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The Monday 9: The Mets and Phillies summarize the self-sabotaging NL East in two innings

·16 min read
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Welcome to The Monday 9, our new weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Leading off: The NL East cannot do anything right

The New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies played a baseball game Sunday night, and everyone came away angry and confused. With the nation watching for a glimpse at the star-studded rosters vying for one of the most hotly contested division crowns, the rivals used the occasion to fully acclimate everyone to 2021 NL East Baseball. Which looks a lot like the baseball version of strip poker: Who can withstand the embarrassment long enough to win?

Heading into the decisive final two innings, the Phillies were up two thanks to a Didi Gregorius homer. Then all of the following things happened:

  • Mets infielder Jonathan Villar tied the game when the Phillies seemed to forget that, having run to third on a single, he might indeed keep running home if they softly tossed the ball around amongst themselves in short right field.

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  • The Phillies brought in reliever Jose Alvarado — who Sunday night was appealing an MLB suspension for instigating a fracas with the Mets’ Dominic Smith — and he gave up a single and a walk to load the bases, then walked in the go-ahead run. After he was pulled, Pete Alonso broke it open (so it seemed) with a bases clearing double.

  • In the bottom of the eighth, Phillies star Bryce Harper appeared to tweak his injured wrist during an at-bat, only for manager Joe Girardi and the trainers to leave him in after a visit. He was so OK that he struck out trying to bunt.

  • Mets manager Luis Rojas chose to pull effective reliever Trevor May with a four-run lead for the privilege of pinch hitting with starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, who bunted into an unproductive out.

  • Still holding a four-run advantage, Rojas brought in closer Edwin Diaz to pitch for the second straight night. He immediately self-destructed, allowing the Phillies to come all the way back, capped by a three-run Rhys Hoskins dinger. Diaz left with trainers. After the game, the team said he was battling back tightness.

  • But wait! Replay review determined the Hoskins homer hit the top of Citizens Bank Park’s railing, and was only a double. Hoskins directed some bad words at the umpires.

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  • Facing Diaz’s replacement Jeurys Familia, Harper struck out and the Phillies left the tying run stranded on second. The “win” pulled the Mets back to .500 … and into a tie for first place in the division with the Washington Nationals.

That, in a nutshell, is the NL East. All the teams look good, or at least competent, but have all found quicksand to dive into in the season’s first month. Only the Miami Marlins have a positive run differential so far. They are of course in last, but only two-and-a-half games separate the top and bottom of a division that cannot get out of its own way. — Zach Crizer

No. 2: Byron Buxton — MVP?

Asked to pick a breakout player from their roster, most of the general managers I spoke to this spring went with someone a little under the radar, or else a prospect with little major-league experience. Twins GM, Thad Levine, however said Byron Buxton. We ran that answer alongside a parenthetical expressing a touch of incredulity that he still qualifies as a breakout candidate.

Entering his seventh big-league season, Buxton was a glove-first guy who has never quite lived up to the promise of his five-tool profile and flashes of offensive brilliance. Early in his career, it would have been too obvious to predict that the second overall pick in 2012 might make a difference. But, never quite a bust, Buxton has been limited dramatically by injuries and plate discipline. Heading into 2021, he was a career .238 hitter who had only once played more than 100 games in a season. Still, Levine told us that if he could stay healthy, “he's a very strong MVP candidate.”

One month into the season, Buxton leads the league in WAR, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. In a season plagued by a dearth of base hits, he’s batting an unsustainable .408 thanks to the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Never a true power hitter, he’s already halfway to his career high in home runs (eight in April, he hit 16 in 140 games in 2017 — the most games he’s played in one season).

Last week, Buxton demonstrated just how athletic he can be (top five in baseball for sprint speed, too) with five hits, including a home run, and a stolen base in a single game.

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Has the defense kept up? Well, the very next game after that offensive tutorial, he did this:

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And this:

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A normal baseball season is long, and the 19 games Buxton played in April are just a start that will soon give way to the grind of summer. But every MVP campaign has to start somewhere, and atop the leaderboards is a pretty good place.

“Byron has always possessed amazing ability and a tremendous work ethic,” Levine told Yahoo Sports last week. “As a fan first and foremost, it is such a blessing to watch him shine.” – Hannah Keyser

No. 3: There’s more to life (or baseball, at least) than Discourse

As part of some Sportico event recently, MLB's Rob Manfred apparently relayed an anecdote in which NBA commissioner Adam Silver told him to stop talking about pace of play since baseball’s dead time could actually be a boon to the future of sports as live-action slot machines.

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There are a number of ways to parse that story in conjunction with Manfred saying that "sports betting is a massive opportunity for fan engagement,” and plenty of people have taken the opportunity to air long-standing pet peeves about Manfred. But it’s Silver whose smarminess stands out to me here, although Manfred is certainly complicit.

The implication seems to be that the rhetoric around pace of play is driving unnecessary change in the sport and, further, that a commissioner himself is the primary determinant of discourse. That sort of hubris is laughable, if not unexpected. But beyond that, centering the conversation as a way of oversimplifying the issue is just a cop-out.

No one is talking about baseball’s pace of play because Rob Manfred has mentioned it, they’re talking about it because the game has gotten really freakin’ slow recently! At the center of this buzzy source of debate is an actual, measurable change. People pointing out the pace of play problems aren’t lemmings, they just have clocks.

Even stories that purport to address the decline of interesting action in baseball often default to lazy stereotypes about how kids these days just don’t have the dedication to appreciate a pitchers’ duel. And yes, the way we all consume content is evolving and any legacy entertainment behemoth has to think carefully about how to keep up. But conflating that with a quantitative trend toward increased time between pitches and an even more dramatic increase in time between balls in play is just setting up a culture war where there is none.

The question was never should baseball stay exactly the same as it was when you first fell in love with it, or should some suits forcibly create a bastardized version based on attention spans shaped by video games. Sports evolve naturally, tactful stewardship means being able to adapt continuously and innovate when necessary. Fans have to understand that. But commissioners shouldn’t ascribe to a dumbed-down version in which you can make a problem go away if you simply stop talking about it. And they certainly shouldn’t tell people that’s the plan.

I know we all live online now, but there’s more to baseball than the discourse that surrounds it. – Hannah Keyser

CHICAGO - APRIL 23:  Nick Madrigal #1 of the Chicago White Sox bats against the Texas Rangers on April 23, 2021 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
Nick Madrigal puts the ball in play against the Rangers. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

No. 4: Nick Madrigal, swimming upstream

The defining trend of the last 20 years of baseball is the fact that strikeouts only go up. It is maybe the only change in the game a newly conscious coma patient would identify within one game. The strikeout surge is a feature, a bug, an existential threat. But more than anything, it is a river. It’s going where it wants to go and taking everyone with it.

Then, there is Nick Madrigal. The 5-foot-8 White Sox second baseman is in his first full season in the majors, and his skill set has been hotly debated since his days at Oregon State. The gist of his talents is: What if Tony Gwynn but tiny? That sounds like an exaggeration but so far it is not.

If you watch him hit, chances are you are going to see a ball in play. Madrigal has a 3.4 percent strikeout rate this season in a league averaging 24.3 percent, and a walk rate of 6 percent. The last hitter to qualify for the batting title with strikeout rates and walk rates under the 7 percent mark did so in 2011. The last to do it and be any good at hitting was Placido Polanco in 2007. Madrigal? He’s good. He’s batting .316/.369/.421, good for a 125 OPS+ — which means he is 25 percent better than the league average hitter. Since the strike in 1994, only one hitter has combined these strikeout and walk rates with better production over full seasons, and yes, it’s Gwynn.

But remember: Madrigal is performing this wizardry in even less conducive conditions. His strikeout rate right now would be the biggest outlier since at least 1980 — adjusting for era, it is 86 percent lower than the league average where Gwynn’s peak season was 84 percent better. This is not to say he’s Tony Gwynn, or even that he will continue his whiff allergy apace, but Madrigal is an almost too perfect character to root for if you seek an underdog or a rebel. Small but impossibly gifted, fighting back against baseball’s most unstoppable force, and winning. — Zach Crizer

No. 5: The accidental omnipresence of No. 27

The Angels clubhouse staff, or whoever doles out uniform numbers, can’t be faulted for failing to see this career coming, but it does still make for a perplexing origin story of what’s quickly becoming baseball’s power number, its sheepish and accidental version of Michael Jordan’s No. 23.

When Trout, an elite prospect, showed up to debut at age 19, he was given No. 27, last worn by former MVP Vladimir Guerrero. Trout has said he didn’t choose the number, but simply took what was given to him. Since he donned the uniform, Trout has eliminated all doubt that he’s the best player of the generation and a Hall of Fame lock, Guerrero has been inducted into the Hall of Fame himself, and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has emerged as one of Trout’s foils in the AL MVP race, also wearing his father’s No. 27.

In recent years, three different players have won MVP awards wearing the number — Trout, plus José Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton. Trevor Bauer won a Cy Young last year wearing it and has continued with it in Los Angeles. Plus, award contenders Aaron Nola and Lucas Giolito wear No. 27, as does star Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who may soon escape to greener, more glorified pastures.

The proliferation of the number seems to have no intention behind it on the part of the players — making it nothing like basketball’s dominant No. 23 at all — but if the pattern keeps up, will every Little League team be fighting over No. 27? — Zach Crizer

No. 6: The other, other Angels star hitter

Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who's hot and who's not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition:

Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani might grab all the headlines out of Anaheim (deservedly so), but Jared Walsh has been doing his fair share of work to help maintain the Angels offense among some of the most dangerous in the league.

Fantasy fans clamored for Walsh to be the Halos' everyday first baseman in the offseason, and it seems like we've gotten our wish. Walsh has been lighting it up — first, he hit safely in eight straight, and he's followed that up with an 11-for-19 barrage in his last five games. He's top-10 in batting average for the season, helped undoubtedly by a .403 BABIP, but he's actually striking out more than last season. So, while there could be regression en route, it might just result in less eventful at-bats, as opposed to negative, strikeout-heavy ones.

With a current batting average of .360 and an Statcast expected average of .299, fantasy managers look set to enjoy the spoils of Walsh hitting in the heart of L.A.'s potent lineup for the majority of the season. — Mo Castillo

Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) bats during a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Austin Riley is taking a huge step forward after struggling with strikeouts early in his career. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

No. 7: Austin Riley is a different guy

If there’s one major negative to fandom — there are actually many — it’s that, as humans, we are reactionary. We see a player struggle to catch up to high heat and we assume that’s how it’s always going to be.

Clearly, that’s not always the case. Mike Trout’s career has been defined by his ability to identify any flaw in his game and seemingly change it overnight.

But Trout is a baseball player injected with the Captain America super serum. He’s the exception, not the rule. Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley is a much better example of the fact that it may take players multiple seasons to reach their next level.

Riley got out to a strong start in the majors, hitting nine home runs in his first 18 games. The league adjusted, and Riley watched his batting average tumble and his strikeout rate soar. After posting similar numbers in 2020, people were quick to assume this was Riley.

But look under the hood and you’ll notice Riley started making progress last year. He cut down on chasing pitches out of the zone and made major progress with his strikeout rate. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his slash line, but Riley was starting to make adjustments.

Fast forward to 2021, and Riley looks like a different player at the plate. His chase rate is way down, and he’s making more contact, all while retaining last year’s strikeout gains. Put that all together, and Riley is now hitting .329/.431/.459 this season. Is that average sustainable? Probably not, though it’s worth noting Riley hasn’t fully hit his stride at the plate yet. If he can hit the ball with authority moving forward, something he’s done the first two seasons of his career, Riley might have turned himself into a guy who can hit .265-.270 with a boatload of walks and 30+ home runs a season. Not bad for a guy people wanted to write off less than two full seasons into his career. — Chris Cwik

No. 8: An exceedingly unimportant conspiracy theory

The GIF of Cristian Javier spilling coffee on himself less than half an hour before making a start for the Astros seems to peak with, well, Cristian Javier spilling coffee on himself less than half an hour before making a start for the Astros. 

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But, thankfully, the creator included a second scene, and it’s there that I want to draw your attention. Approximately 16 seconds after the spill, with his glove held conspicuously in front of the coffee stain, Mr. Javier appears to take a very casual sip of coffee. Almost … too casual.

That is a fake sip! That is some bad Gilmore Girls-esque acting with what is clearly an empty mug. The angle of the cup in the first part of the clip, when the coffee is spilled, is clearly steeper (it’s practically horizontal!) than when he tilts it to his mouth. And truly, who among us has not performed Very Normal Behavior in the wake of doing something a little dumb. But the futility — the freeing futility! It’s fine! — of such self-consciousness was uniquely on display since Javier then went on to spend several hours at the center of a televised sporting event and looked great, coffee stain notwithstanding.

The point is not to poke fun at Javier, who threw a career-high seven scoreless innings, but merely to highlight the incredibly human impulse to seem superhumanly cool and composed, even though it was the spill itself that everyone found so charming. – Hannah Keyser

No. 9: What to watch this week

The Houston Astros visit Yankee Stadium for the first time since the sign-stealing scandal on Tuesday. The frequent playoff combatants are both fighting to make their records reflect their true talent, and to quash plucky division upstarts.

The series begins Tuesday night with Zack Greinke on the hill for the Astros and will conclude with a Gerrit Cole start on Thursday. Expect boos and trash can humor throughout.

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