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Keri the 10: Mariners drought watch, rally cats, the baby Mets and more MLB notes

Welcome to this week’s edition of Keri The 10! As always, we’ll go around the majors with 10 stories that caught our eye from the past seven days. There will be numbers, and occasionally, memes. As always, we will have fun.

1. Drought Watch:
Seattle Mariners

The 2001, the Seattle Mariners were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball history. The M’s won 116 games that year, becoming the winningest team of all time. Then after edging the
Cleveland Indians
in the first round of the playoffs, they laid an egg in the ALCS, falling to the
New York Yankees
in five games. They haven’t made the postseason again since, that 16-year stretch marking the longest drought by any team.

We are now officially on drought watch. The M’s have won eight of their past 12 games, storming into a tie for the American League’s second wild-card spot.


James Paxton
has led the charge. The Canadian southpaw known as Big Maple has worked around a DL stint this season, ranking fourth in the league in strikeout rate, third in park-adjusted ERA, and second to park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. Paxton had been absolutely unstoppable in seven straight starts, allowing no more than two runs in any of them, while posting a 1.59 ERA, 53 strikeouts, and just 29 hits allowed in 45 1/3 innings.

And then we hexed him. Paxton surrendered three runs on five hits in a 6-3 loss to the
Los Angeles Angels
on Thursday. Far more troubling, he left the game after 6 1/3 innings with a strained pectoral muscle. Mariners fans now have to hope that Paxton can bounce back and be ready for his next start.

If he is, things could get interesting. Rarely in the past decade and a half have the Mariners been even close to this well positioned, this late in the season.

The question now is, will they have enough? Even if Paxton is healthy and doling out Canadian justice (and
Nelson Cruz
,
Kyle Seager
,
Jean Segura
, and
Robinson Cano
leading an improving second-half offense), Seattle’s rotation is in rough shape, with
Felix Hernandez
and
Hisashi Iwakuma
on the disabled list and
Drew Smyly
out for the year. This was a bottom-five starting-five even with King Felix and Kuma in the mix, and looks downright awful with
Yovani Gallardo
,
Marco Gonzales
, and
Erasmo Ramirez
taking the ball three out of every five days.

The M’s nabbed
Yonder Alonso
in a waiver trade last weekend because they were an eyelash lower in the standings than several other wild-card contenders. But they now no longer have waiver priority thanks to their improved record, which could be a major problem as they desperately seek pitching help (red-hot free-agent-to-be
Marco Estrada
would be ideal).

This next stretch could prove pivotal: Counting Thursday night’s game against the Halos, Seattle plays a stretch of 22 games that includes 16 against wild-card challengers, plus six more against the lowly (and highly beatable)
Atlanta Braves
and A’s. If playoff fever’s going to hit the Pacific Northwest, Big Maple could use some screaming trees to join the fight.

2. Next stop, Lollapalooza

Though the Angels stumbled to start their four-game set in Seattle, they did come prepared for the trip, dressing like attendees of every summer music festival.
Mike Trout
tweeted some choice pictures of the Halos donning NBA jerseys before boarding their flight up north. As a New Jersey native and avid Philly sports fan, Trout definitely knows what’s up. His teammates wore some beauties too, including Jerry West, Shawn Kemp, a Mike Bibby Vancouver
Memphis Grizzlies
throwback(!), and
Albert Pujols
dressed as the incomparable Allen Iverson.

3. Rally Cats are the new market inefficiency

Wednesday night in St. Louis, the
St. Louis Cardinals
were in a tough spot. Facing a resilient
Kansas City Royals
team, the Cards trailed 5-4 and needed a big hit. We’ll let Cardinals play-by-play Mike Shannon call the action from here:

Yup, they had to stop play for several minutes while a kitten ran across the outfield at Busch.
Lorenzo Cain
looked amused as the kitty sprinted by him toward the center-field wall.
Matt Carpenter
was puzzled.
Dexter Fowler
was tickled. Twenty-year-old grounds crew member Lucas Hackmann didn’t have the luxury of standing and watching. Instead, Hackmann ran after the cat, scooped him up, endured multiple bites and clawings as he ran off the field, then disappeared into the bowels of the ballpark with kitty in hand.

On the very next pitch after play resumed, this happened:

As press time, the kitty’s whereabouts were unknown. But the Cardinals went on to beat the Royals on Wednesday, then did it again on Thursday thanks to another game-winning grand slam (this one by the suddenly scorching Fowler). St. Louis has now won six in a row, closing the gap to one game in the NL Central, while scoring more runs this month than any other team.

If the Cardinals can charge all the way into first place, the legend of #RallyCat will continue to grow. And if that happens, we might see Yadier Meowlina and company right back in the playoffs.

4. The Ageless Wonder

Just a few weeks ago, it looked like
Bartolo Colon
‘s career might be over. He’d amassed a hideous 8.14 ERA in 13 starts with the Braves, earning his outright release. The
Minnesota Twins
scooped him up on a minor league deal a day later, then called him up to start for the big club on July 18. Colon gave up four runs and eight hits while lasting just four innings against the Yankees in that game. The next day, ESPN’s Marly Rivera reported that Colon might retire, and that his next scheduled start could be the last of his career.

The 20-year major league veteran and Last Montreal Expo quickly rethought his decision, a move that now stands to benefit the Twins and miraculous home-run enthusiasts alike. Colon went the distance against the
Texas Rangers
on August 4, recording his first complete game since 2015. Then on Wednesday he upped the ante, firing seven shutout innings, in the process becoming the oldest right-handed pitcher in 23 years to throw seven or more scoreless frames.

And get this — the Twins are in the race too. A five-game winning streak has propelled them back to within a half-game of the second wild-card spot. That’s cause for more than a few celebratory jiggles.

5. Cinder Block Party

Yes, we just expended a lot of words talking about the success of the 2017 Rockies pitching staff, and how we need to severely adjust numbers when looking at both
Colorado Rockies
pitchers, and hitters. Still, a good player is a good player. And
Charlie Blackmon
is a really good player.

Sure, we can’t take Blackmon’s raw stats at face value; we’ll need to ding his eye-popping .333/.388/.616 line, his 27 homers, 102 runs scored, and 74 runs batted in a fair bit to make an apples-to-apples comparison to players who don’t play their home games in a ballpark that inflates offense by more than 30 percent. But even after that adjustment, Blackmon still rates as the 12th-best hitter in the National League. Add in excellent baserunning, his regular duty at a premium position, and the durability to miss just two games all season, and you have one of the 10 best all-around players in the senior circuit.

Watch this clip to see how Blackmon used a cinder block to go from no-hope prospect to an All-Star and leader of what might be the first Rockies playoff team in eight years, and you might end up appreciating him even more.

6. Meet the (Baby)
New York Mets

In one of the ugliest, most disappointing seasons in franchise history, the Mets finally got a couple
Tampa Bay Rays
of hope.
Amed Rosario
and
Dominic Smith
are finally here.

Rosario made his big league debut on August 1, while Smith will see his first action as a Met tonight against the
Philadelphia Phillies
. Fingers are crossed for Smith, the 22-year-old first baseman with legitimate tools who’ll still need to show he can hit in the majors after becoming the 98,612th player to take in the hitter’s haven of Triple-A Las Vegas.

In Rosario’s case, though, we’ve already seen flashes of electrifying athleticism. Check out this diving play and try not to get at least a little fired up.

7. Wait, we’re actually excited about the Mets? Let’s correct that.

With
Jay Bruce
is in the midst of a career year that could see him launch 40 home runs, but also a few weeks away from free agency, the Mets had a prime opportunity to restock their farm system with a trade. According to multiple reports, rather than get two quality prospects for Bruce, the Mets offered for a non-prospect, because they wanted to save $4 million. We’ve seen a smattering of follow-up reports claiming that a beef with the Yankees may have also contributed to the Mets passing on two promising young players to save a few bucks.

Whatever the case, we’ve got yet more evidence to suggest that the Wilpons are squandering the biggest market in all of baseball by keeping budgets as tight as possible, in large part because they got duped by a colossal Ponzi scheme. As fun as it will be to eventually watch
Noah Syndergaard
,
Yoenis Cespedes
, Amed Rosario, and Dom Smith on the field at the same time, and as valiant an effort as GM Sandy Alderson has made to build a winning team with one and a half hands tied behind his back, it’s tough to ignore the elephant in the room: The Wilpons are hurting their club more than any other owner since Frank McCourt in L.A.

8. Oof, that was rough. Here’s a pick-me-up.

OK Mets fans, let’s at least have a little fun. Major League Baseball announced that it would hold a #PlayersWeekend August 25-27. As part of that weekend, players get to sport their nicknames on the back of their uniforms, instead of their usual last names. Some of the nicknames chosen by players have been delightful, with
Joey Votto
‘s choice — and the Shin-Soo Choo-related story behind it — being one of our favorites.

As for
Travis d’Arnaud
‘s moniker of choice? You gotta respect the confidence.

9.
Chris Sale
for MVP?!

Last week, we suggested that Mike Trout could make a worthy MVP challenger for
Jose Altuve
and
Aaron Judge
; even with his to-date small games-played total, Trout has been an absolute terror this season, and his year-end numbers could look pretty damn great with seven more weeks of playing time added to the ledger.

This week, we offer another MVP candidate: Chris Sale. By Wins Above Replacement, the
Boston Red Sox
ace ranks right up there with the league’s best position players, even though he only gets into one out of every five games. To further make Sale’s case for AL Cy Young (and maybe MVP too), we turn to our ace pitching analyst, Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com. Take it away, Nick!

Chris Sale is no stranger to success. With six straight All-Star appearances and five straight top-six Cy Young finishes, he’s established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game. This season has been another gem: Sale holds a 2.57 ERA, and leads the AL in innings pitched (161 1/3), strikeouts (229), Fielding Independent Pitching (1.98), and numerous other categories. On an inning-by-inning basis, he’s pitching better than he ever has before.

We would be remiss to continue without mentioning Sale’s pitching philosophy in 2016. His dip in strikeout production can be traced to a quote during the preseason where it was acknowledged that Sale was pitching more to contact. The theory was that it would allow him to throw fewer pitches per at-bat, which would in turn enable him go deeper into games. The approach did increase Sale’s average innings per start (6.7 to 7.1), but it also came with inflated peripherals (FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and hard-contact rate all got worse). Additionally, he elected to not throw as hard, dropping his fastball velocity from 95.6 mph to 93.6 mph, with the belief that less stress per pitch would help him stay on the field longer.

Sale reversed his philosophy once more this offseason as he traveled to Boston, bumping his 25.7 percent strikeout rate to a massive 36.5 percent clip this year – the highest of his career; he’s on pace to blow past 300 strikeouts for the season.

The first significant adjustment that Sale has made is with his fastballs. He’s throwing fewer heaters this year, dropping its usage rate from 60.9 percent in 2016 to just 50.1 percent in 2017. But the fastballs he has thrown have been much improved. His velocity’s jumped back up to 94.9 mph, but more importantly he’s tweaked the pitch’s location.

Chris Sale 2016 fastball heat map:

chris-sale-2016-fastball-heat-map.png

Chris Sale 2017 fastball heat map: 

chris-sale-2017-fastball-heat-map.png

Check out that 2016 fastball heat map, and note the number of pitches located in the middle or bottom half of the strike zone. Then compare that image to Sale’s 2017 fastball heat map, above. You’ll notice that this season Sale has dramatically raised the location of his four-seamer, focusing on the top half of the zone. He’s changing the eye-level of batters, who already fear his elite slider, a pitch that is normally located low in the zone. The numbers have backed up Sale’s change of approach, as he’s set career best rates for his four-seamer in swings out of the zone (36.9 percent), swing-and-miss rate (14.5 percent), and contact rate (75 percent). Better yet, Sale is allowing just a .167 batting average with his four-seamer, miles better than his .230 career mark, and his previous career low of .208 from 2014.

But let’s talk about that elite slider. This pitch has been Sale’s signature offering for years, registering a marvelous 49.2 percent strikeout rate across his career. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick look at the pitch in action from his start against the Rays on Monday:

It’s an incredible pitch, featuring the most vertical drop of any slider in the majors. This isn’t new to 2017, but what is new is how often he turns to the pitch. We talked about starters featuring their best pitches more often in the context of Corey Kluber in July, and Sale is no different. The Red Sox ace is throwing it 32.2 percent of the time in 2017, marking the highest usage rate for Sale’s slider since 2011, when he was solely a reliever for the
Chicago White Sox
. In the last four seasons, that number sat at 18.4 percent, 19.7 percent, and 25 percent — a dramatic difference from 2017’s frequency.  

There’s more. As Sale throws the pitch more often, he’s getting better results. Its 16.4 percent whiff rate is the highest of his career. He’s increased the pitch’s zone rate to nearly 45 percent, allowing him to confidently get more strikes early in at-bats while batters. In the meantime, batters are still chasing the pitch out of the zone about 40 percent of the time, often with two strikes. Hitters’ contact rate on the pitch is a tiny 61.3 percent — another career best for Sale. Overall, they’re hitting just .161 against Sale’s slide-piece this season.

With the adjustments to his four-seamer and new slider mix, Chris Sale has made himself the best pitcher in the American League and the clear front-runner for the Cy Young award. It’s his race to lose.

10. Burning Question of the Week

I was sure the answer to this would be, “never.” Turns out, not so much! In 2010, the
San Francisco Giants
knocked off the Rangers in five games to win the World Series. Spearheading the Giants’ attack was a terrific two-way catcher named
Buster Posey
. Locking down the Texas bullpen was a flame-throwing right-handed closer named
Neftali Feliz
.

Both won their leagues’ Rookie of the Year awards that year. #TheMoreYouKnow