It's Never Been Harder to Be a Major League Hitter
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI's weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: why hitters are utterly screwed; some very mature thoughts on a 420-foot homer off a 69-mph pitch; and the late-career travails of Steve Trout. If you have any feedback, questions or angry rants to send my way, please don’t hesitate to hit me up via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter.
This Week In … The Impossible Task MLB Hitters Face!
Last Thursday, in an otherwise uneventful game between the A’s and Astros, Oakland reliever Lou Trivino snapped off this gorgeous, completely unhittable curveball that froze poor Tony Kemp like an icicle.
That was just one of a few GIF-worthy benders that Trivino fired off that night, including one that wobbled Jose Altuve like a Jenga tower. The righty finished that at-bat with a 91 mph fastball perfectly dotted on the outside corner that Altuve—who, I remind you, is a former MVP and one of the best hitters alive—could only helplessly wave at for strike three.
If this is the first time you’re hearing of Lou Trivino, that’s understandable. Members of the A’s rarely see the spotlight, and relievers are a particularly anonymous group. Most baseball fans probably couldn’t pick Trivino out of a police lineup of one. Yet last season, he was a force in Oakland’s bullpen, punching out 82 batters in 74 innings and posting a 2.92 ERA. And in this era of the game’s history, there are countless others who are just as good if not better than he is.
Watching baseball in 2019, you’re struck constantly by how hard it must be for major league hitters to do anything against the awe-inspiring pitching they face every night. (Well, leaving aside the collective fart that is the Orioles.) Pitchers have never thrown harder than they do now. They’ve never thrown more offspeed and breaking pitches than they do now. They’ve never had the technology or coaching that helps them exploit every single last weakness a hitter has than they do now. They have, on the whole, never been better, and there have never been more of them.
Every offseason now brings the hue and cry from Commissioner Rob Manfred and others about how little action there seems to be in a modern baseball game. That conversation usually devolves into arguments about pace of play, but it routinely ignores the fact that there’s less action now because it’s rarely ever been harder to hit the ball. Only in the depths of the Dead Ball Era and at the height of the 1960s, before the mound was lowered, has the game been so free of offense. The current league batting average of .245 would be the eleventh-lowest in MLB history and worst since 1972—and last year’s .248 mark wasn’t much better. It’s easy to see why, too, when every team has five or six dudes like Trivino routinely firing off video game-caliber pitches.
Between the excellence of pitchers and the (likely) juiced ball, MLB has become a game of extremes: more strikeouts, more home runs, more velocity, more distance. In the process, the sport is shifting into something that only vaguely resembles the way it existed in the past. Perhaps in the future, people will look back at the late 2010s and see it as the obvious and inevitable dividing point between two completely separate eras of baseball. If that’s the case, then it’s likely that the latter will be defined first and foremost by the likes of Trivino. Twenty or fifty or 100 years ago, he would’ve been one of the best pitchers in the majors. Nowadays, though, he’s just another guy.
This Week In … Not Wanting Any Smoke!
Last Wednesday, the Royals and White Sox got into a tiff after a Tim Anderson bat flip turned into Brad Keller throwing at Anderson turned into a shoving match turned into ejections and eventual suspensions. The whole thing was silly and stupid, as these always are, and the latest example of the exhausting debate between Playing The Game The Right Way versus Please Just Let People Have Fun, It’s Not That Hard.
I don’t want to revisit that whole boring mess. (Nine Innings is officially and forever Pro Bat Flip.) But I do want to throw some appreciation toward Anderson, who took some cranky internet heat from Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk and didn’t back down.
Thus called out, Grichuk replied that he wasn’t talking about Anderson—just some other dude who’d flipped a bat and been in the news for it, clearly, why are you assuming it’s about you? But if you believe that, then you probably think that Keller was being totally honest when he said that “the ball got away from me” when he whipped a fastball at Anderson. Guys, listen to the commercial: Just let the kids play.
This Week In … Why Isn’t Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In The Majors Yet?
When we last left Vlad Jr., Future Destroyer of Worlds, he was laying waste to Triple A while the Blue Jays made vague noises about maybe calling him up sometime possibly soon, perhaps. Since then, Guerrero has continued to do the kind of things that only exist in bad movies, like hitting balls literally out of stadiums.
Entering Tuesday’s play, Vlad Jr. was hitting a robust .412/.500/.824 in the minors at a level where the average player is seven years his senior, and he has yet to strike out in 20 plate appearances. Such dominance practically demands action, and for a brief moment on Friday, it looked like our deliverance was at hand.
Yet nothing came of that report and our lives continue to be Vlad-less—empty and without joy, like a desert, or a Matt Harvey start in 2019.
As for Toronto’s excuse this time around, the team insists that Guerrero needs more regular at-bats before he gets promoted—a desire complicated by bad weather last weekend in Buffalo. Ah well, it’s a shame the Jays don’t have a climate-controlled stadium—perhaps a dome with an alternate, Canadian spelling of “Center”—where Vlad Jr. could take his hacks without worrying about rain.
This Week In … Who Needs Craig Kimbrel?
Every week until he’s signed, I’ll take a look at which teams need free agent Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball, the most, and declare one the “winner.”
The clamor around Kimbrel has fallen to hushed levels. The only recent news is that he’s reportedly willing to accept a three-year deal somewhere between Zack Britton ($39 million) and Wade Davis ($52 million). Left unsaid is that such a contract would be a steal for Kimbrel, who’s demonstrably better than either of those pitchers and would make literally any bullpen better and stronger.
That remains the case even as some of those bullpens have begun to find a more stable level, like the Cubs and Phillies. Others remain horror shows, such as the Nationals and their slowly improving yet still wretched relief corps and its airplane model ERA (7.41).
This week, though, the honor of Kimbrel goes to the Mets, currently cycling through middling Triple A arms en route to a 5.69 bullpen ERA. That isn’t helped by the team’s steadfast and archaic refusal to use Edwin Díaz—one of the few relievers in baseball better than Kimbrel—as anything other than a Three-Out Closer In The Ninth Only, No Exceptions. That’s well and good if you have someone like Craig Kimbrel also in your bullpen. It’s a less tenable plan when your other options are Jeurys Familia (5.59 ERA), Seth Lugo (5.68) and Luis Avilan (11.25).
Also receiving votes: Nationals, Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers, Twins, Braves, Mariners, and like half a dozen more teams, I honestly can’t keep track at this point
This Week In … Juvenile Numerology!
On Saturday against the Dodgers, Christian Yelich bopped a pair of homers to lead Milwaukee to a 5–0 win. Both of those blasts came off lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, but it’s the second that I want to pay close attention to.
As far as home runs go, it was both textbook and beautiful. But what got me about this particular dinger were the details—in particular, distance and pitch speed. Ryu’s curveball came floating in at 68.8 mph; Yelich’s shot went an estimated 421 feet. That’s right: Just two-tenths of a mile and 12 inches separated the world from a Perfect Home Run.
If you’re deeply, irreversibly Online like I am, you invariably giggle like a moron whenever the numbers 69 and 420 pop up. And Saturday—on 4/20, no less!—we came within a hair of those numbers smashing together for the most internet-friendly home run that’s ever been hit. Based on a quick Statcast search, it also would’ve been the first time we’d ever gotten that combo.
This world is, on many days, an overflowing garbage can of sadness, but at least on Saturday, baseball came as close as it ever has to slipping the surly bonds of this trash hole and touching the face of God.
This Week In … Deeply Aspirational Pettiness!
Pete Alonso was adamant that he was going to play for the Mets on Sunday. Manager Mickey Callaway made that much clear when he talked to the media, saying that his rookie first baseman frantically texted and called him Saturday night to beg his way into the lineup against the Cardinals despite being hit on the hand earlier that day. But why did Alonso so badly want to face St. Louis? Per the New York Post:
All was well with his hand, but Alonso wanted to make sure he would be in the lineup Sunday against Cardinals pitcher Dakota Hudson. They were former college rivals—Alonso at Florida and Hudson at Mississippi State—in the powerhouse SEC from 2014-16.
“He called me [Saturday] night and was like, ‘Hey, you better put me in,’” Callaway said Sunday morning. “He was like, ‘Hey, I want to play tomorrow. I hate this guy. I played against him in college.’ I don’t know.
“I don’t know what he was saying. He was going nuts.”
Alonso later said there’s no actual bad blood between the two; he just wanted to make sure he got his licks in as a major leaguer after going hitless versus Hudson in college. And to top it all off, given that shot, he made it count.
(Sidenote: What makes this home run even better is that it’s hit so far that both the centerfielder and the cameraman completely give up on tracking it.)
Score one for Alonso, and for pettiness as a whole.
This Week In … Good Reads Around the Web!
• “Tim Anderson’s one-game suspension ignores a world of context” | James Fegan, The Athletic
I worried that Anderson’s suspension and its particulars would launch a landslide of horrible, stupid takes on race from the sport’s dumber chroniclers. But instead, we got a thoughtful and personal piece on how and why MLB got this wrong.
• “Dallas Keuchel And Craig Kimbrel Are Haunting The Baseball Season” | David Roth, Deadspin
David is one of the best writers out there, and he’s aces at describing the particular blend of billionaire ennui that pervaded the MLB offseason and persists in the form of Keuchel and Kimbrel.
• “The roast of Terry Francona” | Zack Meisel, The Athletic
I laughed way too hard at the multiple (!) instances of Terry Francona falling asleep with different kinds of food on his person or in his bed and waking up to find it smeared all over him. Long live Tito.
This Week in ... Charming Rookies!
America, meet Cole Tucker. He’s a 22-year-old shortstop for the Pirates who was their first-round pick in 2014 and who made his major league debut on Saturday. He did it with a bang, slamming a two-run homer to give Pittsburgh a 3–1 win over the Giants. The celebration that followed was long and busy: hugs, high-fives, hundreds of text messages, a dousing in the shower by teammates with baby powder and soda, and a Photoshop of him as the latest franchise legend. “This is the coolest day of my life,” he told reporters afterward, and I can’t imagine there’s much else that compares.
But Tucker is more than just a rookie with a flair for the dramatic. He’s also surprisingly slick.
Tell me that isn’t the most perfect representation of a successful slide into the DMs that you’ve ever seen. If the whole baseball thing doesn’t work out, Tucker’s clearly got a future in being suave as hell.
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Steve Trout, starting pitcher, New York Yankees (Donruss 1988).
Before you ask: No, Steve isn’t related to Mike. He is, though, kin to the man who was previously the best Trout in baseball history: His father, Dizzy. (Steve wasn’t so lucky in the cool nickname department, getting bestowed with “Rainbow” because, well, ballplayers aren’t very clever.)
Up until 1987, Trout’s career was your run-of-the-mill mix of good, bad and mediocre. But halfway through that season, the Yankees acquired him in a four-player deal from the Cubs. What had been a brilliant start on the North Side turned into a nightmare in the Bronx: In 46 1/3 innings, Trout walked 37 batters, threw nine wild pitches, and posted a 6.60 ERA.
I don’t know when the photo on this card was taken, but Trout’s expression suggests it happened during one of many moments that summer in New York when he probably wondered how he’d gotten stuck in this looping version of Hell—one where he couldn’t throw strikes or get outs or do anything right. It’s all over his face, screwed up in perpetual disbelief. How did it all go so wrong? Why did it all fall apart? Would it ever get better?
Steve Trout finished his 12-year MLB career with 1,501 1/3 innings pitched and 13.2 Wins Above Replacement. A little less than two years after he called it quits, Mike Trout was born in southern New Jersey. It took him all of about a season and a half in the majors to cruise past the elder Trout’s career WAR total.