Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 29, 2021

Max Scherzer began his transformation from a decent hurler to a Hall of Famer with Detroit. (Wikipedia).

Scherzer 3,000 K watch: With 10 strikeouts on the 26th, Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer put himself just 28 away from 3,000 for his career. He also needs just 12 for 200 on the year; when he reaches that milestone, he will have done it eight times in his career. Upon eclipsing 3,000 Ks, he will all but seal his chances for Cooperstown. But even if he suffers a catastrophic, career-ending injury in his next start …

Scherzer’s a sure lock: With his statistics (187 W, 2,972 K, 3.17 ERA, 65.4 WAR, 10.7 K/9) being what they are, one can comfortably say Max Scherzer is a future Hall of Famer right now, at this point in his career. Maybe not a first ballot guy, maybe he’d have to wait until the veteran’s committee put him in, but he ranks among the best of this generation, and in this era of high-strikeout pitchers, Scherzer has been among the best the longest.

Can Cabrera collect ‘em all? As the world turned its attention to Miguel Cabrera’s chase for 500 home runs, his quest for 3,000 hits took a backseat. But right now, he’s only 40 away with two games left to play in August. He had 37 hits in a month as recently as September/October 2016 and 41 hits in May 2014. He’ll have to perform as well as he did in his prime, but Cabrera could, feasibly, reach the fabled hits milestone this year.

Ibanez rocks: Royals rookie second baseman Andy Ibanez just recently concluded an eleven-game hitting streak in which he hit .488 with 6 doubles and 2 home runs. Over the past week, he’s hit .458 and raised his season average to .260, up from .200 on August 14. He recently got a boo-boo, however, and is currently day-to-day.

Mercadoubt: Oscar Mercado, a 26-year-old outfielder for Cleveland, made waves as a rookie in 2019 when he hit 19 home runs with 54 RBI and 15 stolen bases, to earn some Rookie of the Year support. Since then, he’s hit just .194 with 4 home runs and 17 RBI in 82 games, casting doubt on whether he’ll ever live up to his first-year promise.

Abreu had a 20.25 ERA in 2 games with New York in 2020. (Wikipedia).

Just one bad game: Yankees reliever Albert Abreu had a 1.88 ERA and .091 OBA through his first 14 1/3 innings of the season, then on July 29, he surrendered 3 dingers and 6 earned runs without getting an out, raising his 2021 mark all the way to 5.65. Since then, he has a 2.51 ERA, again in 14 1/3 innings—but still carries a 4.08 ERA overall.

The same ol’ Nolin: Prior to 2021, Nationals hurler Sean Nolin hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015; he missed all of 2016 and 2017 and then bounced around the minors, indy ball, even the Mexican Pacific Winter League and Japan. In his first three stints from 2013 to 2015, he had a 6.89 ERA in 31 1/3 innings. The time away didn’t help: Since returning to the majors, he’s posted a 6.57 mark in 3 starts. His last outing was decent, however, as he allowed just 2 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Mets on August 28.

Mets could do it: The Mets defeated the Nationals handily this afternoon, 9-4, and have now won two-in-a-row, they’re longest winning streak since … who knows how long, my memory isn’t that good (it was actually August 10-12). Baseball Reference says they still have a 0.4% chance of making the postseason. They’re facing some weak teams over the final stretch of the season, so what if …

It’s been a while: The last time a rookie pitcher had 5 or more shutouts was in 1983, when Orioles hurler Mike Boddicker had exactly that many and led the league. The last time a rookie even had three shutouts in a campaign was 1995, when Hideo Nomo did it for the Dodgers; he also led the league. And when did a rookie last lead the league in shutouts at all? 2019. The Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara had two.

Complete games are a rarity, too: Boddicker and the Rangers’ Mike Smithson were the last rookie hurlers with 10-plus complete games in a season, achieving the feat in 1983. In an indictment on today’s game, the last rookie pitcher to complete even five games in a season was the Dodgers’ Ismael Valdez in 1995; even worse, J.A. Happ was the last rookie to manage 3 CGs, doing so in 2009.

Rarer than no-hitters? Since 2019, only eight pitchers have thrown more than one shutout in a season. There’s been that many no-hitters this year alone.

Got ‘em all in one year: Shortstop/outfielder Eric Yelding spent five years in the major leagues in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, playing for Astros and Cubs. He stole 89 bases in his career—in 1990 with Houston, he swiped 64 of them.

Willy kept going: Speaking of speedsters with short careers, Willy Taveras—who stole 68 bags for the Rockies in 2008—was playing independent ball for the Sugar Land Skeeters as recently at 2019. Who knew. He last played in the majors in 2010.

A home for the washed-up: That 2019 Skeeters team featured myriad players who you thought were long since retired. James Loney, who last played in the majors in 2016, spent time with them, as did Mitch Talbot (2011), Denis Phipps (2012), Daniel Schlereth (2012), Josh Prince (2013), Felipe Paulino (2014), Cesar Cabral (2015), Dallas Beeler (2015), Matt West (2015), Ryan Jackson (2015), Rico Noel (2015) and Cody Stanley (2015), among others.

With the minor league August Browns in 1886, Suck hit .091 in 88 at-bats. (Wikipedia).

How many did he have to hit? Moe Hill spent 15 years in professional baseball, including nine seasons in the Twins system. From 1971 to 1978, he played for the Single A Wisconsin Rapids Twins—which, in itself, was an impressive feat, since by his last season with them, he was 31 and almost a full decade older than the average man in the Midwest League. Even more amazingly: He won four home run titles in a row, from 1974 to 1977. Despite hitting 267 career home runs, he peaked at Double A and never earned a big league call.

He lived up to the name: Tony Suck, a utilityman in 1883 and 1884, hit .151/.205/.161 in 205 career at-bats, for an OPS+ of 24. He was born Charles Anthony Zuck—shoulda kept the original name.

 No camping under that one: Remember when Braves pitcher Rick Camp, then a .060 hitter, hit an 18th-inning, game-tying home run … at 3 in the morning?  

Now some less poetic analysis in light of Miguel Cabrera’s 500th dinger. Who’ll be the next to get there?

Miguel Cabrera was the first person to join the 500 home run club since 2015. (Wikipedia).

Miguel Cabrera might be the last man to join the 500 home run club for a while.

Nelson Cruz is, as of this writing, just 57 away, so two Cruzian seasons should, on paper, get him there. However, he’s also 41 with no real skills outside of hitting at this point, so if he struggles, then that will be all she wrote for his chances.

It’s unlikely teams would keep signing him just so he could try to claw his way to the magic number. Should he stumble at, say, 497, someone might give him the opportunity, but outside of that—once he’s done, he’s done.

The demise and departure of another great designated hitter happened within the past year, in fact. Edwin Encarnacion was chugging toward 500 when his bat died last season to the tune of a .157 average. No team signed him and he is stuck at 424 dingers.

He’s still just 38, which for an effective hitter is about 34 in DH years, so a comeback isn’t out of the question. But for a player with a skillset that includes one severely eroded primary skill—hitting—the market is thin.

Nelson Cruz is less than 60 home runs away from 500. (Wikipedia).

Had Encarnacion maintained his pace, he would’ve reached 500 homers in late 2022 or early 2023, meaning he could have gotten there before he was even 40.

So who reaches 500 home runs next if it’s not Cruz? Who knows. No one else has over 340 and no members of the active 300 homer club are under 30 years old.

Giancarlo Stanton, despite his weak past few seasons, has the ability to get there. It’s a matter of whether his body holds up. With 332 home runs to this point, he could reasonably trudge his way to 500, since he did so much when he was young. He helped beat time by getting the bulk of the work out of the way before time could beat him.

Though he’s known as a slugger because of his 59-home run 2017 campaign, the honest reality about Stanton is that his power is very inconsistent. For every year he’s led the league in slugging, he’s posted a mark below .500. Since 2018, he’s slugged .492 and his number has been at or below .500 four of the past six seasons.

Giancarlo Stanton’s power and health have declined in recent years. (Wikipedia).

If he is in the midst of a slow-but-accelerating power decline, and in a cycle of injuries that he, because of age, will likely never fully recover from (save for a rebound season here and there), then 500 dingers might just be a dream.

But if he can find balance and average 20 per season through his early 40s, then he can get there. A move to DH will probably be necessary to facilitate his run to 500. At the earliest, Stanton would join the club in 2026 or 2027.

Robinson Cano is the next-closest batter after Cruz, but he’s 38, has just 334 homers, is out the rest of this year due to a steroid suspension and—if his past six or so seasons are any indication—is in the midst of a steady decline. He’s not reaching the mark.

Neither is Justin Upton, who, though he’s only 33, can’t hit anymore, can’t field and can’t stay healthy. Even if he maintained his pace from his earlier years, 500 home runs would still have been a challenge because, though he had good pop, he was never really a slugger.

Joey Votto, who has never hit 40 dingers in a season, is 37 and more than 170 away. He’s declining, he’s had injury issues. He’s a no.

Evan Longoria—see what I just said about Votto.

Ryan Zimmerman—see what I just said about Longoria.

Then there’s Mike Trout. I’ll be the pessimist and say he’s going to have a hard time getting to 500. If anyone has a chance, it’s him, but after averaging 158 games per year from 2013 to 2016, he hasn’t appeared in more than 140 in a season since. He averaged just 110 per year from 2017 to 2020 and is on the 60-day injured list at we speak.

Mike Trout’s path to 500 could be difficult. (Wikipedia)

He started falling apart when he was 25 and still hasn’t fully put himself back together—tick tock, tick tock, Mike, you’re 30 years old now, the end of your peak is approaching fast.

From this point forward, he could go in one of two directions. The Frank Robinson route is more optimistic. Robinson was traded from the Reds to the Orioles in December 1965 because he was considered past his prime. Reds general manager Bill DeWitt called him an “old 30.”

He went on to hit 262 home runs the rest of the way and finish with 586 dingers.

Or, he could go the Ken Griffey Jr. route. Over the final ten seasons of his career, in his 30s, Griffey averaged just 19 home runs and 57 RBI per year. Albert Pujols also fell off dramatically in his 30s. So did Frank Thomas.

But they all reached 500 home runs, didn’t they? Yes. Griffey and Pujols reached 600, in fact. Pujols, with a little luck, could get to 700.

But neither Griffey nor Pujols nor Thomas had any major issues until they were in their 30s. From age 20 to age 30, Griffey averaged 141 games per year; he averaged 99 after that. From age 23 to age 32, Thomas averaged 147 games per year; he, too, averaged 99 after that. From age 21 to age 32, Pujols averaged 155 games per year; he averaged 121 after that.

Trout, just a couple weeks past his 30th birthday, is already in the after that phase of his career. Though his production hasn’t suffered when he’s been on the field—he still owns a superhuman OPS+ of 185 since the beginning of 2017—the ravages of time will soon, inevitably, take advantage of his injuries.

Eventually the aches and pains will start to affect his play. A peak only lasts so long. The body always wears down, and injuries push that along.

With sluggers, reaching age 30, rampant health issues and a swift decline in performance often correlate. Trout has two of those three already locked in. It’s just a matter of time before they catalyze the other.

Do I think he won’t reach 500 home runs? Well, I didn’t say that. I just don’t think it will be easy. Don’t be surprised if he takes a long, discouraging, Cabrera-esque path to that number. At the earliest, I think he’ll get there in 2030 or 2031.

Moving on.

Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are on pace for Hall of Fame careers, but they’re both likely to fall short of 500. They’re good home run hitters, but like Upton, not your prototypical sluggers. Save for Eddie Murray, each member of the 500 home run club slugged at least 40 in a season. Neither Freeman nor Goldschmidt have accomplished the feat.

Anthony Rizzo could be clumped in with those two, but it’s still too soon to say whether he’ll have a Hall of Fame career. But 400 to 450 dingers for him isn’t out of the question.

Bryce Harper is the most likely slugger to reach 500 home runs next. (Wikipedia).

The only other players one can comfortably discuss here are Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado.

Harper has the best shot at getting there. He already has a 40-home run season under his belt, has yet to have serious injury issues, isn’t yet 30 and, with 255 dingers to his name, is already halfway to the milestone. Assuming an average decline, he’ll probably make it.

Same with Arenado. He already has three 40-homer seasons, 260 dingers for his career and is just a few months past his 30th birthday—without any major injury issues yet. Even with a somewhat alarming decline in power these past couple seasons, he’s still trending toward 500, but if his power continues to decrease, he might settle somewhere in the 450 range.

Machado’s not yet had a 40-home run season, but his recent health history is top notch and his power consistency is among the best. Not even 30, he could reasonably compile his way to 500 dingers without ever having a truly standout campaign, like Eddie Murray.

More than likely, however, he’ll mirror Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs, and finish within sniffing distance of the mark. In fact, per Baseball Reference, one of Machado’s most similar players through age 28 is Adrian Beltre, who fell just 23 home runs shy of 500.

After nine players joined the 500 home run club in the 2000s, including three in 2007 alone, many fans lamented the elite group was no longer so elite, that it was quickly becoming watered down.

Since 2010, however, things have stabilized and just three men—Cabrera, Pujols and David Ortiz—have powered their way into the ranks. Two more players joined in the 1960s than in the 2010s and 2020s, combined.

And a strong potential exists that no new members will join for another decade, at least.

If everything goes right for him, Nelson Cruz should get there in a couple seasons. But he’s 41—one misstep, and he’s done. If his power of old returns and his health doesn’t collapse, Giancarlo Stanton could get there in less than a decade, but his present career swoon puts that into question. If he recovers from his health woes, Mike Trout could get there in five years or he could slog his way there in a decade, or he could completely fall apart. His injury history at so young an age is concerning.

The only player I can comfortably say will reach 500 home runs is Bryce Harper. He has age and health on his side, he’s a true slugger, and he’s yet to show any major decline.

But even that will is tentative. More or less, it’s shorthand for will, barring … As in, he will reach 500 home runs, barring injury (or decline, et cetera).

A few years ago, I would’ve said Stanton will get there; I would’ve said, without considering any X factors, that Mike Trout will, invariably, reach 500 homers. Because, at the time, there were no X factors to consider.

But eventually, that will became well.

Well, he’ll get there if he regains his health, if he recovers his power stroke, if he plays to 40, if he ups his batting average.

If, if, if.

Harper doesn’t have any X factors yet. Once they start cropping up, the projection becomes a little muddier. But, at its core, that’s really all this is right now. Pure projection.

He’s still 245 homers away; between now and 500, anything could happen. One freak injury might end it all. Albert Belle looked like a sure thing for 500 home runs. By 2000, he’d averaged 37 per season for a decade, and he was just 33 that year. But his hip became debilitatingly arthritic and he was forced to retire—with just 381 dingers—after that season.

With milestones, nothing is a given. With 500 home runs, that’s especially so.

So welcome to the club, Miguel Cabrera, enjoy your stay. Looks like you might be the new guy for a while.

Miguel Cabrera smashes his 500th home run.

Cabrera is the 28th member of the 500 home club. (Wikipedia).

He kept us waiting a little bit. In quick succession, a matter of a few games, he hit home runs 495, 496, 497 and 498. About a week later, 499 left the yard.

 500 was one swing away. One swing and Miguel Cabrera would join an elite club, whose membership numbers less than thirty, whose ranks include names like Aaron and Mays.

A game passed, then another, then another. It was August 11 that his last dinger soared over the fence. By August 18, his bat had gone cold. In the past week, he’d had just two hits.

Each day that passed without another homer intensified the anticipation tenfold. Each day without another homer was a letdown, adding to the crush of disappointment.

His bat woke up on August 19. Cabrera went 2-for-5 against the Angels that day, driving four runs in. But just as quickly as it had been jolted to alertness, it fell back asleep.

0-for 5 on the 20th. 0-for-3 on the 21st.

Then 1-for-5—with a home run—on the 22nd.

Steven Matz has allowed just two hits against Cabrera—both home runs. (Wikipedia).

After a ten-day span that felt like ten years, Cabrera finally clobbered number 500, a sixth inning solo shot off Blue Jays hurler Steven Matz, his first hit in 13 at-bats.

Twenty-seven sluggers had done it before him, and none since David Ortiz in 2015.

But the trek to 500 wasn’t easy. Not just the jump from 499 to 500, either—it took a while for Cabrera to get to the magic number at all.

One of the game’s premier stars early in his career, he debuted with the Marlins in 2003 and lit up the stage in 2004, earning his first of 11 All-Star selections. From that point through 2014, he averaged 34 home runs and 119 RBI per season. He won the Triple Crown in 2012. He took home two MVPs and five Silver Sluggers. Only twice he drove in less than 110 runs, and never less than 100; only twice he had less than 30 homers, and never less than 25.

By the end of his age-25 season, he had 175 home runs. Just triple that and he’d be at 500 by his mid-30s, with a few years to add to his total. At the end of his career’s first decade—he wasn’t even 30 yet—he already had more than 300 dingers. 321, to be exact. Just double that and he’d be up there with Griffey and Thome, and not even 40 years old.

Cabrera spent five years with the Marlins. (Wikipedia).

One of the game’s most reliable players during that 11-year stretch, Cabrera played no less than 148 games in any given season, averaging 157. But in 2015, he hurt his calf, played just 111 games, and slugged 18 home runs.

Sure, he was still an All-Star and he led the league in batting average, but it was a portent of worries to come.

A confluence of two distressing issues, one involving health and the other a sudden decline in power, contributed to Cabrera’s downfall. The latter started in 2014, when his slugging percentage dropped more than 100 points from the year before. The prior season, he had led the loop with a .636 mark; the next, it was .524.

But the problem went from inconvenient to concerning in 2017, when the number fell to .399. It hasn’t reached .450 since.

Then there’s health. Cabrera has had problems with his calf, his groin, his hamstring. In 2018, he missed most of the year after undergoing surgery to repair a bad biceps.

And as his power was failing and his body was falling apart, time kept marching forward. He kept getting older. More than anything else, it seems, age drags a player down hardest.  On April 18, 2021, he turned 38.

Cabrera’s ascension to the 500 home run club went from a no-brainer to a maybe.

In 2017, he hit 16 home runs to put him at 462—a good 2018, a Cabrera-esque 2018, would get him there. He hit 38 home runs as recently as 2016, a one-off rebound campaign.

He hit three home runs in 2018. 465 for his career; 35 away. A good 2019 would get him there. He’d hit 35 home runs five times in his career. It could be done.

He hit 12 home runs in 2019. 477 for his career. 23 away. Did he even have 23 left in the tank? Was he finished?

He hit 10 home runs in 2020. 487 for his career. 13 away. His contract was up after 2023; would the Tigers keep him that long?

His batting average declined each year from 2018 to 2020, from .299 to .250. As late as July 27 this year, it was in the .230s. Cabrera hadn’t just lost the ability to hit home runs, he couldn’t hit anymore, period.

It wasn’t only his power that suffered. About halfway through his career, he had over 1,800 base hits. At this point, he might be looking at 3,500 had he not faltered; he just recently passed 2,950.

But one swing made us forget all that.

When that 500th moonshot finally thundered off Cabrera’s bat on August 22, 2021, those struggles to get there, the questions and concerns and worries all went away.

Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers legend, the best player in Marlins history, now stands among the elite.

History won’t care how long it took him to join the club. The ghosts of Babe Ruth and Mel Ott don’t tut-tut because Cabrera took a winding path to their fraternity.

All that matters is he’s in the fraternity, today, now, in this moment—and forever.

Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 20, 2021.

Max Scherzer is a future Hall of Famer. (Wikipedia).

Scherzer 3000 K watch: It’s time to start the countdown to 3,000 Ks for Max Scherzer. He has 2,954 for his career and is just 46 away. Four great starts might get him there, which will all but lock in his Hall of Fame chances. Zack Greinke is getting close, too, but is still a year or two away.

Cabrera is aggravating: As we wait for Miguel Cabrera to finally mash home run number 500 (he’s been sitting at 499 since August 11), one must ask how much sooner he would have reached the mark, and where he would be now, if his offense—and health—hadn’t cratered in 2017. Same with 3,000 hits, he could have joined that pantheon of greats years ago, but he’s still nearly 50 away. He’s never fully recovered from his swoon and that’s aggravating. He’s becoming a what could have been player. Though he’s still going to be an all-time great, a Hall of Famer, he could have been a legend.

Watch DJ Peters: The rookie has struggled to a .175 average this year, but brighter days might be ahead. His average was unimpressive, but over the past week he’s slugged 3 home runs with 7 RBI. He hit as many as 29 homers in the minors.

Zavala watch: I mentioned White Sox catcher Seby Zavala yesterday and decided to check in again. He was 0-for-3 yesterday but has still been the club’s best catcher over the past month (4 HR, 13 RBI).

Mitch White earned the win in his most recent appearance. (Wikipedia).

White got the short end of the stick: To make roster space for pitcher Victor Gonzalez, the Dodgers demoted Mitch White to the minor leagues. Someone had to go, but it’s tough to see White—who’s posted a 3.06 ERA and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning this year—be the one … especially since he’s coming off a 2 hit, 6 strikeout, 7 1/3 inning performance.

Lopez is putting it all together: Reynaldo Lopez has been stellar for the White Sox this year, going 2-0 with a 1.08 ERA in 11 games (3 starts). In 25 innings he’s Ked 26 batters and allowed just 11 hits. Over the past month, his ERA is 0.90. It’s a small sample size, so it might not last, but still … not bad for a guy whose career mark was 4.77 before this year.

Betts—leadoff home run king? What are the odds of Mookie Betts eventually overtaking Rickey Henderson for most career leadoff home runs? He has 28 for his career and 6 this year. Henderson hit 81, so he’s still a bit off in the distance.

Todd Helton hit .316 with 369 home runs over 17 seasons. (Wikipedia).

Happy birthday Helton: It’s former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton’s birthday today. The greatest gift of all would be a belated one—an election to the Hall of Fame. It’s coming, Todd, just be patient.

Drake passes away: Outfielder Solly Drake, who spent two years in the majors in the 1950s, has died at 90 years old. He was a member of the World Series-winning 1959 Dodgers, which now has 11 surviving members. His brother, Sammy, played in the majors in the early ‘60s.

Yamamoto’s rehabbing: The Mets sent Jordan Yamamoto on a rehab assignment. Sorry, New York, Jordan’s not going to save your crashing season.

Sanit made it: Amaury Sanit, remember him? He pitched for the Yankees in 2011 and had to overcome all odds to get there. First, he defected from Cuba. Then he struggled his way through the Yankees farm system—and it was a struggle, as he posted a 6.35 ERA in 2010.  That year, he hurt his own cause by using performance enhancing drugs and earning a 50-game suspension. Such an event would be a career-ender for most minor leaguers his age. But he kept going, and in 2011, the 31-year-old reached the major leagues.

Ayce in the hole: Some parents are really big into using alternative spellings when naming their babies, and some love to use the letter y. Former Dodger Trayce Thompson’s brothers Klay and Mychel have NBA experience, as does their father, Mychal (note the slight difference in spelling). And remember brothers Laynce and Jayson Nix?