10 Degrees: Here's why September baseball may not be so bad after all

Try as it may, not even the hideous spectacle that is September baseball can ruin the 2018 MLB season. Attendance may be down, the game may be plagued by inaction and the final month may be host to the worst parade imaginable, relief pitcher after god-forsaken relief pitcher, something no human being, not even the diest of die-hards, can enjoy. And here we are anyway, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, legitimate playoff races in the National League, incredible playoff matchups brewing in the American League and every individual award up for grabs. Not bad, baseball.

It’s not a rote season, either, because if it were, a Colorado Rockies pitcher wouldn’t be threatening to ambush the NL Cy Young voting. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to include Kyle Freeland in the same breath as Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola, and yet as Tim Brown argued quite compellingly, if voters ding Nolan Arenado annually for playing at Coors Field, surely they ought to reward Freeland for his mastery.

To call it anything else would sell short what the 25-year-old has done at home this season: 13 starts, 2.21 ERA. That’s more than a half-run better than any starter in the franchise’s 26-year history has managed at home for a season. Freeland’s 2.91 ERA in all parks is threatening to break the franchise record of 2.80, set by Marvin Freeman in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

In 13 home starts at Coors Field, Kyle Freeland has a 2.21 ERA. (AP)
In 13 home starts at Coors Field, Kyle Freeland has a 2.21 ERA. (AP)

And still, Freeland recognizes his breakout happens to have coincided with one of the best Cy Young races in recent memory – one reminiscent of 2015, when Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and winner Jake Arrieta each could make a compelling case and others happened to fall by the wayside. Were he given a vote this season, Freeland couldn’t pass someone else up, either.

“In my eyes, I’d say Jacob deGrom,” Freeland told the Yahoo Sports MLB Podcast in an episode scheduled to drop Tuesday morning. “What he’s been able to do, not only physically on the mound but mentally, where his team has struggled to put up runs behind him. Throughout the entire season for him, that’s kind of the way it’s been. He’s right now, what, a .500 pitcher that should be way above that? It’s incredible to see his mental toughness day in and day out – able to take the ball every fifth day and go out there and compete and try to win when his team is struggling behind him.”

Playing from behind, as deGrom has done much of the year on the way to an 8-8 record, is “much tougher,” Freeland said. “For me, whenever my team has a lead and I’m still on the mound, it helps me tremendously and gives me so much more confidence and more room to breathe, where I can go on the mound and know that I don’t have to be super-fine with everything. Where I can go out, fill up the zone, really attack hitters and know my team has my back and we have a lead.”

Fill and attack he has, and that …

1. Kyle Freeland is even in the Cy Young conversation is a testament to his ability to pitch half his games in a ballpark that for more than a quarter-century has been a house of horrors for pitchers. They actively dread visiting Colorado. Free agents simply won’t entertain the possibility. Freeland is calling every one of them out, saying it is possible to be good in Denver – and that’s something voters should recognize.

“This is a game of baseball,” he said. “I’d like to see it be a complete, even playing field. I know there are ballpark adjustments for how big the park is, how small the park is, how the ball flies. But when it comes down to it, it’s baseball. You either make a pitch or you don’t. You hit or you don’t. You hit one out of the park or you don’t. It’s baseball, man. That’s the beauty of this game.”

The beauty is far from limited to the NL Cy Young race. The tried-and-true classic of …

2. Mike Trout vs. everyone is back for the seventh straight year. In his first five seasons, Trout won two MVP awards and finished second the other three times. Last year, despite playing in just 114 games, he finished fourth. And following his 5-for-5, two-homer night on Saturday, Trout was right on Mookie Betts’ tail on Wins Above Replacement leaderboards, their numbers almost identical.

Mike Trout is in the middle of the AL MVP race once again. (AP)
Mike Trout is in the middle of the AL MVP race once again. (AP)

Trout: .316/.465/.622, 33 home runs, 68 RBIs, 92 runs, 22 of 24 stolen bases, 7 Outs Above Average defensively

Betts: .343/.434/.634, 29 home runs, 71 RBIs, 116 runs, 27 of 33 stolen bases, 10 Outs Above Average

Calling this a two-man race, of course, is disingenuous. Jose Ramirez is lurking. Matt Chapman and Francisco Lindor deserve consideration, too. J.D. Martinez is going to get plenty of love on account of his bat. In fact, it’s well within the realm of possibility that six AL players could finish the season with eight-plus WAR. Only once in history has the AL seen a season with more than three eight-win players: 1912, with four Hall of Famers (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker) and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Oh, and that sixth player, in addition to Trout, Betts, Ramirez, Chapman and Lindor, is …

3. Alex Bregman, who’s hotter than every one of them. Over the last month coming into Sunday, Bregman was slashing .406/.496/.781. And as great as that is, even more incredible is that in his 115 plate appearances over the month, he walked in 18 and struck out in just eight.

Plate discipline happens to be a common denominator among a number of baseball’s best players this season. Trout has walked as much as he has struck out. Betts is close. Ramirez’s bat-to-ball skills are incredible, with a 94-to-69 walk-to-strikeout rate. Bregman isn’t far behind. He has 84 walks and 73 strikeouts.

His breakout has helped mitigate a still-great-but-not-MVP-level season from Jose Altuve, a regression from George Springer and the month-long cratering of Carlos Correa. Since returning Aug. 10 from a back injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Correa has hit .167/.248/.222. Among the 259 players with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star break, only Magneuris Sierra and Sandy Leon have a worse OPS than Correa’s.

Trout, of course, has the best in the AL. The NL leader is …

4. Christian Yelich, who is stealthily inserting himself square into MVP talks with his incredible second half. The 26-year-old is hitting .354/.410/.719. His 17 home runs are second to rookie Ronald Acuña’s 18. (More on him later.)

As Jeff Sullivan so ably broke down, it’s not just that Yelich is hitting fewer ground balls. He’s still quite grounder prone, with 53.8 percent of his batted balls rolling. It’s that his entire approach has evolved, an emphasis on punishing first pitches leading to great success.

Christian Yelich is on pace for a career year in his first season with the Brewers. (AP)
Christian Yelich is on pace for a career year in his first season with the Brewers. (AP)

Is that enough to win MVP? A few impediments exist. First is the question of whether voters will consider pitchers – particularly two of whom won’t be in the playoffs and the third of whom is, statistically, inferior. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, they don’t. Yelich could suffer from the dreaded split-the-vote quandary. Because Lorenzo Cain, who joined him with the Milwaukee Brewers this winter, has been rather good himself and, at least via FanGraphs’ version of WAR, ranks slightly above Yelich.

So, is it deGrom? Scherzer? Nola? Yelich? Cain? Matt Carpenter? Javier Baez? Nolan Arenado? Paul Goldschmidt? Freddie Freeman? It’s quite the race when there are only 10 spots on the ballot and at least 10 players could make a pretty reasonable case for a first-place vote. Second-half performance – and helping push Milwaukee to the playoffs – could influence the same sort of voters who see …

5. Trevor Williams’ second-half performance and think it’s better than deGrom’s. And in one way, it has been: The 26-year-old right-hander has started eight games since the All-Star break and has an ERA of 0.72.

Trying to understand how Williams has yielded four runs in 49 2/3 innings is rather fun. It’s not via the strikeout. Of the 78 qualified starters, his 5.62 strikeouts per nine is 76th. It’s not his walk rate, either. He is 40th, a total middle-of-the-packer. He doesn’t induce an excessive amount of groundballs (40 percent). He doesn’t throw hard (average fastball velocity: 90 mph). Teams just can’t score against him.

Part of it is his strand rate, which is 100 percent in the second half. (Editor’s note: that’s good.) The other part is probably just Occam’s Razor: Williams is a good pitcher in the midst of an almost-inexplicably great run because good players are capable of great things. That doesn’t lessen what he has done. It’s good enough that Marlins executives trying to rationalize trading Williams for a coach in 2015 took to smearing former executives to clear themselves of responsibility.

As much good as the Marlins have done of late, the backbiting and ugliness left over from the Jeffrey Loria era is poisonous. It was a stupid trade. Good executives own those instead of blaming subordinates. If a year down the road …

6. Jorge Lopez looks as good as he did Saturday night, perhaps Milwaukee general manager David Stearns will regret dealing him and Brett Phillips for two months of Mike Moustakas. Who has been perfectly Moose-ish in his time with the Brewers, who have the second-best record in the NL and nothing to complain about, at least until Oct. 2, should they find themselves in the one-and-done wild-card game.

Still, seeing Lopez take a perfect game into the ninth inning against Minnesota couldn’t have felt good for Milwaukee, not after he punched out eight in a dynamic start six days earlier against Baltimore. True: They are the Twins and Orioles, the former a towering disappointment and the latter en route to one of the worst seasons in baseball history. It’s still two consecutive dominant starts for the 25-year-old Lopez, who has an excellent array of stuff, with a mid-90s fastball, a swing-and-miss curveball, a show-me changeup and a slider he added this season.

For Milwaukee, Lopez and Phillips felt superfluous, a pair of post-hype prospects that didn’t fit the organization right now. For Kansas City, they’re perfect, joining Ryan O’Hearn and Brian Goodwin as mid-20s, he-could-be-interesting types. Ultimately, they may be bad gambles, but if Phillips can cut his strikeout rate by a quarter, he could be awfully interesting, because the glove, arm and speed are all well above average.

The Royals have a long way to go to respectability, and as they rear a new generation of players, they’ll inevitably deal with the sort of disappointment the news of …

7. Michael Kopech’s impending Tommy John surgery delivered to the Chicago White Sox. The worst part was the second-guessing – the knowledge that Kopech had just gone past his previous career high in innings and that the White Sox easily could have shelved him after the end of the minor league season. Almost certainly he would’ve blown out eventually, but still. Whenever an ulnar collateral ligament goes, these are the things organizations obsess over.

The White Sox aren’t the only ones. It’s been a bad year for elbows. Kopech’s peers in the prospect world who have needed Tommy John: Tampa Bay’s Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, Oakland’s A.J. Puk and Dakota Chalmers, the Red Sox’s top prospect, Jay Groome, and perhaps Texas’ best arm, Cole Ragans, among many others.

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech needs Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. (AP)
Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Michael Kopech needs Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. (AP)

On the major league side, it’s just as bad. Guys with nine-figure deals (Johnny Cueto), guys who throw hard (Garrett Richards), guys who don’t (Brent Suter), guys who close (Keynan Middleton), guys who throw pretty much one pitch (Kendall Graveman), guys who throw right-handed (Taijuan Walker, Dinelson Lamet, David Phelps, Jharel Cotton, J.C. Ramirez) and guys who are lefties (Jordan Montgomery, Anthony Banda).

And of course we can’t forget …

8. Shohei Ohtani, who is likely to undergo surgery after he finishes his first season in the major leagues. Unlike those listed above – unlike anyone in the world – Ohtani is an elite hitter in addition to being a potentially great pitcher. And while he’s not playing for awards, Ohtani could use the last three weeks to lock up the AL Rookie of the Year.

While it’s true he has about half the plate appearances of the Yankees’ Miguel Andujar, Ohtani has been similarly productive by WAR, in large part because of Andujar’s defense, which scouts and metrics agree is quite unpleasant. Add in Ohtani’s pitching, and that may be a separator.

The NL race may be even tighter. The 20-year-old Acuña has been ridiculous in the second half. Juan Soto has been ridiculous since arriving as a 19-year-old well ahead of schedule and doing things the game hasn’t seen a teenager do in decades. It’s just another great fight in a season of them. It was almost like …

9. Dee Gordon and Jean Segura were paying homage to the 2018 award races when they got into an actual fight in the clubhouse last week. It was the perfect encapsulation of the Mariners’ free fall from a 55-31 start to today, when they’re 79-64, 7½ games back of Oakland for the second wild card, a half-game ahead of Tampa Bay and having two guys under control for another three years brawling in the clubhouse.

That’s not even the most troublesome part. The Mariners have more than $126 million in payroll for next year committed to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Mike Leake, Juan Nicasio, Wade LeBlanc, Gordon and Segura. A number of key players are due arbitration raises. Either the Mariners will push their payroll past $175 million, or they’ll need to focus on retooling via trade, which isn’t easy when your major league assets are OK at best and you’ve got what most teams believe is the worst farm system in baseball.

Bravo to GM Jerry Dipoto for locking down a multiyear contract extension right before the Mariners faltered. And to Scott Servais, Seattle’s manager, for getting the same via Dipoto two weeks later. A warring clubhouse. A bereft system. No playoff spot. That’s a hell of a hustle. Almost as good as …

10. Kyle Freeland trying to convince the world that a mortal can pitch with success at Coors Field. The rest of the conversation, which will be on the podcast, considers how he does what he does, which is the sort of question that applies to anyone in these award races really.

How do Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman go from good-contact guys to practically inverting their walks and strikeouts? How does Jacob deGrom change one thing about how he pitches and turn into a monster? (One who got rained out Sunday and could have his next start Monday, for those interested in seeing excellence.)

How do Mike Trout and Mookie Betts do everything so damn well?

All of these have answers, some simple and some long-winded, some that make more sense than others. Does Kyle Freeland really have some magic fairy dust that normalizes Coors Field? Well, he did grow up in the Denver area, and he knows what pitching at altitude is like, and he’s got great stuff, and … yeah. Talented guy on a roll checks out. Whether he truly has cracked the case warrants a bit more time and a better study of what led to the success.

For now, though, the Rockies are in first place in the NL West, a half-game ahead of the Dodgers and 2½ up on the Arizona Diamondbacks, whom they host for four games starting Monday. Freeland will pitch the last one, and his next start will be in Los Angeles against Clayton Kershaw, and then back at home against Philadelphia and Washington. Three more starts at Coors. Three opportunities to stay on that roll that just doesn’t seem to want to end.

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