With a quarter of the season in the books, this is clear: We're watching some of the most talented players the game has ever seen play the most stagnant style of baseball ever played. The Statcast Era is upon us, and its capacity to measure every action mints new stars every day. Aaron Judge, Max Scherzer and Billy Hamilton are its favorites, but it has also identified, for example, the game's hardest throwers: two rookie relievers, the Cardinals' Jordan Hicks and the Marlins' Tayron Guerrero. Another rookie, Padres outfielder Franchy Cordero, hits the ball hard (117 mph) and far (489 feet—a different one from the ball hit hardest). And another rookie, the Angels' Shohei Ohtani, throws the ball 100 mph and hits the ball 100 mph.
No newbie, Boston's Mookie Betts is notable for his combination of contact and power—skills rarely seen in tandem these days. Hits that aren't homers and outs that aren't strikeouts are nearing extinction. Strikeouts are set to reach an all-time high—again.
So which teams are built to play this brand of baseball into October? Which need to think about next October? We have some ideas, but with this season's flashing freshmen, maybe the game will change again by then.
MVP (SO FAR)
THE RED SOX took a chance by firing manager John Farrell in October after back-to-back AL East titles and turning the team over to Astros bench coach Alex Cora. Their move has paid off so far: Cora has Boston neck-and-neck with the Yankees in the division. The Sox have a .692 winning percentage with almost the same roster Farrell managed in 2017, when the team winning percentage was .574. J.D. Martinez was the only addition in the offseason, and while he's off to a great start—.336/.385/.603 with nine home runs—he's not the key to the surge. Neither is Xander Bogaerts, who is hitting .323/.353/.573, though he missed two weeks with an ankle injury.
Mookie Betts is the best player on baseball's best team. In a 5--4 win over the Royals on May 2, he hit three home runs, his second three-homer game of the season. He leads the American League in homers (13), runs (41), batting average (.356), slugging (.780) and OPS (1.215). If balloting were held today, Betts or the Angels' Mike Trout would be the AL's MVP.
Playing in the Strikeout Era, Betts has never whiffed more than 82 times in a season, and his 11% strikeout rate in 2018 is ninth among all MLB players and second only to José Ramírez among players with at least 10 homers. Betts is also one of the game's best rightfielders. Throw in some steals—five so far and 26 in each of the past two years at an 88% success rate—and you have a player who does everything well.
STRIKE: A SOUR NOTE
BASEBALL IS MISSING ... BASEBALL
As pitchers throw harder and batters trade contact for power, action is leaching from the game. More than a third of plate appearances end in a strikeout, a walk or a homer—plays that involve no defense or baserunning. For the first time, strikeouts (the Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton, below, leads the majors) are more common than hits. We can debate a lot of things about the game, but we might agree that if you're more likely to see a whiff than a hit, something is wrong.
Plate appearances that have ended in a strikeout, walk or homer—highest in history and up from 28% just 10 years ago
Plate appearances that have ended in a single—lowest in history
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
DIFFERENTIAL BETWEEN HITS AND STRIKEOUTS
--No. of hits
--No. of strikeouts
TO LOSE, LONG TREK
The worst place to be is the middle. As Nate Silver has pointed out, wins that put a team closer to the playoffs are worth a lot of money, while wins, say, from 64 to 74 don't increase revenue. So, many teams sat out last winter's free-agent market, while the Marlins tore apart the best outfield in the league and the Pirates traded away their best players. Seven teams are now on pace for at least 100 losses (including the NL-worst Reds, with Joey Votto, above), and the White Sox could challenge the 1962 Mets' record of 120 defeats. This rampant losing inflates the top teams' win totals: The Red Sox and the Yankees are each headed for 108 or more. But teams that started rebuilding under the last CBA—which made coming in last worth potentially $1 million more than finishing in the middle of the pack—are seeing benefits. The Braves and the Phillies are atop the NL East, and the White Sox and the Padres will be dangerous soon. Still, MLB has to take a look at how earning money has become independent from earning wins. The mechanisms that were sold as necessary to ensure competitive balance are now undercutting it.
STOCK IN TRADE
Amid a disastrous start for the Orioles, who were 15½ games out of first place just 40 days into the season, shortstop Manny Machado (above) was the one bright spot, hitting .342 with 13 homers. Machado, who can become a free agent after 2018, is the most attractive prize on the trade market, and here are the teams the Orioles should call:
Yankees: They aren't looking for a shortstop after Didi Gregorius's breakout 2017 season (25 homers), but they could use a third baseman.
Indians: They could play Machado at third and slide José Ramírez to second, replacing the faltering Jason Kipnis to create the best infield in baseball—on the days Edwin Encarnación is at first (with Francisco Lindor at short).
Dodgers: Corey Seager's season-ending elbow injury creates a need at shortstop. But L.A. has been hoarding young talent in an effort to get below the luxury-tax threshold and is unlikely to change strategy.
There are other notable trade targets this summer (the Rangers' Cole Hamels, the Royals' Kelvin Herrera, the Padres' Tyson Ross), but Machado is the best.
Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña (right), who give the Braves one of best young duos in history. The 5'8" Albies, 21, a second baseman, has ripped 12 homers and leads the NL in doubles and runs; leftfielder Acuña, 20, the youngest player in baseball, has been one of the best players in baseball since his promotion on April 25. Just five teams have had two rookies 21 or younger be worth at least two wins. Atlanta looks like it will be the sixth.
Albert Pujols (right), who, despite notching his 3,000th hit on May 4, is a shell of his superstar self, almost as likely to ground into a double play (four times) as draw a walk (six) or hit a home run (six). Many shortstops now play him in short leftfield because they know he can't beat their throws to first.
The Cubs, who may still be the best of the NL Central, but the Cardinals and the Brewers are threats. Chicago's pitchers, despite a 3.39 ERA, have the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL.
The AL Central, where even the favored Indians can't stay above .500. The five teams have lost two-thirds of their interdivisional games. It may be the worst division since realignment in 1994.
The Diamondbacks, who have followed up a wild-card run in 2017 with a 24--15 start and are in the driver's seat in the NL West. Manager Torey Lovullo has the best bullpen in baseball this year, anchored by power righty Archie Bradley, and centerfielder A.J. Pollock (right) is the early-season NL MVP.