New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole, ironically, had zero firm grip on his woefully vague answer for the baseball universe’s big sticky question, “Have you ever used banned foreign substances as a pitcher?” during a press conference this week. And who could blame him? He is the (astronomically) highest-paid pitcher in baseball. But he’s not the spokesman for anyone besides himself. And yet, he’s just like everyone else. ESPN’s Jeff Passan said as much, as well, then went on to say he estimates maybe ninety percent of the game uses something extra sticky and illegal to throw a better pitch every time they step on the rubber.
I’m not shocked.
I knew some, if not many, pitchers were using something sticky very often. And Nolan Ryan used to dodge questions not-so-artfully while inciting rampant, rabid speculation after insisting he wouldn’t tell anyone even if he did use sticky stuff to throw pitches. (Subtext: he did.)
A nationwide, vibrant scrutiny on the MLB pitcher is new and piqued. And way more soundbites feature baseball nerd phrases like “spin rate.” So more than anything, I’m somewhat mystified. This is weird. Maybe the staggering commonality of the everyman starting pitcher tossing a no-hitter every other weekend had something (everything) to do with it.
In the spirit of Nolan Ryan, we can speculate wildly on how baseball will handle their alleged and promised instant draconian threats of punishment, game suspensions, perhaps season-long or lifetime bans for repeat and egregious sticky stuff offenders who don’t adhere to the new rules. The bulky and theatrical MLB umpire is already one of the most exorbitantly dramatic officials in all sports leagues. The MLB has said their primary tactic for combatting the gross offensive goo-use is to let loose big blue – who’ll now, at their discretion, check pitcher hats, belts, gloves, webbings, hands whenever they want, though primarily after a pitcher has gotten the last out of an inning as they exit the field.
And all this melodrama starts smack in the middle of a baseball season.
We’ve about one month now until the All-Star Break. Let’s power rank the league before everything we know about baseball melts, congeals, liquifies, transubstantiates (transmogrifies!…ameliorates?) somehow and changes for the worse, for good – forever? Who knows? Onward!
1. San Francisco Giants: I did not see this coming. I don’t think anyone did. And yet, none of us (outside Dodger nation) is complaining all that much. The return of soon-to-be All-Star catcher Buster Posey, hitting a blistering .336 with a .411 OBP through Thursday, is a wonderful return to a previous era of excellent Giants baseball. Right now, they have the best record in baseball (38-23), and they’re 7-3 over their last ten games.
2. Tampa Bay Rays: Damn, they’re good. Again. I don’t know what kind of baseball algorithms the Rays front office cooks up year-in and year-out, but this group has maximized bang for buck, literally, with a payroll rank of 26, they’ve spent just north of $68,000,000 on this year’s roster – and they are crushing teams with a payroll three, four, fives times what they spend (Yankees and Red Sox). Maybe they’ve perfected Money Ball under the radar while avoiding the Hollywood spotlight? I don’t know. But they’re third in runs (312) and twenty fourth in batting average (.229). And the pitching staff is superb as well, sixth in ERA (3.32), fifth in WHIP (1.13), eighth in batting average against (.222).
3. Chicago White Sox: They have the third-best record in baseball (37-24) and sit four full games in front of the Cleveland baseball team soon no longer named Indians. The term “rake” gets used way too often for power-hitting baseball players. And yet the White Sox? They rake. They’re fifth in runs (299), fourth in batting average (.253), second in OBP (.340), and eleventh in slugging percentage (.406).
4. Los Angeles Dodgers: Dare I say the Dodgers are underrated right now? No, I won’t say that. Though maybe I should. I don’t see a single team that can beat this squad in a seven-game series later this fall. No chance. The best team playing baseball in Los Angeles is first in WHIP (1.09), first in batting average against (.207), and starting-pitcher Julio Urias leads baseball in Wins (9). Notorious motor mouth and sticky stuff whistleblower Trevor Bauer leads baseball in Quality Starts (11). And closer Kenley Jansen has his old stuff back too. And it’s filthy. The former catching prospect is now fifth in saves (14).
5. Boston Red Sox: Last week the Bo-Sox were my pick for a team that emerges from the pack and takes the top spot in baseball. But it was the Giants who’ve currently established their preeminence. Doesn’t seem like anyone playing ball in Bean Town cares that much. Right now, the Red Sox are undergoing nothing of the rebuilding they anticipated and everything of a championship-caliber season with this current squad that boasts the fourth-best record in baseball (37-25) and a team that also has the fourth most runs (303), the third-best batting average (.255), the third-best slugging percentage (.432), and now on the horizon, Red Sox Ace Chris Sale said, “It’s 100 percent,” he’ll back to pitch in 2021.
6. San Diego Padres: It’s like they’re playing charades with the baseball universe – us watching without a clue, and not one good answer – and the Slam Diego (semi) Godres are looking for four syllables from us, and they told us, “It’s a thing…” The thing? Roller coaster. The Friars are 3-7 over their last 10 games. (How?) “How would you expect me to guess that?” I’d say if they could hear me. They can’t. Fernando Tatis Jr. is too busy swatting moon shots over the train tracks behind the stands in Minute Maid Park against the vicious Astros bullpen to field my questions. Good chance they’ll reclaim the top spot soon. Unless they were always acting (the charades?) like a contender. Who knows?
7. Houston Astros: Maybe the Astros are the only team thrilled with the recent new cheating scandal sweeping the baseball universe? Good chance they are ecstatic, actually. Now they’re not the only team guilty of getting away with it for so long. The ‘Stros look beastly as of late. In their last nine games exclusively against the AL East’s upper echelon, Houston took three of four from Boston, then two of three from Toronto, and then another at least two of three from Boston again. The Astros are one game back from the AL West division lead. First baseman Yuli Gurriel is slashing a .335/.406/.534 to lead the best hitting team we’ve seen in Houston since (maybe the last time they were cheating this well) their championship run: first in runs (328), batting average (.271), and OBP (.343) and second in slugging percentage (.436).
8. Oakland Athletics: Have you counted the number of West Coast baseball teams in the top eight so far? Four. That’s half. The A’s are still the top team in the AL West (37-26), even if they aren’t the best. They lead all of baseball in Quality Starts (30).
9. Chicago Cubs: They took 3 of 4 from Slam Diego. Yes. And just about one week after they swept Slam Diego. True. But way too many best-teams in baseball lists have the Cubs near the top, or in the Top 3, or Baseball Gods be damned, sitting, practically glowing now at the apogee of the baseball pyramid. They lead no statistical categories at all. Besides having the best record in NL Central (35-27). They’re hot. That’s it. Ninth is a good spot for them right now, just on the verge of being considered for the conversation about who makes it into the Top 5. Those who tell you this team is any better than that are still on the 2016 bandwagon, annoying us all on the Padres bandwagon. Trust me. If I were betting on their final spot this year. I’d say the Cubs miss the playoffs and finish behind both the Cardinals and Reds.
10 New York Mets: It’s a strange time in the baseball universe when in the same week as Gerrit Cole’s ridiculous flub, another New York baseball player, Mets first baseman, Pete Alonso (who leads the Mets in batting average, home runs, and RBI right now – .265/10/31) makes headlines for flying off the handle with some other, and this time totally unfounded, unhinged conspiracy theory to slip-shoddily address another sort of bone he wants to pick. ESPN’s Joon Lee wrote about Alonso’s claims, “Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said Wednesday that he disagrees with MLB’s crackdown on pitcher-friendly foreign substances and that the larger issue facing the sport is the league’s manipulation of baseballs depending on free-agent class — a theory he presented as ‘fact.’ … ‘The biggest concern is MLB manipulates the baseball year in and year out depending on free-agency class, or guys being in an advanced part of their arbitration,’ Alonso said during a videoconference with reporters… He continued: ‘In 2019, there was a huge class of free-agent pitchers, and then that’s quote-unquote “the juiced balls,” and then 2020 was a strange year with the COVID season. But now that we’re back to playing in a regular season with a ton of shortstops or position players that will be paid a lot of money like high-caliber players — I mean, yeah, that’s not a coincidence. It’s definitely something that they do.’ The league did not comment on Alonso’s charge.” Flamethrowing Mets Ace Jacob deGrom still leads baseball in ERA (0.62).
11. Milwaukee Brewers: Not a lot has been said about the massive spin rate jumps of the three best Brewer starting pitchers who saw by far the best off-season or best season to season growth in spin rate on pitches of anyone in the league. (If you need some mild clarification: spin rates go through the roof when the right commixture is applied from fingers to baseball) Now I won’t go any further in naming names except to remind everyone that Milwaukee baseball is a bastion of crass cheaters that all look the other way until after they pick up hardware (*Coughs* Ryan Braun *Coughs*). Maybe you can tell, I’m not a fan of the Brew Crew.
12. New York Yankees: Gerrit Cole doesn’t know what to say and neither do I. On paper, this is a team that should have won at least fifteen more games by now. You know you’ve (massively) overspent on a baseball team when many folks within the organization are saying, “Trust the process,” even with a record four games over five hundred.
13. Cleveland Indians: They have great starting pitchers, Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac; alright, this much we know. But what we don’t know is whether or not they’re doomed for a quiet late fall without even a Wild Card appearance because of their (minus Jose Ramirez) dreadful offensive numbers. They’re five games over five hundred and four back of the White Sox and have a -12 run differential; and right now sit 23 in runs (243), 28 in batting average (.222), and 29 in OBP (.292).
14. Toronto Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is your AL MVP front runner and it’s not even close. The son – and maybe next step in evolution – of the most creative hitter not named Ichiro in the last three decades, Vladimir Guerrero, is right now clobbering the ball with a batting average, home run, RBI, OBP, and slugging percentage slash line worthy of all the hype he receives (.330/18/48/.438/.651). He’ll take home the hardware if the young bluebirds find a perch in the playoffs.
15. St. Louis Cardinals: Uh-oh. They lost two of three more to the Dodgers. Then counting the last of the recent Dodgers series, they lost a season-worst six games in a row. I honestly expect they’ll figure it out in the second half of the season. But right now it’s rough for the red birds.
16. Seattle Mariners: Truth be told – I feel like I’m defending an adorable and massive hole digging and excessive barking, cute, but problem dog every time I begin analyzing this team’s conspicuously absent, then overnight, it seems, unparalleled and magnificent awesome power if and when they unleash another supermassive burst of SODO Mojo. Many Seattle Mariners fans say left fielder Jake Fraley resembles a Viking, but in the bottom of the ninth in Detroit at Comerica Park Jake Fraley made the absolute best catch of his young career, and in the process, actually, perfected a spur of the moment, spot-on Ken Griffey Jr. impersonation while robbing Detroit Tigers third baseman Isaac Peredes of a two-run walk-off home run. Fraley tracked a hard one-out blast to the fence and then ascended into the air with his glove and arm and head well above the yellow top of the wall. Fraley slammed into the fence almost at the exact instant the ball bulged through the webbing of his glove. Fraley came down with the ball then threw hard toward the infield quick enough to double up pinch-runner Eric Hasse before he returned to first base. Fraley wasn’t done. In the top of the eleventh Jake Fraley knocked in the go-ahead run scoring designated hitter Mitch Haniger from third. And the Mariners took a 5-4 lead. And, again, they were just getting started. “Chaos Ball” was back, in full. After Fraley’s base knock right-fielder Dillon Thomas in his major league debut and the 50th Mariners player to make an appearance – the most in baseball – got his first major league hit in his fifth at-bat. Thomas singled to center driving in center fielder Taylor Trammell and Mitch Haniger. Entering the game first as a pinch-hitter Mariners catcher Tom Murphy doubled to left field scoring Thomas and second baseman Shed Long Jr. And the Mariners were up 9-4 in the top of the eleventh. Right-handed pitcher Keynan Middleton came on in the bottom of the eleventh and – some have said there isn’t any adrenaline pumping through him when he has a lead this large and so he gets slugged – and he struggled for the second time in his last two outings surrendering two runs en route to his fourth save of the year, and a 9-6 Mariners win. To my bad dog point, however, it was the first time Seattle defeated Detroit in five games this season. They are 31-33. Cleveland next. And J.P. Crawford is right now the AL’s best offensive and defensive shortstop no one is talking about. For real: through his first eight games in June, the defending Gold Glove champion, Crawford was hitting .467 with a .767 slugging percentage. He had seven extra-base hits, six doubles, and six walks from the M’s lead-off spot. Not to mention a 1.293 OPS. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
17. Philadelphia Phillies: Second in the NL East with a record two games under five hundred. And they’ve drastically underperformed the entire season. Maybe they hover here forever. Maybe they finish with the best record in the second half of the regular season. Their next three series and eight games are against, oh no, the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants.
18. Los Angeles Angels: And here they come. The second-best team playing baseball in Los Angeles has won three straight and seven of their last ten. Tied for third in the AL West with the Mariners, they split a four-game set with Seattle last weekend. In one game Seattle almost got away with another bullpen game, but right-hander Shohei Ohtani – who also has 17 home runs, let’s not forget – struck out ten hitters for the fourth time in his career, and the Angels survived a bases loaded no outs top of the eighth inning jam after right-hander Raisel Iglesias came on in relief then worked a four-strikeout six-out save as the Halos beat Seattle for the second time in five games this season, 3-2 in Los Angeles.
19. Atlanta Braves: What I can say about the Atlanta Braves (and Seattle, LA Angels, Phillies, Reds, Royals) is that they are without question one of the most talented teams who’re also on the verge of being, and finishing in the lower third of baseball. Altogether it’s a wild weird bunch more flush with pop and power minus wins than any group like this I’ve ever seen in my decades of watching the game. They look good. And sometimes like a top-five team. I still think all of these squads have some legitimate playoff potential, Braves included.
20. Cincinnati Reds: See – Atlanta Braves. And google – Jesse Winker. Also, Nick Castellanos leads baseball in batting average (.357). And Winker in second (.346).
21. Kansas City Royals: They’re eleventh in batting average (.240). And they just lost five in a row. But still, see – Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies. Also, Whit Merrifield leads baseball in stolen bases (17).
22. Washington Nationals: Shortstop Trea Turner is the only Nats player more exciting than Juan Soto at the plate. He leads Washington in batting average, home runs, and RBI (.305/10/30).
23. Detroit Tigers: They’ve taken five of six from the Seattle Mariners this season. And it makes me sick to my stomach.
24. Miami Marlins: Derek Jeter owns the Marlins. But his upcoming Hall of Fame induction ceremony owns the bulk bandwidth of his attention span. The Florida Fish are seven and a half games out of first in a dreadfully wide open and on all fronts struggling to win NL East.
25. Colorado Rockies: They are 5-23 playing away from Coors Field.
26. Minnesota Twins: They’re fifth in slugging percentage (.426) and they are 13 games out of first place in the AL Central division. They’re not missing the ball. But the team is missing the point of the game.
27. Texas Rangers: This week the Rangers DFA’d former AL home run champion Khris Davis.
28. Pittsburgh Pirates: This week third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes missed first base after a home run Tuesday night against the Dodgers. Hayes was called out after eagle eye Dave Roberts asked for a replay review.
29. Baltimore Orioles: Hey! They beat Cleveland 18-5 this week. They are also 22-39 and sixteen games out of first place in the AL East. See – Minnesota Twins.
30. Arizona Diamondbacks: Cataclysmic forecasted temperatures in Phoenix this week were approaching 120 degrees. And yet the only place it isn’t blazing is where locals might actually want it hot, at home, when the D-backs suit up. They’ve lost seven in a row.