By In Stuff

Astronomical

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.

 

* * *

Daily Schwarber

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.”

 

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23 Responses to Astronomical

  1. Rob Smith says:

    The Cubs remind me of the Dodgers of 1975. After winning 102 games the year before (in the same Division as the Big Red Machine) and playing in the World Series on career years from Jimmy Wynn and Mike Marshall, they won 88 games and were also rans. 88 wins doesn’t sound that bad, but they really never got it going. The thing was, their starting pitching was good & Garvey and Cey had good years & most had typical years. Bill Russell was hurt and had an off year & missed a lot of it. But it was really their reliance on Jimmy Wynn and Mike Marshall that propelled them the year before… and in 1975 they both fell off a cliff. It’s a fine line between be a World Series team & missing the playoffs. A couple of stars have off years, and that’s it.

  2. Dave Draeger says:

    “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.”

    Well yeah, if it ever lands.

    Yeah, the Astros definitely look like they’re in cheat mode. As they were tacking yet another crooked number–and I’m trying to forget the two straight ones they put up in the eighth on Monday–onto the board yesterday afternoon against my Twins, I started muttering about PED testing the lot of them. I mean, they CAN’T be doing this on the up-and-up.

  3. invitro says:

    As someone who was excited about the 2017 Astros every day since their 2016 season ended, and was the biggest Astros fan in the Southeast in the early 1980’s, this baseball season has been a dream come true.

  4. Chris H says:

    Of course, you meant “battleships against every other team’s triremes,” but as you said, it was a long time ago that you played.

    (The graphics have gotten flashier, but the game play hasn’t improved. Civ II was the peak.)

    • Richard says:

      “The graphics have gotten flashier, but the game play hasn’t improved…” One could say that about a lot of games, or even computer games in general. Another thing with the early versions of Civ was that occasionally, VERY occasionally, a trireme could get lucky and take out a battleship. Just like an upset in sports….

  5. Mark Daniel says:

    It’s too bad more of us don’t get to see the Astros play. I’m an AL Central fan (Tigers) and I must have missed the four games the Astros played against Detroit already (Tigers won only one of them). Now they come to Detroit for 3 games at the end of July and that’s that.
    Well, I will have plenty of chances to see the White Sox, Royals, Indians and Twins the rest of the way, all of whom I do NOT want to see.

    • Bob says:

      As a Royals fan, I agree. Other than the super-classy Miggy, and Verlander, there’s nobody on the Tigers I need to see 18 times per season. Bring back the old schedules.

  6. Brad says:

    The Schwarber issue is similar to what KC is going through with an ex-Cub, Jorge Soler. KC basically gave away Wade Davis in exchange for Soler. The KC brass sold it as “he’s young and athletic and could develop plus power”. Sounds great except he can’t hit a lick. He’s batting .165 with an OPS of .565 and he appears to the naked eye to be getting worse not better. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve finally benched him in place of Jorge Bonafacio, a rookie who is hitting the ball. Plus he’s a horrible outfielder. Think a more inept version of Yasiel Puig. Makes one wonder if KC even scouted the guy before the trade. At this point, it’s looking like it’ll take its place in KC annals as a disaster trade right up there with the David Cone for Ed Hearn masterpiece.

    • invitro says:

      Both guys have awesome postseason records. Schwarbs: 1.178 OPS; Soler: 1.269 OPS. Soler’s is almost all in 2015. I don’t know if Wade Davis’s future value will compare too well with what Dave Cone’s future value ended up being…

  7. Bryan says:

    Pujols vs Mr. Met, the problem is often the lack of excitement when the expected occurs. Mr. Met was also in the news during the 1962 season for being created and might well have been bigger news than Harmon Killebrew.
    *
    Harmon Killebrew’s 130 HR in 1783 AB (13.7 AB per HR) through his Age 25 season most likely resulted in stories about chasing Ruth in the late 50’s and early 60’s. 446 HR at the end of 1969 the year he wins MVP in his Age 33 season, 487 HR after the following season when he finishes 3rd in MVP and on Aug 10th, 1971, hits HR #500 and 501, the Twins lose 4-3 dropping to 51-62 and have been all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for some time.
    *
    In 1971 Killebrew (515) passes Banks (512) playing his final season, Ott (511) and Mathews (512). Frank Robinson (503) who is also in his Age 35 season hits 28 HR and stays 12 HR behind Killebrew. Mantle (536), Foxx (534) and Ted (521) are almost definitely getting passed, Aaron (639) is only 2 years older and hits 47 HR to increase his lead over Killebrew to 124, Mays (646) hits 18 HR in what ends up being his final full season playing for the Giants and currently leads Harmon by 131. It’s fully expected Robinson (583) and Killebrew (573) will be Top 5 in career HR when they retire and that’s exactly what happens.
    *
    1971 isn’t that long ago so maybe some people remember Killebrew’s 500th as being a big deal but I wasn’t born and google which has access to a reasonably large archive of newspapers from the time doesn’t suggest it was a big deal and if either Killebrew or Robinson kept playing because of a guaranteed 10 year contract and got another 27 or 17 HR it’s doubtful it would have made much national news that the guy in 4th place on the career HR list reached a round number. Lots of empty seats as Killebrew reaches 500 HR in a home game: http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/75206220/v355219483/on-this-date-in-1971-killebrew-hit-his-500th-homer
    *
    Pujols (201), Mathews (222) and Foxx (222) are the three with 200+ HR through Age 25 season and hitting one every 15 or fewer AB. Stanton “only” hits 181, Prince “only” hits 160 and Dunn “only” hits 158. A-Rod’s 241 HR are in 3758 AB (15.6) because of his early start, Pujols also trails Ott (211), Mantle (207) and Frank Robinson (202).
    *
    Through Age 30 season Pujols (408) is 4th in HR, trailing A-Rod (464), Griffey (438) and Foxx (429). Babe Ruth’s 309 HR are 1 every 12.7 AB and Ryan Howard’s 253 HR are 1 every 12.8 AB, the rate leaders with a minimum of 50 career HR by that Age. Dunn (354), McGwire (238) and Pujols going yard every 14.04-14.05 AB. Killebrew (336) 13.1 and Kiner (329) 13.2 are the other two ahead of that trio. No one matches Pujols on both volume and pace.
    *
    Through Age 35 season Pujols (560) is still in 4th, trailing A-Rod (629), Sosa (574) and Ruth (565). Just ahead of Aaron (554) and Mays (542) and well ahead of Barry Bonds (494) in 14th and Thome (472) in 18th. Ruth 11.5 AB per HR and McGwire 10.8 are the rate leaders minimum 50 HR while Pujols 15.3 has dropped to 26th, turning into essentially Manny Ramirez (490, 14.4 AB per HR) with an extra 1500 AB. Pujols 312/397/581 vs Manny 313/409/593 through Age 35 season.
    *
    Whether Manny in 2007 and/or Pujols in 2015 is PED aided is ultimately unknown as A-Rod (302/386/567 through 35) clearly established that PED testing is ineffective, being suspended for a non-analytic positive and eventually confessing to PED usage. 67 HR for the rest of A-Rod’s career, 65 for Manny and if Pujols gets his 40th during the NBA Finals on a .500 team that just lost it’s best player for 2 months it’s still “only” a HR that there have been expectations Pujols will hit for at least 10 years and have been strong expectations he will hit for at least 5 years.
    *
    Pujols chasing down Babe (realistic best case) as he finishes up a 10 year contract will be the West Coast A-Rod without having a guy who generates headlines just for eating popcorn at the Super Bowl in the middle of it. If Pujols’ wife of 17 years smashes the back window of his car on Thanksgiving or gets a really expensive ring after a criminal investigation in Colorado before Albert hits another HR, then it would be a lot bigger news but that’s extremely unlikely to happen.
    *
    Pujols is just too many years removed from the “excitement” of allegations that he was older than his claimed age while putting together a decade of dominance and winning 2 of 3 World Series. He will get a salute to his career for hitting a milestone but it will be tinged with it “only” being his 600th and how unlikely it seems at this point that Pujols will even have the most career HR for a player without a 50 HR season. Instagram launched to the public after the 2010 season after which Pujols barely missed two benchmarks hitting .299 with 99 RBI, won the World Series and signed a massive contract in 2011.
    *
    Since 2012 Instagram has become a pretty big deal and Pujols (154 HR) has gone yard about as many times as Mark Trumbo (156) or Jay Bruce (153). Pujols (265/324/470, 253 BB) has been Jose Bautista (256/374/505, 162 HR, 460 BB) without the Walks or bat flips. It’s nice that Pujols was so much better than Bautista and almost every baseball player before Instagram launched but neither Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger being wealthy or Pujols’ 600th HR is all that newsworthy in 2017.
    *
    Information provided by Baseball-Reference.com Play Index.

    • Rob Smith says:

      “how unlikely it seems at this point that Pujols will even have the most career HR for a player without a 50 HR season.”

      That seems like an odd statement since Hank Aaron never had a 50 HR season. It makes it sound like passing Aaron would be somewhat trivial or some consolation prize.

      • Bryan says:

        http://bleacherreport.com/articles/446286-albert-pujols-no-400-will-he-pass-barry-bonds-a-rod-on-path-to-800?comment_id=2911388
        *
        Yes, articles like that from 2010 and go back further and you will find 800 HR articles on A-Rod, Barry and McGwire. How many career HR Pujols ends up with if he hit half his HR before and after the same age as the rest of the 600 club:
        *
        984 – Bonds – 33 years, 9 months, 10 days
        890 – Ruth – 32 years, 2 months, 9 days
        890 – Thome – 31 years, 10 months, 3 days
        834 – Aaron – 31 years, 4 months, 15 days
        816 – Mays – 31 years, 13 days
        802 – Sosa – 30 years, 7 months, 22 days
        638 – A-Rod – 28 years, 8 months, 28 days
        604 – Griffey – 28 years, 6 months, 12 days
        *
        Being in “only” 3rd to 5th seems like a disappointment compared to most of his career, Pujols simply seems really unlikely to keep up with the absurd late career pace of Hank Aaron. Back when Pujols was 31 years, 4 months and 15 days old and he had just hit his 417th HR off Ramon Ramirez the day before and Hank Aaron hits his 378th off Bob Purkey at that age.
        *
        The reason it seems like a disappointment is because it ignores that the vast majority of players do not play well relatively speaking after turning 35 but the one group that mostly does play well are career leaders. Pujols is now behind Aaron who had 612 HR at Pujols current age but for most of his career Pujols was ahead of Aaron.
        *
        To have decent odds of catching Aaron you would need around 600 HR on your 35th birthday, A-Rod had 599. Aaron “only” had 510, Pujols 520 and Barry 422 but there is no good reason to expect someone to hit 245 (Aaron) HR after their 35th birthday, let alone 340 (Barry) when Palmeiro (210) is the only other player to hit at least 200.
        *
        But ignoring the effectiveness of father time is what leads to conclusions like the one in the linked article of “For fun, I’ll put my money on 785.” in a 2010 article that appears to include some serious thought on the topic. Pujols was never genuinely on pace for 755, but expectations were set that high and even when his recent performance is around the 10th most HR for his age it can still be considered disappointing.

  8. Robert G says:

    And even though the Appel pick will end up being a mistake, the Astros still managed to trade him as part of the deal that brought Ken Giles to Houston, so that’s not a bad consolation prize.

  9. Ross H. says:

    Joe, you predicted Sale might have some silly 25-4 kind of record this year. With the way Keuchel is pitching and that offense, it could be him.

  10. Herb Smith says:

    As per Springer: It’s interesting that the Cubs had a slightly higher draft pick than the Astros that year, and we’re debating between Javier Baez and George Springer. They both had light-tower power, even as teens, but neither had any plate discopline, and they both struck out a ton. Ih, and they could both also play premium defense. Yes, during last year’s playoffs I was congratulating the old Cub front office for the Baez pick, but I don’t think anyone would take him over Springer at this point.

  11. MikeN says:

    Did you really bring up Schwarber’s low batting average without noticing he has about as many walks as hits?
    Not great, but .286 OBP isn’t that horrible is it that you have to give up on a guy?

  12. invitro says:

    It doesn’t have anything to do with this article, but I just wanted to say: I’m in the middle of Crazy ’08 by Cait Murphy, and I think it may end up being my favorite sports book ever. I guess it’s a fairly famous book, but if you don’t know, it’s about the 1908 season, which Murphy says is the greatest season of them all. The book isn’t really about whether that season is better than others, though, it’s an extremely detailed look at the season, the NL part anyway (so far?), chock-full of wonderfully fun anecdotes on particular players and games, plus stadiums, Chicago political life, fans, about everything else with any relation to baseball of that time, and a bunch about baseball in the 1901-1907 period also, and a fair bit about the period before that. It’s just one interesting page about baseball and American history after another. There are some things about the book that annoy me some, but the book is so great those things are vastly outweighed. (A recent topic was Frank Deford; I’ll be damned if anything Deford wrote was half as good as this book. 🙂 )

  13. invitro says:

    So what happens when you’re the best team in baseball, and then you win 10 games in a row? Let’s see… the Astros have a 13-game lead in the AL West, a 7.5-game lead on the #2 team (Yankees) in the AL, a 5.5-game lead on the #2 team in baseball (Nationals), the most runs scored in the AL (18 more than the Yankees), the least runs allowed in the AL (12 less than the Injuns), the most runs scored in baseball (9 more than the Nats), but only the second-least runs allowed in baseball (11 more than the Dodgers). They have a massively huge team OPS+ of 126; the Nats are #2 at 117. They have eight hitters with at least 80 PA and a 110 OPS+. Eight of their nine players with the most PA have over a 100 OPS+ (Yuri Gurriel is at only 93). Gezundheit!

    • Marc Schneider says:

      So what happens if the Astros win,say, 110 or 112 games and lose in the playoffs or the World Series? Are they suddenly disappointing bums who choked in the clutch? As a Braves fan for many years, this was often the mantra. There is not much doubt that, at least at the moment, the Astros are the best team in baseball. But, if they don’t go all the way, does it invalidate the season? Perhaps not this season since this is the first time they have been a juggernaut, but if they don’t make it next season, they will become disappointments. I’m not saying this is right, but it’s likely what will happen.

      • invitro says:

        If that happens, and they don’t stay great for long, I guess they’ll end up like the 2001 Mariners, (probably) with a few fewer wins. Which makes me want to look for the teams with the most wins to not reach the World Series.

        As much as I’m trying to be a big fan, it’s just not gonna happen, not like I was in my youth. But remembering the past… those Braves postseason defeats ended up zapping me, turning me against not just the Braves, but against baseball fandom in general, for about ten years. But that’s sports!

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