Minnesota’s Incredible Run, Yankees Keep Rolling, An Apology to the Cubs and More
The running theme of this week is that baseball writers, including this columnist, get things wrong. One week, everyone will claim a team is doomed but, days later, that same club will look like the best team in the game. Or, on the other hand, some team will be hailed as the class of the sport one week before tumbling back to Earth shortly thereafter. A few of the following teams fall into these categories, though the Yankees have remained consistent despite a number of injuries to key players.
Twins Taking Over
Baseball analysts like to make the game complicated. Sabermetrics has revolutionized the game because after all, baseball is a complex sport and teams want to do whatever they can to win. But, sometimes, there are simple explanations for success. Look at the Minnesota Twins. They’re scoring a lot of runs, bashing a bunch of homers and, coincidentally, they currently happen to be tied with the Houston Astros for the most wins in baseball (33.) The numbers don’t lie. According to Fox Sports: MLB’s Twitter account, the Twins lead MLB in runs per game, home runs, and on-base plus slugging. Sure, baseball keeps evolving but, there’s one relatively consistent path to victory: the other team can’t beat you if you score more than they do. That’s music to the Twins’ ears, especially when you consider that they recently had their second eight-homer game of the season. (According to Kyle Newport of Bleacher Report, the 2005 Texas Rangers are the only other team who have accomplished that feat.) The club brought in slugger Nelson Cruz for his big bat but other key cogs like Miguel Sano, Marwin Gonzalez and Eddie Rosario are fueling this power surge.
As with other homer-happy teams with prolific offenses, the viability of Minnesota’s success, especially once October rolls around, comes down to the pitching staff. Hitters can run hot and cold so it’s unwise to fully depend on the offense to carry a team. With these the Twins, their pitchers aren’t elite. But Jose Berrios is having a promising first half, Martin Perez has played well and Jake Odorizzi has been consistent, and the trade market could bolster the rotation and/or the unremarkable bullpen ( …apparently, a former Cy Young winner is still looking for work. The Twins are also a logical landing spot for Craig Kimbrel). For now, let’s just enjoy Minnesota’s resurgence after a step back last year.
Early this season, the Yankees were the talk of the town because, against all odds, they stayed afloat. As the number of the team’s key contributors on the injured list climbed, the Bronx Bombers also soared. It was easy to praise the Yankees back then; they had no right to stay afloat while stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Didi Gregorius were unable to play (That’s not even mentioning a plethora of injuries to the pitching staff; ace Luis Severino has been on the shelf and breakout star Domingo German has admirably stepped up in his place). But Aaron Boone’s club ignored the doubters; on any given day, unheralded heroes would make a crucial play and propel the Yankees to victory. At times, utility man DJ LeMahieu practically carried the team. When he was signed, the former Rockies’ second baseman was expected to quietly complement the Yankees’ other stars; now, LeMahieu has proven himself as a difference maker in New York, arguably the most pressure-packed market in sports. LeMahieu and others prevented the Yankees’ 2019 season from falling apart right out of the gate. But now, beyond simply surviving, the club is thriving.
The Yankees, currently on a five-game winning streak, have overtaken the Rays for first place in the AL East. What’s their secret? Surprisingly, the answer to New York’s success looks a lot like that of last year’s club. According to Coley Harvey of ESPN, they’re still hitting a lot of homers, despite the aforementioned injuries. The pitching is still solid; tough CC Sabathia just returned to the injured list, he’s been excellent when he’s on the field. Then, there’s German, who has surprisingly emerged as one of the first half’s best starters in the American League. Finally, though the bullpen hasn’t been perfect, Adam Ottavino and Aroldis Chapman have been playing stellar baseball which, at times, has been enough to shut down opposing offenses. The Yankees have emerged as one of the best teams in the American League and, as they continue to get healthy, they’ll likely prove that the best is yet to come.
At the time of this writing, Kyle Schwarber just hit a leadoff home run in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. Just weeks ago, this very column stuck a fork in the Cubs and suggested that it might be time to tear the whole thing down. Now, Chicago stands atop the NL Central with a 1.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. Plenty of other writers have admitted they were wrong about the Cubs so we’d like to take this time to apologize. The Cubs looked like they were done for and, at this juncture, it seems safe to say that we were wrong. But what happened? What’s gotten into the Chicago Cubs?
As Jesse Rogers of ESPN describes, it’s nothing magical: Chicago is “just” playing good baseball. The pitching staff has turned it around after a rough start and the offense has continued its strong start to the year. Kris Bryant was one of the hitters who struggled early on but he’s reemerged as one of the lineup’s reliable stars while Javier Baez makes another case for the NL MVP award (At the very least, he’s asserted himself as the face of the franchise). Rogers points out that, surprisingly, the Cubs’ pitchers have formed one of the best staffs in baseball since April 8. Brian Thomas of Cubbies Corner argues that Yu Darvish is rounding into form and he’s finally playing like the ace Chicago hoped he’d be when they signed him. Thomas analyzes Darvish’s recent performance, which includes an impressive 13.1 strikeout-per-nine ratio. Darvish’s shortcomings in Chicago became a popular narrative but now he’s turning that story on its head. His return to excellence pairs well with that of Jose Quintana. The Cubs are firing on all cylinders and, though the Brewers are looking over their shoulder, Chicago has earned the right to feel confident about their chances this year.
The Cardinals are basically the polar opposite of the Cubs. No, it’s not just because they’re bitter rivals. Right around the time we, along with many others, wrote off the Cubs, the baseball world hailed the Cardinals as one of the best teams in baseball. The Cardinals were here to stay. That was then. Now St. Louis has fallen to 25-24. With a 3-7 record in their last 10 games, the Cardinals have been struggling noticeably. They’re down to fourth place in the NL Central and, though they’re only 4.5 games back of the Cubs, that gap seems more significant considering where the Cardinals stood just a few weeks ago. Again, it’s fair to ask, “what the heck happened?”
Vila El Birdos (specifically lil_scooter93 ) puts the Cardinals’ rough stretch in a historical perspective: they write that its 6-14 record in the month is the worst in the club’s long history. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch focuses on the current season and dives into the Cardinals’ woes; an 8-2 loss to the Royals on May 22 was the club’s 14th defeat in 18 games. It’s not all bad; in that same article, manager Mike Shildt states, via Hummel, that the club has a number of strengths but it’s hamstrung by the starting pitching and a lack of “damage” hitting. Unfortunately, regardless of those other positive areas, these weaknesses have been enough to drag the Cardinals down substantially. Nobody should write off the Cardinals yet; they’ve already proved everyone wrong once. Still, St. Louis doesn’t look like the supposedly elite club it was a few weeks ago and there’s no guarantee they’ll return to those heights this year.