What a week it was. A rookie threw a no-hitter in his first start; a pair of MVP candidates in Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went head-to-head in both phases of the game; a game was stopped because of a laser pointer at Citi Field; and, most importantly, there was corn (so much corn).
It’s a week that will be hard to top, but before we move on, let’s do what we always do here and take stock of where things stand across the league. To the rankings we go.
You throw a no-hitter in your first start, you get your team out of the cellar. Those are the rules, so that means the Diamondbacks are sliding up while the Orioles land in an all-too-familiar place. Baltimore has lost its last 11 games, good for the team’s second double-digit losing streak of the season. These are dark times in Birdland.
The pitching has been particularly brutal during this most brutal stretch. The Orioles have allowed at least 10 runs in a game five times during the losing streak, with the starters posting a gaudy 8.81 ERA. But like a ray of sunshine peeking through the cracks in the dark, we’re beginning to see a late-season resurgence from the beleaguered Matt Harvey. In five starts since the All-Star break, the righthander is 3–1 with a 1.65 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .208/.259/.307 slash line. Harvey is on his fifth team in four years, and it seemed an inevitability that 2021 would be his last chance on a big league roster. A strong finish could make him attractive to teams in need of pitching depth this offseason, and extend his time as a major league starter another year.
Shining even brighter than the Dark Knight, though, has been Cedric Mullins. Even Baltimore's mounting losses can’t overshadow what’s been a star-making breakout for the 26-year-old outfielder. Mullins leads the American League in hits and has a chance at pulling off a 30–30 season, which would make him the first in franchise history. Sunday saw an end to his 20-game hit streak, though don’t expect him to stay cool for long. His longest hitless drought this year has been three games, and his rolling expected batting average (50 plate appearances) hasn’t dipped below the league average since early June.
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The Orioles won’t have a semblance of a contending team until they start developing effective starting pitchers, so that must remain priority No. 1 if the franchise hopes to start winning while Mullins is around. Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez continues to dominate at Double A, while catcher Adley Rutschman has been promoted to Triple A. The future hasn’t arrived in Baltimore yet, but it could be knocking on the door sooner than you think.
The Angels have taken the phrase “aggressively mediocre” to new heights this year. Los Angeles has been within two games of .500 on either side each day since June 30, and they’ve had the same number of wins and losses 24 times this season. That’s 10 shy of the all-time record set by the 2009 Twins, per MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, meaning history is within striking distance for the Halos over the final seven weeks.
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While the 2021 Angels sit 9.5 games out of a playoff spot, the club appears to have its eyes set on the future. Youngsters Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh are getting regular playing time in the outfield, while 2020 first-round pick Reid Detmers is in the big league rotation after just 13 minor league starts. He picked up his first career win by holding the Astros to one run with six strikeouts in six innings Sunday, and he’s one of several young arms that have flashed potential this season, along with Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez and Chris Rodriguez.
It wouldn’t be a proper Angels recap without mentioning Shohei Ohtani, so here it goes: He went 8-for-26 (.308) at the plate last week with two home runs, three walks, four extra-base hits and two stolen bases. Facing a loaded Blue Jays lineup on the mound, he allowed just two runs with six strikeouts over six innings Thursday, in a game in which he also went 1-for-3 with a walk and a double.
Since his blowup outing at Yankee Stadium on June 30—in which he allowed seven runs and didn’t get out of the first inning—Ohtani is 4–0 with a 1.69 ERA and 29 strikeouts over five starts. He’s the runaway favorite to win AL MVP, yes, but he’s also likely to pick up some Cy Young Award votes if he can maintain his current form.
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable Joey Votto’s late-career power surge has been. This was a part of his game that appeared to be a thing of the past. While Votto has remained incredibly consistent throughout his career—he’s never posted a wRC+ below league average—he’d seemingly aged into a contact-first hitter, and his masterful control of the strike zone ensured that he’d always put up high on-base percentages.
From 2018–20, Votto had a .155 isolated power, which ranked 129th out of 164 qualified hitters during that span and put him in league with guys like Kevin Kiermaier and Freddy Galvis. This season, he ranks third in that category at .294, trailing only Ohtani (an absurd .384) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.297). In 60 games since coming back from the injured list with a broken thumb, Votto is hitting .304/.402/.645 with 21 home runs and 58 RBI.
VERDUCCI: The Revival of Joey Votto
A big adjustment he’s made is keeping the ball off the ground. Votto’s ground ball rate before the IL stint was 42.0%. After the month off, it’s down to just 30.9%. Where in the past, Votto’s keen batting eye manifested itself in extreme patience, now he’s using it to hunt pitches to drive. Votto’s 93.1 mph average exit velocity is the highest it’s been in the Statcast era (since 2015), and he has the second-highest barrel rate (one every 11.5 plate appearances) in the majors. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down, sure, but that shift in approach has been more than a worthy tradeoff for a hitter who’s likely to end up in the Hall of Fame.
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Coupled with San Diego’s slump, the Reds are just 2.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Votto will need to maintain something close to his current hot streak, though he’s had plenty of help along the way. Ten of Cincinnati’s next 13 games are against the Cubs and Marlins, so the opportunity is there to continue climbing up the standings.
Thursday night’s incredible Field of Dreams walk-off win aside, close games have not been the White Sox’ forte this season. They’re 12–18 in one-run games, good for the fifth-worst record in such games. A recurring issue is the offense’s struggles in crunch time.
White Sox hitters have the fifth-lowing batting average in high-leverage situations (.220) and the fifth-highest strikeout rate (26.0%). Another cause for concern is their record against the league’s top teams. Chicago is 16–21 against teams .500 or better, and hasn’t won a series against a team that currently has a winning record since taking two out of three against Houston in the first series after the All-Star break. With a sizable lead in the AL Central and no real contending teams in the division, it will be quite a while until the White Sox experience something close to the high-pressure cooker of the postseason.
Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports
Another reason for worry is closer Liam Hendriks, who hasn’t looked himself of late. Hendriks has had back-to-back nightmare outings, allowing six earned runs in 1 1/3 innings. Most concerning is his home run trends—Hendriks has given up nearly two homers per nine innings, easily the highest rate of his career since becoming a full-time relief pitcher. The White Sox have as much talent as anybody, but their relative lack of experience (and poor performance) in close games against good competition is an issue that will loom into October.
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It took a minute, but it appears Wander Franco has finally hit his stride. The most hyped prospect in recent memory was a tad sluggish in his first taste of the major leagues, batting .197/.258/.328 in his first 15 games. He’s looked every bit the part of a budding superstar since then, batting .272/.333/.485 in 26 games with four home runs and 11 extra-base hits. The 20-year-old hit his sixth home run of the season in Sunday’s 5–4 loss to the Twins.
Franco has done nothing to dissuade the baseball world of his eventual stardom, and his emergence into an instant-impact everyday player will play a significant role in Tampa Bay’s playoff push. Entering the week, the Rays hold a three-game lead on the Red Sox and a 5.5-game advantage over the hard-charging Yankees, making the AL East perhaps the most compelling division race as we head for the home stretch.
Will Tampa Bay have enough pitching to get across the finish line? Shane McClanahan has been strong, but the rest of the rotation is in a bit of a tailspin as of late. Rookie Luis Patiño walked five batters in three innings against Minnesota on Sunday, while Michael Wacha has allowed 18 runs in his last three starts. Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming have been similarly disastrous, and not even the elite bullpen can cover the warts in the rotation.
Having nearly every starting pitcher hit a rough patch at the same time has an element of bad luck to it, and the group can’t continue to be this bad going forward. Tampa Bay has done fine without good starting pitching, going 18–10 in the second half. To keep the rest of the pack at arm’s length, though, improvements need to be made. The Rays will face the Red Sox 13 times down the stretch, and finish the season with a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. They’re in a good spot right now, but things can change in a hurry.
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The Revival of Joey Votto
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