A few years ago, I used to play this game called “Civilization.” It was actually called Sid Meier’s Civilization, and I’m aware that it still exists and is undoubtedly better than ever. But I don’t know much about it now. I used to play it a decade or so ago, maybe more. The point was then — as I’m sure it is now — to build the greatest civilization in the world. You would do this by building the greatest army, by building the wonders of the world, by filling your civilization with great things like libraries and colleges and aqueducts and, many years later, airports and baseball stadiums.
In any case, back then Sid Meier’s Civilization used to have a cheat mode. In cheat mode, you could advance much, much faster than any other civilization. It was quite comical, really. You would be sending in fighter jets against tribes with clubs. You would be working with nuclear energy when other civilizations were still discovering iron.
It feels like the Houston Astros at the moment are playing baseball on cheat mode.
I realize that can be read a few different ways; I mean it in the best possible one.
I mean that, at the moment, everything the Astros have been plotting for the last few years, every single plan, every single move, all of it is working. The Astros at the moment, have scored the most runs in the American League (by far) and have given up the fewest runs in the American League. They have a double play combination for the ages with Altuve and Correa, they have a multi-faceted offense that somehow hits with power without striking out much (more on this in a minute). They have a dominant top of the rotation with Dallas Keuchel pitching as well as he did in his Cy Young year and young Lance McCullers baffling hitters. And their bullpen, led by super weapon Chris Devenski, is overwhelming.
Also: George Springer. GEORGE SPRINGER. That home run he hit above, yeah, exit velocity of 112.6 mph, the perfect 28 degree angle, that’s a 473-foot monster shot that belongs in a museum somewhere.
A few years ago, when Theo Epstein was first talking about how to make the Cubs winners, he kept going back to a singular philosophy: You need to control the strike zone both on offense and on defense. He thought of the strike zone the way football coaches think about the line of scrimmage.
Well, look at Houston. The Astros pitching staff has struck out 537 batters, most in the league. They are striking out 10 batters per nine innings AS A TEAM, and that’s just insane. Other teams, like the Royals a couple of years ago and the Cubs last year, really focused their run-stopping energies on great defense. The Astros play good defense, particularly in the outfield and, bizarrely, in the pitcher spot (Astros pitchers have saved 11 runs by John Dewan’s fascinating system, by far the most in the league). But really, they’re stuffing offenses by simply not letting enough balls get into play.
And then that offense, like I just mentioned, they’re crushing baseballs (they lead the league in slugging percentage) AND they’re not striking out much. The Astros strike out 18 percent of the time, which would have been a lot 20 years ago but in today’s game it is the second-best percentage in the league.
You could see the Astros building toward this over the last few years. They were smart enough to take George Springer with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, lucky enough to have the No. 1 overall pick when Carlos Correa came out, smart enough to grab Lance McCullers that same year, and resilient enough to overcome their disastrous choice of Mark Appel with the first pick in 2013 when Kris Bryant was just waiting for them.*
*Ugh, think of this team with Kris Bryant.
They were aggressive in getting helpful veterans like Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick. They were smart about seeing upcoming trends. It’s a long season, and things can change very quickly. But right now the Astros are playing .700 ball, and for the moment it does feel like they’re using battleships against every other teams’ canoes.
* * *
OK, we here at the JPT don’t mean to keep picking on Kyle Schwarber … but at this point, honestly, it is entirely unclear what the Chicago Cubs are doing with him. Wednesday night, the Cubs lost again to San Diego, their sixth straight loss, and this time they got plenty of pitching. Jake Arrieta had one of his better starts this season, allowing just one run in six innings. Reliever Koji Uehara allowed one run in the ninth, the key being Frenchy Cordero’s triple.
And that was enough for the Padres. The Cubs only scored one run — and it was as flimsy a run as you can score. It came when Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch, followed by a stolen base, followed by a tag-up on a long fly ball, followed by the saddest little infield hit by Javy Baez, one he hit so poorly that he literally fell down as he was trying to get out of the box.
That was the Cubs’ entire offense.
And Kyle Schwarber, in the No. 2 spot, went 0-for-4 again. He’s now hitting .165 this season.
We talk all the time here about taking the long view, not letting small sample sizes alter your thinking, and that’s all well and good but at some point the Cubs are going to have to do something to shake things up a bit. Through 52 games, they have scored exactly as many runs as they have allowed, they are a couple of game under .500, they have scored a grand total of nine runs in their six games on the West Coast.
Schwarber’s postseason heroics and compelling personality make him an important part of the Cubs overall persona You can see Cubs manger Joe Maddon telling himself again and again, “He’s hitting the ball hard!” And “He’ll break out of this and start hitting any time now!” Maddon doesn’t just keep playing Schwarber, he keeps hitting him at the top of the lineup no matter how many 0-for-4s he rings up.
And it misses a basic point: Kyle Schwarber is not some in-his-prime superstar who you know will work through this slump because he’s always done it before. Schwarber is a 24-year-old prospect who is essentially a rookie this year. He has just 484 regular season plate appearances in the big leagues — about half of them this year — and he’s hitting .209 in his career and has struck out more than once per game. He’s a former catcher who is trying to play the outfield with only marginal success. He may come across as ultra-confident, but we’re now at the point where you have wonder what’s really ticking inside. He is still a kid.
The best example I can think of: In 2007, third baseman Alex Gordon was called up to the Kansas City Royals — he was, by most viewpoints, the best prospect in baseball. He was hitting .172 through the Royals first 52 games that year, but the Royals stuck with him, in part because he like Schwarber still exuded confidence and (perhaps more) because they stunk anyway and they didn’t really have anyone to replace him. He did improve. He hit .284/.328/.477 the rest of the season, and the Royals believed they did the right thing. But after another so-so year and some injuries, the Royals eventually had to send Gordon down to the minors, to learn a new position, to regain his confidence and rebuild his swing.
It was only after he came back that Gordon started to live up to his potential, not as a power-hitting third baseman but as a Gold Glove left-fielder who did all the little things well.
Last year, it seemed like everything the Cubs tried worked perfectly. When things went bad — Schwarber got hurt, Jason Heyward had a season-long slump, the bullpen hit a few bumps — the Cubs would do something, and it worked like magic. Well it’s a new year. Maddon’s handling of Schwarber might yet turn out to be more Cubs genius. But it isn’t looking especially bright at the moment.
* * *
Mr. Met’s Middle Digit
Mr. Met has four fingers, like most cartoon characters do. Over the weekend, Homer Simpson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in his acceptance speech, he pointed out that he deserved it because, “I’m fatter than Babe Ruth, balder than Ty Cobb and have one more finger than Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown.”
Mr. Met flashed one of those four fingers on Wednesday in a clear attempt to make that most obscene of finger gestures, and the Internet went nuts as did the New York tabloids, as you might expect:
It is times like this when you have to wonder:
Can a four-fingered Mr. Met even flip the bird?
And: If the answer is yes, why did it take so long?
And: Will as many people care when Albert Pujols’ hits his 600th home run?
And: Since the answer to that question is obviously “No,” what does it say about us as a society?
And: How would we explain to this story to a visitor from outer space? “No, see the guy with the big baseball head is a lovable mascot of a baseball team and in our world we have this gesture that, well, maybe let’s start again.”