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I used to be an asterisker. This isn’t a real word, and that’s fitting, actually, because those who believe Roger Maris is the true single-season home run champion consume their sports in an alternate reality. Their intentions are generally noble, their motivations typically moral, but when emotion overwhelms fact, when the pursuit of sporting purity wends the explorer into logical knots, there is simply no rational case to be made.
Back then, when what we now know to be a steroid-laden Barry Bonds was breaking the single-season record that a steroid-laden Mark McGwire already had broken, my thinking went as such: Major League Baseball may recognize Bonds as the record holder, but, like track and field did with Ben Johnson’s 100-meter dash and other performance-enhanced numbers, baseball could just expunge the black mark.
This was woefully simple. Baseball is a far different sport than track. It pits one man against nine trying to stop him – each of whom could be on PEDs of some manner or variety. When Bonds hit 73 home runs, countless others were juicing – literally countless, because MLB has no true accounting of the era – and the idea of singling out Bonds, particularly when he never was penalized for failing a drug test, is the sort of revisionism in which baseball should take pride for refusing to engage.
Further, consider the implication of putting an asterisk alongside the 73 next to Bonds’ name. It is impugning the actual acts that happened on a baseball field, as if to say those home runs weren’t real. Arguing that it’s there to provide context to the environment in which Bonds hit his home runs is specious; surely nobody cared to put a ^ next to all the MVP awards won before integration or a ~ with records set when amphetamines were bee-bopping around the game in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s.
The allure of the asterisk argument is obvious: Bonds … cheated. He made himself stronger and allowed himself to recover quicker and did so with the intentional, explicit intent of improving as a baseball player. There is something grimy and ugly about that when others are committed to clean play, and yet it loses luster when those who are “clean” use supplements and modalities and take drugs that, in many cases, enhance their performance in the same way as PEDs.
The biggest problem with an asterisk is it’s a binary cudgel in an argument that is anything but binary. Just look at what happened when …
1. Giancarlo Stanton was asked about the record, brought up 61 and later had to clarify himself, since he understands and recognizes that Bonds’ mark is the record and denying as much leaves all records, past and future, open to similar interpretation.
It’s important because more and more Stanton looks like he has a shot to hit 62 this season. He walloped his 50th home run of the season on Sunday, a classic Stanton laser to dead center field, his 29th homer in his last 46 games, which is the sort of otherworldly pace with which Bonds was familiar in 2001.
He hit his 50th on Aug. 11, more than two weeks ahead of Stanton – and then he went really crazy. Over his next 45 games, Bonds stepped to the plate 192 times. In 62 of those, he walked, which left him only 128 official at-bats. Bonds homered 23 times, one every 8.3 times up, which is amazing, considering he walked more than 30 percent of the time. Bonds’ line up to and including his 50th: .307/.485/.819. After it: .383/.589/.984. I’m hopeful nobody accuses me of peddling obscenity for sharing that, because it is untoward.
Stanton is not that player, which is fine, because really the only person with an argument for being Bonds’ peer is Babe Ruth. Even in this beyond-belief August, when Stanton is slugging almost 1.000, his OPS still isn’t close to Bonds. He can take solace in his 17 home runs when nobody else has more than 12. The fact that …
2. Rhys Hoskins sits at 11 feels rather miraculous, seeing as he was playing in Rochester on the first day of the month and Allentown a week into it.
Hoskins arrived in Philadelphia on Aug. 10 and proceeded to go 0 for his first 10 in the major leagues. All he’s done since is homer 11 times in his last 14 games. He was the fastest in big league history to reach nine home runs. Then 10. And with his shot Sunday – his fifth straight game, including three in a series win against the Chicago Cubs – it was 11. Which is more than Victor Martinez, Gregory Polanco, Addison Russell, Michael Brantley, Matt Wieters, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Gonzalez, Chase Headley, Nick Markakis, Jean Segura, Troy Tulowitzki, D.J. LeMahieu or Dustin Pedroia have hit this season.
Here’s the thing: Hoskins has done some version of this three years’ running. In his first full season out of Sacramento State, from which the Phillies took him in the fifth round and gave him a signing bonus a tick under $350,000, he carved up A-ball pitching. Last year, he hammered 38 home runs at Double-A and was the first baseman for Yahoo Sports’ All-Minor League Team.
And yet even then, there were questions about his major league prospects. Hoskins was big. He wasn’t terribly pedigreed. Scouts can be guilty of seeking out flaws that reinforce their biases or assessments, and what they admit now they whiffed on wasn’t Hoskins’ power but his control of the strike zone. Just as impressive as the home runs are his 11 walks and 13 strikeouts. As pitchers adjust to Hoskins, the former may dip and the latter rise, but a hitter who controls the zone like that and flashes the power Hoskins does is a superstar. That’s Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo.
Considering Hoskins hasn’t reached his 20th game, he’s not there yet. He’s merely the 24-year-old that’s going to save the Phillies. That’s all. In the meantime, even if he’s not going to catch Stanton for August home runs …
3. Josh Donaldson is within reach. Next to Stanton and Hoskins, Donaldson is having the best August of anyone, a reminder that the Blue Jays have an awfully difficult choice to make over the next year.
First comes the offseason, when, if they get serious about trading Donaldson a year before he hits free agency, they’ll find suitors lining up. His monster August – .313/.437/.795 with a dozen home runs – brought his season line close to his MVP-caliber play the last two years.
Likelier is the Blue Jays rallying around their current core and trying to shake off the stench of 2017 and win with Donaldson. If 2018 goes the same way this season did, the market for Donaldson should be plenty robust, though the position-player markets this July were so weak that it adds some incentive to the idea of offloading him before then.
In the meantime, Toronto simply wants a healthy and productive Donaldson for September, which shouldn’t be much to ask. Apparently it’s big-second-half time for American League third basemen, with …
4. Manny Machado reminding the world he can hit, too. How about this: In August, Machado has as many home runs as he does strikeouts (10) – and that’s after Sunday’s three-strikeout day.
Here’s the rub: This month, Machado has one walk. As in, over his 113 plate appearances, he has taken four balls once. The best part of this, by far, is that in August, Manny Machado actually has a higher batting average than he does on-base percentage. Yes, that is possible. With two sacrifice flies subtracting from his OBP but not touching his batting average, Machado is pulling an Ernie Bowman.
Hit as well as Machado has, and the lack of plate discipline is a feature, not a bug. Few, remember, can hit with the pure strength of Machado, barreling ball after ball, the bat control exquisite. He’s going to make hundreds of millions of dollars after next season because he can hit like that and catch the ball like …
5. Byron Buxton does. Actually, nobody catches the ball like Buxton, for whom the FAA lifted all airspace restrictions over Target Field. He is up there with Kevin Kiermaier and Billy Hamilton and Kevin Pillar as the best center fielders in the game, and none of them has homered three times in one game like Buxton did Sunday.
It was just the 22nd time since the turn of the century a center fielder tripled up, and it reminded those who don’t know that not only is Buxton elite with his glove and one of the five best baserunners in the game, his bat is starting to show signs of consistency, too, and if ever it reaches anything close to that, he’ll be one of the game’s best players.
Before we get too excitable, let’s remember: Buxton still strikes out way too much, Buxton still doesn’t walk enough and Buxton has yet to put together an above-average full season. Let’s also remember: He’s still just 23 years old, he’s in a lineup with a fair bit of protection (Miguel Sano, Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, Joe Mauer, Max Kepler) and he’s as athletic as anyone in the game. If he actually has found something, he’s a $100 bill in a suit pocket, a happy treasure like …
6. Eugenio Suarez has proven for the Cincinnati Reds. In what may turn out to be one of the best deals of the last decade, the Reds dealt pitcher Alfredo Simon to Detroit for former first-rounder Jonathon Crawford and Suarez, whom they regarded as little more than a utility man.
In 2015, as Simon was pitching his way into unemployment, Suarez showed flashes of potential as a solid big leaguer. Last season, he hit 20 home runs. And this year, he is hitting .270/.381/.497 with 24 home runs. Only a handful of players have had better second halves than Suarez, who gives the Reds an awfully nice chip in their rebuild.
With Nick Senzel, the second overall pick last year, crushing Double-A pitching, the prospect of him joining the Reds sometime next season is very real. He and Suarez both happen to play third base, which means the possibility of the Reds cashing in on Suarez’s great season via a trade is awfully tempting – particularly considering upward of a half-dozen teams could be in the market for a third baseman this offseason.
Turning Simon into the horde of prospects it would cost to get Suarez, who’s not a free agent until after the 2020 season, would be the epitome of buy-low, sell-high that rebuilding franchises need. Well, most rebuilding franchises. When …
7. Adrian Gonzalez went to the Los Angeles Dodgers five years ago and brought his nine-figure contract with him, this was proof that big markets can rebuild a little differently.
The Dodgers wanted Gonzalez, and that meant taking on the awful contract of Carl Crawford, plus Josh Beckett and Nick Punto. “It was,” Grant Brisbee wrote recently, “the equivalent of paying $300,000 for a nice Camry.
Never did Gonzalez lead the Dodgers to the promised last. They made the playoffs every full year he was in Los Angeles but sputtered there, and now Gonzalez is going to be mostly an observer as this Dodgers core – that of Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner and Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, the man replacing him at first base – try to do what he never did.
Gonzalez’s role in Dodgers history is nevertheless seminal. His arrival marked the rebirth of the Dodgers in a similar way to …
8. Jake Arrieta’s harkening that these Chicago Cubs would be dangerous. At least in hindsight that’s the case, since, of course, Jake Arrieta wasn’t Jake Arrieta but rather a busted prospect by the time he arrived from Baltimore.
In 2014, Arrieta was a burgeoning stud, and in 2015, he captured the NL Cy Young, and in 2016, the Cubs won the World Series, and that’s what made 2017, the first half, in particular, so confusing. The Arrieta whose previous three years had been defined by so much success vanished, and at the most inopportune time, too: Not just as the Cubs were trying to repeat but before his first foray into free agency.
Consider Arrieta’s August, then, a most opportune recovery as teams begin to budget for next year. Arrieta’s 1.44 ERA is second in baseball this month behind Gio Gonzalez’s 1.03. Whether the Cubs have found a formula that works for him or simply are trying to save his arm for October, none of Arrieta’s starts has reached 100 pitches, and four of five haven’t gone beyond 6 1/3 innings. It’s not like he’s …
9. Corey Kluber or anything, but then again, who is these days? Since June 1, when the Indians activated Kluber from the disabled list following a back injury, the answer is nobody. In that time, here are Kluber’s rankings among the 82 starting pitchers with at least 75 innings:
Innings pitched: 115 1/3 (1st)
ERA: 1.87 (1st)
FIP: 1.96 (1st)
Strikeouts: 169 (1st)
K/9: 13.03 (1st)
H/9: 5.38 (2nd)
BB/9: 1.48 (2nd)
HR/9: 0.78 (9th)
In other words, for nearly three months now, Corey Kluber has been best or second best at everything that matters for pitchers except one thing – and he’s top 10 in that. Like the AL MVP race, which at the All-Star break seemed preordained for Aaron Judge but now is wide open, the Cy Young is not unquestionably Chris Sale’s any longer thanks to this jag from Kluber.
His Indians teammates are following suit, too, shutting out Kansas City for the entirety of a three-game series over the weekend that helped extend their AL Central lead to 6½ games, push them ahead of Boston for home field in the division series and leave them nipping at the heels of the Astros. One man does not a playoff team make, though …
10. Giancarlo Stanton is trying to defy that truism by brute-forcing the Marlins back into the vicinity of contention. Yes, the Marlins are trotting out a rotation of Dan Straily, Jose Urena, Justin Nicolino, Adam Conley and Vance Worley, and their infield is, from left to right, Derek Dietrich, Miguel Rojas, Dee Gordon and Tyler Moore, and either of those alone should be enough to kill a team, and both of them together is like desecrating the deceased.
And here they are, thanks to Stanton and the delightful bullpen of Brad Ziegler, Jarlin “The Marlin” Garcia, Kyle Barraclough and Drew Steckenrider, who in August have combined to throw 39 1/3 innings of 0.92 ERA ball with 42 strikeouts and four walks. It’s the kind of run that makes a team believe, even if the reality is that the Diamondbacks and Rockies are better teams and their advantages are almost certain to hold up.
There’s an excitement that 50 home runs still conjures. It’s not like 500 home runs, which lost some of its gravitas during the steroid era. The 50-homer threshold remains an amazing individual accomplishment, even as it pales next to the No. 73.
And that’s fine. The worst thing Barry Bonds left behind wasn’t some record. It was him and Lance Armstrong and every other doper breeding a landscape of skeptics. Sports fans today don’t assume every player is doping. They know better than to assume any is clean, though.
In the end, there’s a choice that must be made: take the feat for the feat, or succumb to the cynicism. This, unfortunately, is binary, and it defines the modern sporting experience, and though I’m a professional skeptic and born cynic, when it comes to records, the feat is the feat.
So, like everyone else, I’ll marvel as Stanton hits Nos. 51 and 52 and beyond, and hope to see him climb to a number that starts with 6 because it’s a great story to behold, and I won’t spend one second wondering what could’ve been, because it wasn’t, and to bother thinking otherwise is to deny reality, and I gave up on asterisking long ago.