With all due respect to Yankee Catcher and preeminent baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, sometimes it IS over before it’s over. Now a month into the 2017 Baseball season, it is time for some teams to take realistic assessment of their situation. Baseball is a long season and some will argue that you should wait until you play 40 games before you really know what you’ve got. I can see the logic behind this belief, provided that you are at least somewhere near equal in the win/loss column. At 40 games, the season is a quarter done. If you are the Cincinnati Reds or the Baltimore Orioles sitting with an 8-26 record at this point, you are done. Period. Finatae. Over. For the Reds, they simply don’t play the Minnesota Twins enough to add to the left side of the column to keep in contention.
Baseball is a game of statistics and the final realities of calculation. After the Twins won the American League Central for the second time in 2010, I was utterly convinced that my team actually had a shot at the World Series in 2011. I believed. I had faith. Then reality settled in once the season began. They lost 6 of the first 9 games played. Not to worry, I told myself. The season was young and they had started the season on the road to facing the Blue Jays and the Yankees, and going a collective 2-4 against their hosts. But those were good teams, and it was a rough schedule.
These are the lies addicts tell themselves.
From there, the Twins came home to Target Field for the opening series against the Oakland Athletics. The Twins went 1-2 for the third consecutive series. I noticed a trend, but didn’t let it bother me too much. This was OUR year and this was nothing more than a slow start.
Self-deception is key to addiction. It was just a really slow start…
Except it wasn’t. This became the team’s consistent outcome. On May 15th, I sat down and looked at the math. On that day, the Twins had a 12-26 record for a .316 average. To win the AL Central in 2011, I figured they would need to win 90 games. A quick calculation determined that we would need to win 78 of the next 124 games. That meant Minnesota would immediately need to jump from their lowly .316 winning average to .629 for the remaining games, and would have to maintain that pace for 4 ½
months. No team, not even the 1969 “Miracle” Mets had ever accomplished such a feat. In 2011, there was still only one Wild Card playoff team per league and with New York and Boston so strong, it was obvious that for a team in the AL Central and AL West, the only way to reach the post-season was to win their respective division. Long story short, any hopes of seeing another World Series in Minnesota that year were over. Clinging to hope led me to fail to see the obvious, so I waited until the middle of the month to do the calculations.
The Twins lost 99 games that season.
Fortunately, in 2016 it was much easier. I was much more jaded, and after we dropped the first nine games, I knew it was bad. The weekend after Prince died, we had a 5-14 record. The season was done by the end of April. I still watched every game and spent countless hours at the ballpark, but my focus changed. Brian Dozier hit 42 home runs that season, so watching the second baseman launch balls into the left field bleachers became what I sought out. That is what makes the game great. It is both a team and an individual sport. I began rooting for individual players more, and worried about the team less. The Twins went on to lose 103 games.
So, April has now passed and we begin to move into the heart of the baseball season. Things are starting to come into focus. As always, it is clear that pitching is key this season, but strikeouts rule the roost. Across the major leagues, there were 6,656 total strikeouts compared to 6,360 hits made during the month. Certainly, it can be said that the strike zone has expanded, but all this proves just how ace pitching now is fundamental to success. During his playing career, Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew was known to be strikeout prone. That’s what happens when you are a home run hitter who nails 573 of them in your career. You are going to strike out a lot. The Killer’s career strikeout rate was 21%. The strikeout rate for all players this season was 24% in April.
Maybe it was due to the colder weather, but I don’t think so. Yes, balls hit in warmer weather have a tendency to travel farther when they are struck. That’s just physics at work. That’s not what we are talking about here. We are talking about strikeouts, not fly or pop outs. The player turned and walked from the plate to the dugout 6,656 times. Teams now carry – on average – 13 pitchers on their staffs and due to the generally accepted 100 pitch rule, organizations have been able to place less pressure on starting pitching which has enabled better performance in the first five innings. At least, that’s the hope.
Right now, there is no thrower better than Washington Nationals righty Max Scherzer in my book. At this point, Scherzer has a 6-1 record. The three-time Cy Young winner who has twice posted 21 win seasons, struck out 15 hitters in just 6 1/3 innings on May 6. No one has ever done that before. Think about that for a moment. He faced 19 batters and struck out 15 of them.
From my perspective, one of Scherzer’s key tools is speed. In 2014 I was DJ-ing a Detroit/Twins game at Target Field and was trying to work in various claps and other sound effects during the Twins hitter’s at-bats and was simply unable to. As soon as the ball landed in the catcher’s glove, it was quickly tossed back to Scherzer who would immediately set to pitch and throw again. This maneuver gave batters hardly a moment to regain th
eir composure before the next strike came in. For me, it also didn’t allow sufficient time to pop in a 4-5 second hand clap. It wasn’t until Joe Mauer tipped a ball foul that I was able to pump through the stomping beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Mauer stepped out of the batter’s box to take some practice swings. Thanks to his experience and time as a catcher, Joe was able to take advantage of the opportunity to change the momentum and get on with a single. Scherzer’s command, speed and force are something to see and big reason why the Nationals, despite their current 18-17 record, remain a vital club in the NL East.
On May 5th, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel became the youngest pitcher to record 300 career saves when he threw a perfect ninth inning in Boston’s 6-5 win over Cleveland, lowering his ERA to 1.23 in the process. He was 29 years and 342 days old. This was his ninth save of the season. He still looks like a crow when he pitches though…
Unfortunately, however, we also learned in the early part of this season that pitchers are not invulnerable. At a game on April 20th, Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Danny Farquhar collapsed in the dugout during the game after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Farquhar had just replaced starter James Shields in the top of the sixth inning with one out and runners at second and third. George Springer of the Houston Astros hit a ground-rule double that scored the two runners and Farquhar struck out José Altuve for the second out. Carlos Correa blasted a home run to make it a 9-0 game before Josh Reddick flew out for the third out. Upon his return to the dugout, Farquhar began vomiting and collapsed. He was immediately taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a ruptured brain brain aneurysm, having two surgeries over that first weekend. He remains in the hospital in stable condition. Nearly 40% of those who suffer from such an aneurysm die as a result, and of those survivors, half live with some sort of disability. It is hard to tell if he will ever play ball ever again. So far, there are encouraging signs from the 31-year old player. But if there is one that that can be seen from his seven years in the Major Leagues, you cannot count Farquhar out. On this one, I have to say that Berra is right. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Whether he ever plays the game ever again is almost irrelevant. This is bigger than that. I believe that Farquhar will make a remarkable comeback and we will see him back at Guaranteed Rate Park in some capacity by the end of the season. His teammates hung his #43 jersey in the bullpen. It will remain there until his return. Danny Farquhar will be the only Chicago White Sox player I will root for this year. His team, now with a 9-23 record, however is done for the season.
On the reverse side are the teams that seem unable to lose. At 25-9, Boston has the best record in baseball. New York, at a game behind isn’t doing too shabby either with their 24-10 record. After 20 games, Boston posted 18 wins against only 2 losses. That is an incredible start. Getting guys like Kimbrel to help you close these things out certainly does help this along.
Sitting with 620 career home runs, Albert Pujols added his 3,000 career hit Friday night with a single in the fifth inning against
the Seattle Mariners. Pujols has spent time on these kinds of teams. For this seventh season on the Los Angeles Angels, the 38 year old is pared with both Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. The Angels possess a 21-13 record, just slightly ahead of last year’s Champions from Houston.
So, this is a game of numbers. It is a game of addition, of subtraction and ultimately percentages. Sure, 162 games is long season. But a lot can happen. George Will once wrote, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” Let’s see what the next 130 of them get us. Whether you are a Reds or a Red Sox fan or simply a lover of the game, we all need to see Danny Farquhar go out to that bullpen, take his jersey off the hanger and put it on. It is those individual stats that matter the most.
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, and baseball enthusiast. He hardly ever misses a Minnesota Twins home game at Target Field, and when the team is on the road he watches at home with his pal Brubeck. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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