. Asdrubal Cabrera showed up off the waiver wire and in 11 games has hit .327, for god’s sake. It’s a little obscene.

The Nats will roll up having scored 84 runs in their past nine games. And while racking up runs against the Brewers and Pirates isn’t all that hard, they did it to the Reds too and you’ve seen what their pitching can do.

Combine that with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer, and you get this stretch, even with Scherzer missing some time. The Cubs will catch a break in that they’ll miss Scherzer and Corbin, though they’ll get Strasburg on Sunday. Anibal Sanchez has been able to dodge the raindrops again, three years after it seemed like he was finished.

Ah, but the bullpen. It was ever thus. And this one will show up with closer Sean Doolittle on the IL. Other than him, the Nats have had nowhere to go. No heavily used reliever has an ERA below 4.00, and they’re currently trying to survive with excavations Daniel Hudson, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland. It’s worked on a limited basis, but there’s a reason these guys were covered with sand and dust when the Nats found them. You’d like to think in the non-Strasburg starts, the Cubs will find some joy in the later innings if they need them.

Their offense has been an Earth-mover. The Cubs have won five in a row. Immovable objects and irresistible forces and all that. Except when the bullpen doors open on either side.

Baseball

It’s hard to fathom that the Tigers could be worse than they are. This is a team that somehow found a way to be four games worse than the Orioles so far, and the Os are going to give up 300 homers this season. But the Motor City Felines really could be, as they’ve gotten decent work from the rotation that’s been the flower growing out of the concrete of the dump. Matthew Boyd especially, along with Daniel Norris (scourge of the Cubs) and Spencer Turnbull have put in more than decent work, and without them one wonders if the Tigers would even have 25 wins by now.

You can sort of see why the Tigers held onto any or all of them, because someone has to take the ball now and later when they might matter again. The question is if that’s going to be Boyd.

Boyd is certainly having a breakout year, with career-bests in ERA, FIP, WAR, strikeout rate, and walk rate. Boyd seems to have gotten there by becoming Patrick Corbin West, as he’s eschewed a curve he used to use for using his slider about a third of the time the past two seasons, when he had never even used it more than 11% of the time in his first few years in the majors. Boyd has had a huge spike in whiffs-per-swing on it, rising to 33.3% last year and 42.1% this year. According to FanGraphs, and really digging into the nerd-numbers, it’s been the fifth-most valuable slider this year, behind Corbin himself, Verlander, Scherzer, and Tanaka. Those first three names are ones you want to be amongst in any category, even as one as specific as this.

The real key for Boyd has been that he’ll throw that slider in any count, where before it was mostly used as a put-away pitch. There is no such thing as a fastball count these days, and Boyd is just another example of that, more than happy to throw his slider behind in the count than before. Before he threw it a third of the time when behind or even in a count, and now both of those are around or above 40%. If it’s getting that many whiffs, why not?

Again, the numbers suggest that the Tigers have a real piece here and he’s something to build around. Here’s the kicker though; he’s 28. So while he figures to have at least a couple more good years left, how many will he have left when the Tigers are actually good again? That’s at least three years down the line, when Boyd will be 31. Corbin, with his similar repertoire, is 30, and still going strong, but slider-heavy pitchers tend to fall off a cliff pretty quickly (we present Chris Archer as Exhibit A).

Boyd is only arbitration eligible this winter, and not a free agent until another three seasons after that, so it costs the Tigers pretty much nothing to see how long he can keep this up. And during any one of those arb years they can still move Boyd along for a bonanza if he continues to pitch at this level. Years of control add layers of value to a trade piece.

Still, it’s awfully sunny to think that he’ll be this good for four more years when he cashes in, whether that’s with the Tigers or not. He is only throwing fastball-slider now and it’s hard to see how he’d adjust when that doesn’t work as well, though to be fair to him it’s not like he blows away people with his fastball now. It might have plunged the Tigers into the depths that no one’s ever seen…except for the Tigers themselves when they lost 119 games.

If you’re going to go whole hog on a rebuild, go whole hog. They still might yet.

Baseball

Game 1 – Nations 12, White Sox 1

Game 2 – Nationals 5, White Sox 7

The White Sox have kind of existed within this realm of having a good record but being a mostly bad team for a while now, and this two game set with the Nats kinda proved that to be the case even further. Now at 32-34, the Sox appear to be close to competency and at least theoretically in the Wild Card hunt, but they also split a 2-game series with a team with a worse record than them and had a -9 run differential in the process, leaving them at -55 on the season as well. So really, they aren’t that good but kinda look like they are. Anyway who cares, Eloy hit a ball to the moon.

THE BULLETS

– The White Sox had something called Odrisamer Despaigne start for them on Monday, which is a hilarious insult to everyone’s intelligence but also somehow not exaclt a bad move? Listen, if you want Dylan Cease in the majors at this point, I certainly won’t argue with you on it because I agree, but at this point the motivations are clearly not financial anymore. They have the year of control in the pocket, Super-2 is gone, so it’s not about money. They clearly think there is something developmentally that still needs to be done, and hey I am not really gonna argue with them because even if I am a fool, arms are the one area I just kinda trust the Sox on even when I don’t agree. Sam had wonderful thoughts on this yesterday as he slowly descends to becoming One Of Us. Despaigne also held up his end of the bargain in the game, and the bullpen fell apart, so it’s fine. The wins and losses mean nothing this year so if he needs to start another one, so be it.

– Yoan Moncada tweaking his back is certainly a major problem. One thing that I have just come to accept about Yoan is that he tends to milk it when he is hurt or suffering discomfort, like when he hobbled back to the dugout after scoring from second base last week only to remain in the game and have it not really be anything to worry about. But backs are a different animal. Luckily it didn’t sound too serious, and Sox have today off for him to rest, but the Sox would be wise to take it slow here and let him make sure he’s 100% before coming back. I’d prefer if that didn’t involve an IL stint, though.

– Similar to Despaigne, I was pleased with the start Manny Banuelos turned in on Tuesday. It was nothing special, but after a bad first inning he kept control and didn’t let the game blow up on him. Banuelos’ starts are really just glorified bullpen days, so him getting you through 4.2 innings is more than fine. I’m glad Ricky didn’t try to hold out on him in the when he got in trouble in the 5th to earn him the win, but I also am not convinced that wasn’t mostly because it was said glorified bullpen day. If that had been ReyLo, I bet he stays out there and the inning blows up. But it didn’t!

– Eloy hit a ball forever far. They called it 462 feet and I think that was just a moment of dyslexia and they meant 642. There is simply no way that centerfield concourse is only 60 feet behind the dead center wall. I refuse to believe it.

– As much fun as the home run was, I was more impressive with Eloy’s phenomenal walk in the first inning that preceded Wllington Castillo’s grand slam. Patrick Corbin sliders are nothing to joke about, and Eloy spit on two of them in the dirt in a two-strike count to force Corbin to beat him, and worked a walk out of it. To me, that’s far more evidence of his growth and progress at the plate this year. We knew he could hit balls into orbit, but he hadn’t proven to major league pitchers he could lay off low breaking balls. If they need to find new ways to beat him moving forward, they could be looking for a long time.

Baseball

There is something pretty simple about identifying your best pitch and deciding you’re just going to throw the ever living fuck out of it and see what happens. Most pitchers have decided they need a mix to get through a lineup two or three times. Then there are pitchers like Patrick Corbin, who stand out on a rock and say things like, “I throw a goddamn slider half the time and I dare you to do anything about it.”

The past two seasons, which just so happened to be the last two seasons before free agency for Corbin in Arizona, he decided that’s what he was going to do. Only two pitchers threw more sliders than Corbin in 2017, and only Jhoulys Chacin threw more last year. You could understand why, as according to FanGraphs it was the most valuable slider in the game. When toting that kind of weapon, it’s probably best you use it as much as you can, especially when you’re eying a contract with nine-digits on it, as Corbin got from the Nationals.

The scary thing for the Nats, or maybe it should have been, is that pitchers that lean that hard on a slider don’t tend to do very well long-term. Last year the top slider-throwers were Chacin, Corbin, Luis Severino, Jakob Junis, and Jon Gray. Chacin and Junis have ERAs over 5.00 this year, and Severino has yet to throw a pitch thanks to a lat strain. Only Gray has improved on what he did last year, and only marginally really.

In 2017, the top slider-throwers were Chris Archer, Corbin, Jason Hammel, John Lackey, and Ervin Santana. Archer has backed up since, and you don’t need me to tell you what happened to the other three.

The year previous, Madison Bumgarner made his way into the top five as far as throwing a slider, and then 2017 was the first year he ever got hurt and ended up missing about half the season. Same goes for Michael Pineda. It’s a very hard pitch to maintain its sharpness over multiple years and also your health. This is the needle that Corbin is trying to thread.

It would appear Corbin is somewhat aware of this, as he’s backed off of it a bit, throwing it 5% less than last year and replacing it with more fastball usage. It seems to have cost him some strikeouts and increased his walks, but he’s still got an ERA and FIP under 4.00. He’ll be hard-pressed to ever match the 11 K/9 that he put up last year, and if that’s what the Nationals thought they were paying for, well that’s on them.

The thing is, Corbin’s slider is getting more movement, both down and across the zone, than it did last year:

So he might be better off just riding and dying with it, whenever that might be.

That doesn’t make his signing any less weird. Yes, the Nationals definitely had a hole in the rotation after Scherzer and Strasburg, and you wouldn’t want any part of this in a playoff series. But does that matter if you’re not getting to the playoff series? The Nationals have a pretty middling offense–partly due to the growing pains of Victor Robles and Juan Soto–and a woeful bullpen. They also have an overmatched manager. Was another starter really highest on the shopping list?

It’s definitely a Cerberus of a top of a rotation. It’s just a wonder if that’s worth it when it’s getting you 80 wins.