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The Sunday Ramble
Bobby Witt Jr. is amazing, the Royals are impacting at least one postseason race, the Red Sox make a change in the front office, a return in Baltimore and this year's rookie crop has been exceptional.
All that’s left for the Royals to do in 2023 is play spoiler. (Honestly, that’s really been all they could do since mid-April. And even that designation comes with plenty of questions and doubts.) Sadly, with the season winding down and the pennant races heating up, the Royals won’t really have an opportunity to impact the postseason aside from six games down the stretch with the Houston Astros.
If this weekend is any indication, the Royals certainly look up for it, taking two of the first three games off Houston at Kauffman. In both Friday and Saturday’s contests, the boys in blue took the early initiative and then held on for dear life at the end. In the first game of the series, the Royals rode three solo home runs and a sac fly to a 4-2 victory. Both offenses flipped the turbo switch on Saturday, with the Royals staving off a late charge to prevail 10-8. The go-ahead run was scored on a safety squeeze. Because of course it was.
The Royals may have nothing to play for, but the Astros are hanging on to the lead in the AL West by their collective fingernails. The good news for Houston, the same time they were dropping the first two games in Kansas City, the Rangers lost two to the Guardians while the Mariners dropped two to the Dodgers. Is anyone interesting in winning the West?
I know, I know…We’ve seen the Royals ride decent Septembers when they’ve long been eliminated from contention before. With Saturday’s victory, they’re now a cool 7-7 on the month, with a run differential of +12 in those games. They own a four-game winning streak, their second-longest of the season. Most of their damage was done against the listless White Sox. They finished 7-6 against Chicago this year, the only AL team they won their season series against.
I do think it says something about the character of this team that they’re still showing up against teams like Houston. As we start to look forward to 2024, it doesn’t mean much, if anything, at all. But winning baseball is fun baseball. Even when the wins have come infrequently.
At the close of play on Friday, Bobby Witt Jr. had accumulated 632 plate appearances on the season. That’s the same amount he totaled in his rookie season. What a difference a year makes.
I love that Witt’s BABIP is virtually the same as last year because it helps the comparison between seasons. But I’m burying the lede: With a four percent cut in his strikeout rate, he’s putting more balls in play. As he’s becoming a bit more selective at the plate, he’s stinging the ball more.
The results in the rate stats have been incredibly impressive.
His average exit velocity has improved from 89.7 MPH last year to 90.7 MPH this season. He’s lost a degree off his average launch angle to 15.8. This means he’s hitting more line drives and given that around 75 percent of those fall for hits, it’s a very positive development indeed. His hard-hit rate has exploded from 38.6 percent in 2022 to 45.1 percent this year.
The best way to visualize this is his MLB percentile rankings provided by Baseball Savant.
It’s just a marked improvement across the board when it comes to Witt’s offensive performance. A quantum leap. It’s not just the bat…With massive improvements to his defense, Witt is going to garner some down-ballot MVP votes. That’s a helluva accomplishment given the dreadful team he plays for.
On Friday, Witt hit one of his patented home runs into the fountains (!!!) into left field: A fastball in on the inner half of the plate where Witt pulled his hands in and stayed just enough behind to power it over the wall. It was his 29th dinger on the season. He also swiped two bags to push his season total to 46. This is a combination of power and speed we’ve never seen in Kansas City. Ever.
(Yes, I am aware Bo Jackson was a Royal. Bo Jackson was amazing. Yet Bo never topped 30 steals in a season and his career high in home runs was 32. Witt is in a class unto himself.)
There are two weeks of games remaining. Witt needs just one home run to become the first Royal in the 30/30 club. Sure, it’s not a real club, but it’s an incredible accomplishment that, if he makes it, deserves celebration. Witt took a solid, yet unspectacular, rookie season and turned it into a springboard to superstardom.
In a difficult and disappointing season in Kansas City, he’s been a reason to keep following this team. Even in September.
The last time we rambled, we discussed the logjam in the Wild Card races. A week has passed and the races remain as tight as ever. The wildest of the Wild Card action was in the American League where the Rangers discovered their passports and their mojo, sweeping fellow October challengers the Blue Jays in a four-game series. Texas outscored Toronto by a margin of 35-9. While I completely understand the fact that schedules are much more balanced these days, I am convinced that timing is important. In the 12 games before the Rangers destroyed the Jays, Toronto won nine and lost just three. However! Their opponents in that span were the Nationals, Rockies, A’s and our Royals. That’s like KU basketball scheduling a month of community colleges ahead of conference play.
In the NL, things continue to be bonkers with just three games separating five Wild Card contenders. Four of the five (Airzona, Cincinnati, Miami and San Francisco) have negative run differentials on the season, meaning all are currently outperforming their expected won-loss record. The fifth, the Cubs, are at +91, which is better than the team leading the Wild Card race. That would be the Phillies at +68. See? I told you it was bonkers.
I’m not dumb enough to make any predictions. I will go out on a limb and say one of these five teams is about to go on an absolute tear over the last two weeks. That team will qualify for the postseason. You’re probably congratulating yourself for subscribing to this newsletter for the bold insight I consistently provide.
One team that will not be making the postseason, the Boston Red Sox, fired their chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, and offered general manager Brian O’Halloran another position in the organization.
Bloom, an alum of Baseball Prospectus before he made his bones in Tampa, was in charge in Boston for just under four seasons. They finished last in 2020 and 2022 and are duking it out with the Yankees for fifth place in the East this year. (You have no idea how much I smiled while writing the previous sentence.) They did make the postseason in 2021, losing to Tampa in the ALCS.
Underwhelming results aside, Bloom is better known as The Guy Who Traded Mookie Betts. That’s a helluva title to bear, especially when the return (Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong) hasn’t come close to justifying the deal. Alas, Bloom was hired to trade Betts, the Sox’s superstar who broke the bank in his final year of arbitration eligibility and was set to cash in as he approached free agency. It’s stunning to me that a team with a brand and a market like the Red Sox would decide they couldn’t afford to pay a player of Betts’ caliber, but here we are. That luxury tax must be some kind of burden.
I read in Molly Knight’s newsletter that there was speculation that Bloom’s fate was sealed a month ago when the Dodgers visited Fenway and Betts was given a hero’s welcome. It wasn’t exactly the reaction to Betts that allegedly disturbed ownership, it was the fact the stands at the yard were packed with Dodger fans. They weren’t celebrating the return of Betts to Boston. They were celebrating the greatness of the Dodgers’ best player. Weird.
I visited Fenway for the first time this summer, taking in a game when the A’s were in town. (What can I say? Big Richard Lovelady fan.) While I greatly enjoyed the Fenway experience, the vibe was a little strange. It didn’t feel as if there were a lot of locals at the yard. There were definitely fans in Red Sox gear, but they were from all over. A disturbing number of people wearing home jerseys also had names on the back. It was weird.
Since the game was between the cellar dwellers in the AL East and West, the trip did give me the opportunity to introduce myself as a baseball writer from Kansas City with a fetish for last-place baseball teams.
Local product John Means completed his rehab from Tommy John surgery and returned to the major leagues for the Orioles on Tuesday. He took the loss in a five-inning effort, throwing 75 pitches, 55 for strikes. Means allowed four hits, two of which were home runs, but retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced. The fastball looked lively and his control was solid. He didn’t walk a batter.
Means was an All-Star in 2019 and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting that year. In 2021 he posted a 3.62 ERA with a 1.030 WHIP. He last pitched in the big leagues on April 13, 2022. I continue to marvel at pitchers who grind through an arduous rehab after the Tommy John surgery to make it back to the big leagues.
Means graduated from Gardner-Edgerton in 2011 and played for Fort Scott Community College before transferring to the University of West Virginia. He was an 11th-round selection for Baltimore in 2014. If he can contribute innings down the stretch and then in October for the Orioles, that would amount to a strong late-season addition for his club. Just another reason to keep an eye on Baltimore.
Last year’s rookie class was exceptional. Julio Rodríguez, Adley Rutschman, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider have either come close to replicating their results from last year or surpassed the lofty standards they set in 2022. Throw Witt into that conversation and there hasn’t been any kind of widespread sophomore slump.
Somehow, the newcomers this year have been even better…and there’s a lot more depth in this season’s first-year talent pool.
Corbin Carroll in Arizona, James Outman with the Dodgers and Gunnar Henderson are leading rookies in fWAR while impacting the playoff races. Anthony Volpe for the Yankees, Fransico Alvarez with the Mets and our own Maikel Garcia are posting solid debut seasons.
Then there’s the electric Elly de la Cruz, Matt McLain and Patrick Bailey. Oh, the Orioles just called up Heston Kjerstad for the stretch run. Kjerstad isn’t the Orioles’ top prospect because they employ Jackson Holliday, the consensus overall best prospect in the game. He’s not up now, but will likely headline next year’s rookie class.
These kids are alright. I can’t help but think baseball is in great shape for the future.