MLB Should Threaten Tanking Teams With Relegation
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: the need to get rid of the Orioles; Aristides Aquino, Barry Bonds's clone; Gary Thorne screaming for an end to the madness; and much more.
Here’s a quick recap of the last week for the Orioles, a group of kindergarteners masquerading as a baseball team.
• Their first baseman, who’s being paid $23 million this season and has nearly twice as many strikeouts as total bases, had to be restrained from fighting their manager.
• They gave up 32 runs and 16 homers (!) in three games to the Yankees.
• They gave up 23 runs in a single game to the Astros, who hit five homers against them—the 18th time a team has hit five or more home runs in one game against Baltimore pitching.
• They gave up 19 runs in a doubleheader on Monday to the Yankees, including three homers to Gleyber Torres, who’s hit 13 against them this year.
• In that doubleheader, they set a new franchise and American League record for most homers allowed in a single season and are now just 10 away from the all-time MLB record of 258 in the second week of August.
• One of their outfielders had a flyball clank off his head as he tried to catch it.
• Another outfielder threw a ball roughly four feet and in the wrong direction as he tried to get it back into the infield.
• And they’re now 39–80 with a run differential of -237 and on pace to lose 109 games—and that would be a six-game improvement on last year’s results.
There aren’t enough bad words to describe the Orioles, and yet they’re somehow not even the worst team in baseball: The Tigers are 35–80 and have won a grand total of 13 games since the end of May. Nor are those two alone in their awfulness. The Blue Jays are flirting with their first 100-loss season in 40 years. The Royals are on pace to lose 102 games. The White Sox will miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season. The Mariners player with the most Wins Above Replacement in 2019 is Edwin Encarnacion, and he was traded two months ago. The Marlins are en route to a 10th consecutive losing season. And the Pirates are a staggering 5–24 in the second half.
It’s flat-out embarrassing that there are this many bad teams in baseball, and worse, the majority of those squads came into the year with no hope of contending and no chance of being anything other than terrible. That’s a disservice to the fans of those teams and of MLB as a whole. Things go wrong and bad seasons happen, but franchises intentionally coming into the year with Triple A-caliber rosters and racking up loss after loss is actively detrimental to the game.
How do you fix that, though? Simple: You make losing as painful as possible, and in that vein, there’s no better way to stop tanking in baseball than to borrow a page from the Premier League’s book and institute relegation. At the end of the season, the six worst teams in the majors—three from each league—are sent down to Triple A. If the Orioles aren’t capable of contending at the major league level, then they shouldn’t be here. Nor should the Tigers or the Marlins or the half-dozen other teams seemingly content to waste everyone’s time.
This won’t happen. There are too many logistical issues and holes, and neither the league nor the Players Association would ever agree to it. But when the other alternative is letting the Orioles make a mockery of the sport day in and day out, it’s clear that MLB has to do something—anything—to force those teams to be better.
This Week In … The New Barry Bonds!
The Reds’ Aug. 1 callup of Aristides Aquino likely didn’t cross your radar, probably because he was a nine-year minor league veteran whose entire MLB career before that day consisted of one (1) plate appearance for Cincinnati last year. But with Yasiel Puig shipped to Cleveland, the Reds needed an outfielder, and with Aquino mashing in Triple A, he got the call. Turns out, though, that Cincinnati hoodwinked all of us and actually called up 2003 Barry Bonds, because look at these numbers:
You read that right: eight homers in 35 at-bats, including this 118.3-mph bomb last Thursday that’s going to get him sued by Aaron Judge for copyright infringement:
And Sunday’s three-homer game that he dumped on the Cubs, whose scouting report for Aquino was apparently “Throw him belt-high strikes, what’s the worst that could happen”:
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the combination of the juiced ball and a 6’4” dude with Giancarlo Stanton levels of raw power results in this kind of homer explosion. But I still think that MLB should step in and see if Aquino is actually Bonds in disguise trying to steal the home run crown, ala some cut-rate Scooby Doo villain.
This Week In … Pitchers Who Rake!
Quick, what’s your favorite part of Will Smith’s (the Giants reliever, not the Dodgers catcher or dude who starred in Wild Wild West) two-run single against the Phillies on Sunday, the funniest thing that happened in baseball last week?
1. That Smith, who had never taken a professional at-bat before, worked the count to 3–0 against Nick Pivetta, who probably felt like he wanted to dig a hole into the mound and hide there for the rest of the day?
2. That Smith—who, again, had never taken a professional at-bat before—got the green light on 3–1 and ripped a line drive into right, at which point Pivetta probably did crouch down and start clawing at the dirt with his fingers?
3. That Smith was laughing all the way up the first-base line, even as Bryce Harper came within a foot or two of throwing him out?
4. That Smith—who, and I can’t stress this enough, had never taken a professional at-bat before—will likely retire however many years from now with a 1.000 career batting average?
All of those are great, but I’m going to go with a smaller moment that fills me with joy: the Giants fan behind home plate who got up and started clapping right before Smith’s single.
I don’t know if this dude knew that Smith had literally never hit in a major league game before, or that the odds of him doing anything positive in that at-bat had to be a decimal with a whole lot of zeros after it. But he chose to be positive anyway, and the universe rewarded him for it, and I love that, and so should you. (Unless you’re Pivetta or a Phillies fan, I suppose.)
This Week In … Free Gary Thorne From The Prison That Is Orioles Baseball!
It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s been put through more suffering this MLB season than Orioles announcer Gary Thorne, who is contractually obligated to watch the O’s spit up on themselves over and over again. Nothing gets his ire up faster, though, than the way the Yankees have stomped all over Baltimore—and, in particular, the way Gleyber Torres has mashed Orioles pitching into a fine paste.
Earlier this season, I highlighted Thorne fighting the urge to walk out of the broadcast booth after Torres hit his 10th homer of the year against Baltimore. This time around, as Torres cranked No. 13 on Monday, Thorne was no less incredulous (and, on top of that, had to deal with YES Network’s Paul O’Neill paying a visit to the booth just to laugh at him).
If you listen closely, during that long stretch of silence, you can almost hear Thorne’s spirit vacating his body and fleeing to somewhere far, far away from the Orioles.
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
After heating up in the weeks since the All-Star break, Vlad Jr. has hit another skid, with six hits and zero homers in his last 25 at-bats. Even amid the slump, though, there are pearls, like this ball that was hit 118.7 mph, or his first big league triple. Still, the clear highlight of the week was [checks notes] a double-play groundball in a pinch-hit at-bat.
The outcome wasn’t what Guerrero wanted, but the process sure was fun to watch. In this titanic battle with Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, Vlad Jr. played spoiler for quite a while. After swinging through strikes one and two, he bore down and fouled off roughly 245 pitches, including a flat, thigh-high slider that he sent an absurdly long way. Guerrero didn’t come out ahead in the end, because it turns out that it’s really hard to get hits off a dude who throws 100 mph with a crazy breaking ball. But at least he made it fun.
This Week In … Alex Rodriguez, Man of the People!
When we last left Alex Rodriguez, ESPN talking head and Jennifer Lopez appreciator, he was turning down slices of a sad grocery store birthday cake that went uneaten. But while that depressing bit of celebratory dessert went ignored, unfortunately for A-Rod, the same couldn’t be said of his car this weekend. Per the San Francisco Chronicle:
A thief smashed into baseball legend Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez’s rental vehicle Sunday night in San Francisco, making off with an estimated half-million dollars worth of jewelry and electronics….
Sometime between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., someone broke into a vehicle in that location and stole a camera, a laptop, miscellaneous jewelry and a bag.”
I know what you’re thinking: How on earth does someone keep $500,000 worth of stuff in a car? Think of everything you own: your car, your clothing, the screens you stare at all day long. Not including your house or apartment, are all of those things worth even close to $500,000 combined? And yet here’s A-Rod, toting around half a million bucks in assorted knickknacks that he leaves sitting in the backseat of a car. Let this be a reminder that the rich are very different than you and I.
This Week In … Javy Baez!
Last Thursday’s Cubs-Reds game was a desultory blowout, a game that only diehards on either side watch until the end. Those that did, though, were rewarded by a bit of goofiness on the part of Javy Baez, MLB’s Crown Prince of Fun, as he decided to spice up the rout by taking some lefthanded hacks off position player Kyle Farmer.
I don’t know if I’m a bigger fan of Baez’s monstrous donkey hack or the fact that he went after the first pitch from a dude who was throwing so softly that the Statcast radars couldn’t pick up a speed. (Though Farmer was able to get a whiff out of Jason Heyward on a would-be eephus.) But Baez’s brief at-bat made me wish that MLB would add a skills competition to the Home Run Derby during All-Star week, so we could see players taking their best swings from the wrong side of the plate or position players vying to throw the hardest pitch or stuff like that. (The ideal game: HORSE Run Derby.) I’ll take that a thousand times over the celebrity softball game.
This Week In … This Week’s Worst Play of the Week!
The Orioles had a lot of contenders for this spot, but I’ve picked on them enough. Luckily, there are plenty of other bad teams ready to pick up the slack. Case in point: the Tigers, seen here screwing the White Sox out of an out thanks to a ballboy who couldn’t decide how to get out of the way and eventually figured “Why bother?”
Come for the White Sox coach throwing his arms up in disbelief as he argues for a replay review of that would-be interference, stay for the slo-mo shot of the ballboy getting smacked in the face by Jon Jay’s glove. Incompetence all around!
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of 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: Greg Mathews, starting pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals (Donruss 1988).
I’ve never met Greg Mathews, and before plucking his card out of my pile, I’d never heard of him. His major league career was a blip: five seasons and 514 innings. He was brilliant for St. Louis in 1987 (and apparently a bit of a space case) and started both Game 1 of that year’s NLCS and Game 4 of the World Series, but he struggled in ’88 and disappeared not long after.
But while Mathews left little mark, I feel like I know him intimately, because he and I share the same curse: a last name that’s an oddly spelled variant of a far more common one. I didn’t even notice the missing T in “Mathews” until my initial Google search didn’t turn him up. Similarly, I can only imagine how many people in his life have tossed that extra letter in there, assuming he’s a “Matthews” because, well, why on earth isn’t he?
Greg Mathews, if you’re reading this, know that you’re not alone. I stand with you, brother, in your fight against misspellings. Let’s start a club.