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The biggest surprises and disappointments of the 2019 MLB season

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Here’s the thing about picking some of the most notable surprises and disappointments of 2019: You have to adjust for the baseball. Is it a surprise that Jorge Soler has 45 home runs? Yes. Did he always have power potential? Yes. Did anybody predict 45 home runs from him? No, of course not; he hit nine last year. So, he could be No. 1 on this list if you want. I won’t throw up a block on that one.

Is it a surprise that Eugenio Suarez has 48 home runs? Well, he hit 34 last year in 143 games, so reaching 50 with the rocket ball isn’t that ridiculous. I mean, it is; nobody would have predicted Suarez would hit 50 home runs, and he might do it.

But you get the point. I don’t want this list to just be a list of surprising sluggers — although we’ll include a few.

To the list!

Surprise: Yankees power hitters

The Yankees are neck and neck with the Twins for the all-time home run record, which isn’t the big surprise since the Yankees just set the mark in 2018. The surprise, of course, is the source for so many of those home runs: Not Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton combining for 90 to 100 of them, but guys such as Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu and Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford. We knew Gleyber Torres was good, but I don’t think anybody believed 40 home runs was in his 2019 equation.

Put it this way: The Steamer preseason projections had a combined 41 home runs for those six guys. Instead, they’ve combined for 131, with LeMahieu and Gardner both shattering their previous highs. (They were projected for nine home runs each, and they have combined for 49.) The biggest surprise, however, has been Urshela, filling in at third base for the injured Miguel Andujar and hitting .325/.364/.550 with 20 home runs. It’s almost as if Brian Cashman did indeed make a pact with a certain Mr. Applegate.

Surprise: Mitch Garver

Speaking of those power-hitting Twins, they just became the first team with five 30-homer players in one season. In 335 plate appearances as a rookie in 2017, Mitch Garver hit seven home runs. In 338 plate appearances in 2019, he has bashed 30. He is slugging .636 with a 1.000 OPS. Only 12 catchers have batted at least 300 times and produced a 1.000 OPS. Garver’s power outburst has helped Twins catchers hit a combined 42 home runs — one shy of the single-season mark of 43 shared by the 1953 Dodgers (led by Roy Campanella), 1997 Dodgers and 1999 Mets (both led by Mike Piazza) and 2003 Braves (led by Javy Lopez).

Here’s the unpredictable nature of baseball: Garver was a teammate at the University of New Mexico of D.J. Peterson, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2013. The Twins drafted Garver in the ninth round that year. Peterson hit .185 at Triple-A for the White Sox this season, before getting released and ending the season with Sugar Land of the Atlantic League; and his less-heralded college teammate is having one of the great part-time seasons for a catcher in MLB history.

Disappointment: Phillies’ offense

The Phillies signed Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen and traded for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura, turning a mediocre offense into a … mediocre offense:

2018: Averaged 4.18 runs per game (National League average of 4.37)

2019: Averaging 4.86 runs per game (NL average of 4.80)

OK, they’ve gone from slightly below average to slightly above average. That hasn’t been enough to push the Phillies into the postseason for the first time since 2011, as the rotation has been inconsistent and the bullpen faced an unending string of injuries. There are 55 qualified regulars with a .500 slugging percentage in 2019 — none of them plays for the Phillies.

Disappointment: Red Sox

The defending champs began the season with an 11-game road trip to Seattle, Oakland and Arizona and went 3-8 — a stretch in which the rotation posted an 8.57 ERA. In a sense, the Red Sox never recovered from that opening trip, never found their 2018 mojo. In fact, when they lost their home opener to fall to 3-9, it put them six games out of first place. The closest they got to first after that was three games for one day on May 12.

The major culprit was the starting rotation. Rick Porcello (5.77 ERA) never got it going. Chris Sale, signed to a big extension in spring training, racked up big strikeouts but had a 4.40 ERA before his season ended with a an elbow injury. David Price (wrist, elbow) has pitched just 107 innings, and Nathan Eovaldi, re-signed as a free agent, has pitched just 56 with an elbow issue. It all cost Dave Dombrowski, head of baseball operations, his job.

Surprise: Most improved White Sox

You can make the case that the most improved position player in the league is White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and the most improved pitcher is White Sox starter Lucas Giolito. Anderson entered the season with a .258 career average in more than 1,500 career plate appearances, and now he is hitting .335 to lead the American League. If he does win the batting crown, it would be the lowest career average entering the season for a batting title winner (from Elias):

Tim Anderson, 2019: .2576
Gary Sheffield, 1992: .2585
Terry Pendleton, 1991: .2586

Giolito, meanwhile, was so bad in 2018 — 6.13 ERA and an AL-worst 90 walks in 173⅓ innings — that you wondered if he had the stuff to pitch in a big league rotation. He got stronger, ditched his two-seamer, started throwing harder and pounding the strike zone, and in just three more innings than in 2018 struck out 103 more batters and lowered his ERA to 3.41. (His season is over with a mild lat strain.)

Which player is more likely to hold his gains in 2020? I’d bet on Giolito. Anderson still has one of the worst strikeout-to-walk ratios in the league at 102 to 12. His average exit velocity, while up from last season, is still below average, and Anderson’s Statcast metrics suggest a predicted average of .291. That’s still a big improvement from .258, however, so along with Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez, the White Sox are building a young foundation.

Surprise: Sonny Gray, back from the dead

OK, Gray wasn’t exactly dead, but after posting a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium in 2018 (admittedly, he was much better on the road), he was run out of the Big Apple for the gentler pastures of Cincinnati. All he has done is go 11-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 170⅓ innings. Check out his NL rankings:

ERA: 4th
Innings: 16th
Strikeout rate: 8th
BA allowed: 1st
wOBA allowed: 3rd
bWAR: 4th
fWAR: 7th

He could finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting. No doubt being reunited with Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson — his pitching coach at Vanderbilt — helped Gray rediscover his form. In March, he blamed his stint in New York on the Yankees wanting him to throw more sliders, a pitch he said he had poor control over. The only trouble with that assessment is Gray has thrown a higher percentage of sliders in 2019 than he did in 2018. Whatever the fix, it has worked, and the four-year extension he signed after the trade looks like a bargain for the Reds.

Disappointment: Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano

Speaking of New York … maybe Edwin Diaz would prefer the gentler pastures of Seattle again after his nightmare 2019. After recording 57 saves and averaging 15.2 K’s per nine innings with the Mariners, Diaz has averaged 15.2 K’s per nine with Mets. Which only goes to prove there is a lot more to successful pitching than strikeouts. Out of 309 relievers with at least 20 innings, Diaz ranks 306th in win probability added.

Cano has played better in the second half, but his .262/.309/.436 line is the worst of his career — and that’s without adjusting for the increased offense across the league. His WAR: 0.3. He has barely been a replacement-level second baseman. This trade will sting even more down the road when Jarred Kelenic wins the 2024 MVP award for the Mariners.

Surprise: Ketel Marte

Man, this guy has won a lot of fantasy leagues for folks this year. His transformation from a slap-hitting, speedy shortstop to a power-hitting center fielder/second baseman went to a new level, as he has hit .329/.389/.592 with 32 home runs. Here’s a question: Who’s better over the next five years: Marte or Manny Machado?

Disappointment: Kyle Freeland

I don’t know if there’s a way to study which type of pitchers have been most harmed by the juicy ball, but I would suggest a left-hander without a big strikeout rate who pitches at Coors Field might be the answer. Regression would have been expected after Freeland’s stellar 2018 campaign, but I was buying him heading into the season. Instead, he went 3-11 with a 6.98 ERA and 25 home runs allowed in 99⅓ innings. Freeland, German Marquez and Tyler Anderson combined for 16.1 bWAR in 2018. This year, just 2.0 WAR.

Surprise: Yordan Alvarez

Among this year’s rookie sluggers, I might classify Alvarez as a bigger surprise than Pete Alonso. Put it this way: Alonso hit 36 home runs in 132 games in the minors last year. Factor in the major league rabbit ball and it’s not outrageous (in retrospect) to think he could hit 40 home runs. He has done better than that — he is up to 49 — but the big power numbers aren’t a big surprise. In Alvarez’s case, we knew about the raw power, but it’s his all-around hitting ability that has been off-the-charts impressive. He is hitting .318/.419/.671 with 26 homers in 79 games. Alvarez is insanely talented, doesn’t strike out as much as Alonso and has best-hitter-in-the-game potential.

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St. Louis Cardinals set postseason record with 10 runs in first inning

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ATLANTA — Fans were barely in their seats for the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series before the St. Louis Cardinals made history, becoming the first team to score 10 runs in the first inning of a postseason game

The double-digit output against the Braves is also a record for the most runs scored in an inning in a division series or in any winner-take-all game, and it equals the most runs scored in any inning in any playoff game.

Of the four times that teams have scored 10 runs in a postseason inning, the Cardinals are the first to do so without hitting any home runs.

Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz lasted just one-third of an inning before being pulled with the bases loaded and the home team already trailing 4-0.

Reliever Max Fried didn’t fare much better, walking Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty to make it 5-0 before allowing a pair of two-run doubles to Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong.

When it looked like the Braves finally had the third out on Marcell Ozuna‘s strikeout, the ball got away from catcher Brian McCann, who fell down trying to retrieve it, allowing Ozuna to reach and the 10th run to come home.

The Braves missed a chance to get out of the inning after allowing just one run, but Freddie Freeman could not field a hard-hit ball that the first baseman could have turned into an inning-ending double play.

Foltynewicz was charged with seven runs on three hits and three walks, after he did not allow a run on three hits over seven innings in Game 2.

The Cardinals had just five hits in the inning, marking the first time a team scored at least 10 runs with five or fewer hits since June 2011. It’s the second time this season a team scored 10 runs without hitting a homer, after the Marlins scored 11 against the Brewers in June.

To save their season, the Braves will have to break a 90-year-old record for the largest postseason comeback. In Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, the A’s trailed the Cubs 8-0 heading to the bottom of the seventh before plating 10 runs in the inning to take the lead for good.

But St. Louis didn’t let up, plating three more runs to set another postseason record for the most runs through three innings.

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St. Louis Cardinals tie playoff record with 10 runs in first

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ATLANTA — Fans were barely in their seats for the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series before the St. Louis Cardinals made history, becoming the first team to score 10 runs in the first inning of a postseason game

The double-digit output against the Braves is also a record for the most runs scored in an inning in a division series or in any winner-take-all game, and it equals the most runs scored in any inning in any playoff game.

Of the four times that teams have scored 10 runs in a postseason inning, the Cardinals are the first to do so without hitting any home runs.

Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz lasted just one-third of an inning while giving up seven runs on three hits and three walks, after he did not allow a run on three hits over seven innings in Game 2.

Reliever Max Fried didn’t fare much better, being charged the final three runs of the inning on two hits and a walk.

Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman each had two RBI apiece while starting pitcher Jack Flaherty drew a bases loaded walk after the Braves gave an intentional pass to No. 8 hitter Paul DeJong.

The Braves had a chance to get out of the inning after allowing just one run, but Freddie Freeman could not field a hard-hit ball that the first baseman could have turned into an inning-ending double play.

When it looked like the Braves finally had the third out on Marcell Ozuna‘s strikeout, the ball got away from catcher Brian McCann, who fell down trying to retrieve it, allowing Ozuna to reach and the 10th run to come home.

The Cardinals had just five hits in the inning marking the first time a team scored at least 10 runs with five or fewer hits since June, 2011. It’s the second time this season a team scored 10 runs without hitting a home run.

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Atlanta Braves to reduce Tomahawk Chop in Game 5

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The Atlanta Braves announced they will not distribute foam tomahawks to each seat Wednesday for Game 5 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The decision is part of an effort by the Braves to “reduce the Tomahawk Chop” during Wednesday’s game, a response to recent concerns voiced by Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley.

Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Friday that he believes the Tomahawk Chop is “disrespectful” and “devalues” perceptions of Native Americans.

“Out of respect for the concerns expressed by Mr. Helsley, we will take several efforts to reduce the Tomahawk Chop during our in-ballpark presentation today,” the Braves said in a statement.

The Braves also announced they will not play the accompanying music to the chant or use any “Chop-related graphics” on their scoreboard when Helsley is in the game.

“As stated earlier, we will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the overall in-game experience,” the team’s statement said. “We look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after the postseason continues.”

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