Cleveland’s Bullpen Blues
By Tom Verducci
One of the most surprising developments of this baseball season has been the ineptitude of the Cleveland Indians bullpen. It is the worst bullpen in the major leagues, with the worst ERA (5.92) and worst win percentage (.294, 5–12).
Just how bad is a 5.92 bullpen ERA? It would stand as the third worst in the past half century, behind the 96-loss 2007 Devil Rays (6.16), the 109-loss 1996 Tigers (5.97) and the 83-loss 1999 Mariners (5.94). In the modern game only one team has won a pennant with a bullpen ERA worse than 4.60: the 1997 Twins (5.11).
The good news for Cleveland is that the bullpen has had to work the least amount of innings because the starting pitching has been stellar. With Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez leading the offense, the Indians managed to build the largest division lead in baseball entering this month. Thank you, AL Central. Maybe the Twins get their act together, but injuries to Joe Mauer, Byron Buxton, Jason Castro, Ervin Santana, the PED suspension of Jorge Polanco and the lack of development of Miguel Sano have kept them in neutral.
Understand this: the Indians may have the easiest path to the playoffs in baseball—57 games against the Royals, White Sox and Tigers, against whom they are 12–4 after a 38–19 clocking last year—but they know they have seven weeks to fix the bullpen. When manager Terry Francona was asked if the potential answers are within the organization or outside, he said, “Maybe both.”
Cleveland has two glaring needs: it needs to get Andrew Miller healthy and it needs to find a righthanded strikeout pitcher.
Miller is on the disabled list with inflammation in his right knee. He has chronic issues with the knee—similar to jumper’s knee in basketball players—so Cleveland needs to find the right remedy for him. His problem is a lack of stability that leads to changes in his mechanics, which leads to ineffectiveness. When Miller is not confident in the knee’s stability, as soon as he lands on his front leg he spins off it to lessen the load. And when he does that, he loses finish and command on his pitches. The Indians might try changes to how the knee is taped or even the use of a brace, which solved a similar issue for Yankees lefthander CC Sabathia.
Righthanded power relief has gone lacking for Cleveland without Brian Shaw, who was not re-signed, and Nick Goody, who is on the 60-day disabled list with elbow trouble. Shaw and Goody gave Cleveland 131.1 innings last year with 145 strikeouts. They are missed.
The Indians have sinkerball pitchers Dan Otero and Evan Marshall. Zach McAllister and well-traveled Neil Ramirez are high-velocity righthanders, but neither has the pedigree to get big strikeouts late in playoff games. Lefthander Tyler Olson, in danger of getting overworked, got some help when Cleveland became the eighth team to grab Oliver Perez, who was buried in the Yankees’ minor league system and leveraged a June 1 opt-out. In his first outing with Cleveland Saturday, Perez touched 94 mph and looked like he can help.
Cleveland is a team loaded with high-end stars. In May, Corey Kluber walked one and struck out 41 among the 152 batters he faced—something done in any month by only one other pitcher (Jeff Samardzija in May last year: one walk, 49 strikeouts, 162 batters faced). Francisco Lindor has more home runs than any shortstop over the past two seasons. Jose Ramirez is third in the league in home runs and extra-base hits and has slammed more homers off fastballs than anybody else in baseball.
But if Cleveland is going to end the longest championship drought in sports—and the fifth-longest in the World Series era—it will have to fix its bullpen.
Taking Stock of … the NL West
By Michael Beller
Diamondbacks: After a horrible stretch during which they went 1–13, the Diamondbacks turned things around this week with five wins in six games against the Reds and Marlins, and they did it behind an offense that had languished for most of the last month. They scored 42 runs in the six games, and crossed the plate at least six times in four of them. The Marlins and Reds may be two of the worst teams in the league, but great teams take care of business against the bottom-feeders. At the center of it all is John Ryan Murphy, who has gone 10 for 30 with five homers and 10 RBI in his last seven starts. Paul Goldschmidt is finally starting to come alive as well, getting nine hits, including three homers, over the last nine games. Robbie Ray is working his way back from his oblique injury, and will throw his third bullpen session on Monday. Things are far from perfect in the desert, but in an ugly NL West, that’s par for the course. The Diamondbacks showed this week they may still be the class of the division.
Rockies: If the Rockies are going to make a serious run at a postseason berth for the second straight season, they’re going to need more consistency out of Jon Gray. The 26-year-old has gotten knocked around in four straight starts, allowing a total of 19 runs in 18 1/3 innings. The first start in that stretch was against the Brewers, but the next three came against the Giants (twice) and Reds, not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. Gray has surrendered at least five runs in five of his 12 starts and has failed to make it through six innings seven times. The NL West may prove to be the worst division in the league, and the first-place team is playing at just an 86-win pace, so there’s some margin for error here. Still, if the Rockies don’t get more out of Gray, they won’t be the team that climbs to the top of this unimpressive heap.
Giants: The Giants will play the next three weeks without Brandon Belt, who had an emergency appendectomy over the weekend. There’s no good time for the Giants to lose Belt, who’s hitting .307/.403/.547 with 11 homers, but it could be worse. First of all, Madison Bumgarner will make his season debut Tuesday. If you’re going to be without your best hitter, it helps to get your ace pitcher back in the fold. On top of that, the Giants’ upcoming schedule is as friendly as it could be, realistically. Over the next three weeks, the Giants have seven games against the Marlins and four against the Padres. They’ll also play three-game series against the Diamondbacks, Nationals and Dodgers. None of those teams are a pushover, but the Nationals are the only one comfortably above .500. Assuming the three-week timetable holds, Belt should be back in time for nine straight games against the Rockies and Diamondbacks, which could prove to be a crucial stretch of the season.
Dodgers: Even when something goes right for the Dodgers this season, something seems to go wrong. In the most recent case, it was the same player on both sides of the divide. Clayton Kershaw returned from the DL last week after missing one month with biceps tendinitis. He was throwing the ball well, allowing one run on four hits with five strikeouts in five innings, but had to leave because of back tightness. The next day, the team placed him back on the 10-day DL. Kershaw spent time on the DL in both of the previous two seasons because of back issues, missing two months in 2016 and five weeks last year. This time around, Dave Roberts said his ace will likely miss more than a month. Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu, of course, are also on the DL, meaning 80% of the team’s rotation is on the shelf. The Dodgers’ one-step-forward, two-steps-back season continues unabated.
Padres: The Padres are just 5 1/2 games out of first place, but they’re the one team in the division that feels like it’s already out of the postseason picture. That’s not to say all is lost in San Diego. Let’s take a moment to appreciate what Tyson Ross is doing this season. After missing most of the previous two seasons because of thoracic outlet syndrome, Ross is healthy for the first time since 2015 and pitching like a true top-of-the-rotation starter. Ross has a 3.29 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 1.17 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings. His velocity is down from pre-surgery levels, but Ross, with the same fastball-slider-cutter repertoire as he had before he went under the knife, has figured out how to succeed with slightly diminished stuff. Ross could very well be the Padres’ representative in the All-Star Game, and that would be one of the best stories of the season.
Just Call Him Charlie Walk-Off
By Jon Tayler
Over five-plus MLB seasons spread across 230 games and four teams, Braves shortstop Charlie Culberson has just eight home runs. That should come as no surprise, given his profession as itinerant backup middle infielder valued more for his glove than his bat. Despite being a former first-round pick (No. 51 overall by the Giants back in 2007), the 29-year-old Georgia native is no one’s idea of a franchise player. He’s with his hometown squad as a throw-in to a trade over the offseason with the Dodgers that was designed to balance books, not have an on-field impact, and his most notable role coming into this season was as Dansby Swanson’s doppelganger.
Yet in the span of one week, Culberson has had an unexpectedly outsized influence on Atlanta’s bottom line (and a bigger one than either of the two other players acquired from Los Angeles with him—the declining Brandon McCarthy and the already departed Scott Kazmir). On Memorial Day, Culberson came off the bench in the bottom of the ninth against the Mets with one out, the Braves down a run, and a runner on first. Five pitches later, he took reliever Seth Lugo deep to left for a two-run walkoff.
Then on Sunday against the Nationals, Culberson again came off the bench in a one-out, runner-on situation (albeit this time in a tie game), and once again he was the hero, hitting a two-run shot off gang-pressed reliever Tanner Roark for a 4–2 Braves win.
That makes two homers for Culberson this season, and both have been game-enders. But that’s nothing new for him. Of his eight round-trippers, half have been walk-offs. Back on May 3, 2014, the then-Rockies infielder victimized erratic fireballer Kyle Farnsworth by hitting a two-run dinger in the ninth to give Colorado a win over the Mets. Two years later, he hit one of the most memorable home runs of the 2016 season, capping off legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully’s final home game with a solo blast in the tenth off of Rockies southpaw Boone Logan in a 4–3 Los Angeles victory.
For all his walk-off prowess, Culberson is likely no threat to Jim Thome’s all-time record of 13 game-ending home runs. But with that fourth walk-off homer on Sunday, he’s passed plenty of other Hall of Famers in that department.
This isn’t even the best stretch of Culberson’s career. Last October, he starred for the Dodgers while filling in for the injured Corey Seager in the NLCS against the Cubs, hitting .455/.417/.818 in 13 plate appearances. He was huge in the World Series, too, with three hits and a homer in five at-bats. Culberson, it seems, has a flair for the dramatic, or at least for stepping up in a big moment. And while that’s more attributable to dumb luck than any kind of tendency toward grit, it’s still amazing that when the spotlight finds the little-used bit player, he doesn’t flub his lines.
Daniel Mengden Takes Control
By Emma Baccellieri
There are a few things in the running for the most interesting feature of A’s starter Daniel Mengden. For one, there’s his immaculately groomed handlebar mustache, which very well might be Oakland’s best facial hair since the days of Rollie Fingers. For another, there’s his delivery, which features a hands-over-the-head windup that feels just as old-fashioned as the mustache. There’s even the fact that he comes from a family of professional ballet dancers. (He tried dance out for himself in grade school, but it didn’t stick.) But perhaps more interesting than all of that is that Mengden has quietly been one of the most effective starting pitchers in the American League so far this year.
After failing to show anything particularly special in partial seasons in 2016 and 2017, the 25-year-old has broken out in 2018. Fresh off a scoreless streak of 25 innings—broken after he finally allowed a run in the ninth inning of his most recent start, in pursuit of his second complete game in a row—he has a 2.91 ERA, with decent peripheral figures to back it up. This year’s improvement isn’t the result of a velo bump or new pitch; rather, he’s fine-tuned his control. Mengden currently boasts the lowest walk percentage of any starting pitcher in baseball, at just 2.7%. (That puts him a shade under fellow breakout star and control king Miles Mikolas, whom my colleague Michael Beller analyzed here.) Mengden pounds the zone, with nearly half of his pitches recorded in the strike zone, but that doesn’t mean that he relies heavily on his fastball. Instead, his arsenal has depth—with a change-up, slider and curveball all in regular rotation here—and he mixes his pitches effectively.
Even if he weren’t enjoying this run of success, Mengden would still be fun to watch, on the merits of his old-school vibe alone. The fact that he’s been doing so well for himself this year just makes it all the more enjoyable.
MLB Draft Preview: Best Names of Eligible Prospects
By Max Meyer
The 2018 MLB draft kicks off on Monday, June 4. Sure, you’ve done your prep by tuning in to the College World Series and scouring for recent mock drafts. Here’s one area, however, of the utmost importance that you may have forgotten to research in your scouting reports: The best names of the draft-eligible players. Here are our nine favorites.
1. Handsome Monica, Catcher, UL Lafayette, Sr.
If you can’t see the humor of a manager referring to one of his players as “Handsome,” we can’t be friends. Speaking of Friends, hopefully there is a Gorgeous Rachel or Striking Phoebe roaming the planet as well.
2. Jax Biggers, Infielder, Arkansas, Jr.
Biggers suffered a broken finger on May 11 and is currently playing the College World Series with the finger as thickly wrapped as a Jersey Mike’s sub. Impressively, he knocked one out of the park for the rare “nine-finger dinger” against Oral Roberts this past Friday.
3. Brock Deatherage, Outfielder, NC State, Sr.
Brock Deatherage sounds like a Bond villain in the ‘80s. Seriously, the Timothy Dalton-portrayed James Bond films would have had better success if he tried to save the world from Brock Deatherage’s “Operation Death Rage,” an evil plan consisting of gaining control of the radio waves and attempting to hypnotize the mass public with faux heavy metal. Hey, that’s a lot more realistic than the stunts pulled on Die Another Day.
4. Scotland Church, Outfielder/Pitcher, Lubbock Christian University, Sr.
Fun fact: Scotland has two brothers named Brittan and London. Big-time pressure for these three to give their children as good of names as their parents christened them with.
5. Owen Sharts, Pitcher, Simi Valley (California) High School
Owen probably got teased about his last name quite a bit in middle school. Let’s be real, the main reason his friends wanted to chill at his house often was so that they could say hi to “Mr. and Mrs. Sharts.”
6. Al Pesto, Pitcher, Duke, Jr.
Popular pasta sauces RANKED (A list within a list? How meta):
2. Alla Vodka
8. No sauce
7. Cooper Coldiron, Infielder, Houston, Sr.
Coldiron has had several key at-bats already in the College World Series. Hopefully one of the announcers hasn’t had to utter, “The Cougars’ Cooper Coldiron is clutch!” Try saying that 10 times fast.
8. Joe Breaux, Outfielder, Alabama, Jr.
Not only does this rhyme, but this name is the perfect French abbreviation for the Jonas Brothers.
9. Travis Swaggerty, Outfielder, South Alabama, Jr.
T-Swag shouldn’t be that down that he only cracked the No. 9 spot on this list. He’s ranked No. 4 on Keith Law’s top draft prospects list and figures to hear his name called very early on Monday night.
(For more fun college baseball names, check out SI.com’s CWS regional preview.)
Beware of Blake Treinen
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Rob “Pitching Ninja” Friedman offers all sorts of delectable pitching GIFs, but this one of Blake Treinen is my favorite of the 2018 season. Why? Sure it’s fun to watch a pitcher uncork a pitch 20-30 MPH slower than his previous one, but the majestic effect of seeing two pitches at 99+ MPH go opposite directions is simply entrancing. After a perfect inning with two strikeouts against the Royals on Sunday, Treinen has now allowed four hits over his last 50 batters faced with 18 strikeouts and a 0.63 ERA. A reliever the Nationals had stashed to mop-up duty last year because of his ineffectiveness, Treinen appears to have completely reinvented himself in Oakland. If the A’s begin to fade from the hyper-competitive AL West, there is a chance that Billy Beane will be able to charge a steep price to any potential playoff team that needs to boost its bullpen.
By Jon Tayler
Here’s the hardest thing to understand about the Rally Goose, the confused Canada goose that blundered into Comerica Park (and our hearts) during a rain delay in Wednesday’s Tigers-Angels game. How on earth do you have a scene where people are literally running after a frantic waterfowl and not call it a “wild goose chase?” It was right there, Tigers announcers! Why pass up the one time that phrase is 100% accurate to make a lame “launch angle” joke? Much funnier is hearing them say with full confidence that the goose has flown away safely, only to watch it go full bore into a scoreboard. Not a great minute in the Detroit booth.
It’s Not Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It took 22 innings for the Phillies to score a run against the Giants, and then that run came from a home run for their pitcher. That’s the recipe for what Jake Arrieta called a “horses—” series.
By Molly Geary
Mother nature does not appear to be on the Yankees’ side this season.
Postponements in April, May and even June already have wreaked havoc on the Bronx Bombers’ schedule, making for a loaded summer that includes four doubleheaders before the end of August. New York, which just had both its Thursday and Sunday games against the Orioles postponed, now leaves Baltimore to play a doubleheader in Detroit on Monday (a makeup from April) before heading to Toronto for a two-game series with the Blue Jays starting Tuesday.
Later this month, they’ll play at home against the Rays on a Sunday, head to Washington for a Monday doubleheader and then come back home for a game Tuesday. And in early July, they’ll play in Toronto on Sunday Night Baseball, then go to Baltimore for a Monday doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. The game against the Blue Jays was recently moved to ESPN’s evening spotlight in lieu of an afternoon start, a move that Aaron Boone and the Yankees appear less than thrilled about—especially considering it was made after the doubleheader was already scheduled.
According to the New York Post, the Yankees’ skipper is hoping the start time can still be reverted, citing both safety concerns and an expected dip in on-field performance.
“Hopefully there is some pressure being applied because that is not good for the product on the field or the safety of our guys, having go from night game, flight and right into a doubleheader,” said Boone. “Anybody who would argue with that is not being truthful.”
New York’s flurry of postponements has resulted in an odd current scenario atop the AL East, where it has a slightly higher (.685 to .683) winning percentage than the Red Sox but sits a game out of first by virtue of the fact that Boston has played a whopping six more games. That will even out, but it’s fair to wonder how much of an impact the Yanks’ upcoming compact schedule will have. For now, they have to be just hoping the storm clouds stop following them.