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World Series 2021 – What’s next for Astros-Braves? Answering the key questions after two games

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The 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros is knotted at a game apiece as it heads to Atlanta for Friday’s Game 3.

What have we learned so far in the Series? What can we expect next? Has anything we’ve seen made us rethink our initial Fall Classic predictions?

We asked ESPN baseball experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to answer some of the key questions.


What has surprised you most about this World Series through the first two games?

Doolittle: Charlie Morton‘s Bob Gibson imitation was pretty surprising. There’s not been a lot of stuff that you’d consider totally off-script. The Astros have expanded the zone more than they usually do. Their chase rate over two games (39.1%) is way higher than their regular-season average and is way over the worst figure for any team during the regular season (Marlins, 31.0%). It’s only two games, but it’s worth watching, especially since it’s not just Jose Siri‘s start driving up the number. Alex Bregman has a 50% chase rate and is still looking for his first hit, and Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve and Chase McCormick are also at 50% or higher. Nevertheless, a betting man would put his money on this not continuing.

Olney: Alex Bregman has always been one of the most confident players in baseball — for example, his self-confidence has been so strong that he wears No. 2 because he thought he should’ve been the No. 1 overall pick over Dansby Swanson. But he seems completely lost at the plate, feeling for the ball. That Teflon confidence is dented.

Rogers: I’m going to add more than just the first two games to this discussion as I’ve covered the Astros the whole postseason. They’ve played exactly one game decided by one run out of their 12 playoff games this month. Just one. And even that one got close with a ninth-inning home run. In fact every other game they’ve played — win or lose — has been decided by four or more runs. The first two games of this Series haven’t been compelling, and that’s been a trend all postseason for Houston.

How much of a blow was the Braves losing their ace, Charlie Morton?

Olney: I asked Astros manager Dusty Baker that question before Game 2, and he was pretty direct. “Big,” Dusty said. “That’s like us losing Lance McCullers.” He’s right. Morton would’ve started Game 5 and perhaps worked in relief in Game 7, if necessary. Now the Braves will spend the next few days trying to figure out how to cover those innings. Atlanta’s rotation was a theoretical strength over the Astros, but that edge may be gone unless a hero emerges.

Rogers: It will be felt late in the Series. He was money in the bank for a late start or relief appearance, while Braves skipper Brian Snitker admitted they may have to piece two games together using their bullpen. It’s why Max Fried going just five innings in Game 2 was a topic of conversation afterward. He ate up some innings after getting hit around a bit. They’ll need every arm possible for Games 4 and 5. But the biggest blow will simply be missing Morton’s start when it comes up in the rotation again. He’s a big-game pitcher.

Schoenfield: It’s the ripple effect, beyond just the loss of not having Morton for Game 5. The Braves had to use their top four relievers to secure Game 1 and at the minimum, A.J. Minter was probably unavailable for Game 2. It didn’t matter in the end, since the Braves never got back in the game, but thinking ahead let’s see what happens in Games 3-4-5. Not only what the Braves will do in Game 5, but does Snitker manage his staff any differently in Games 3 and 4, knowing he’ll need a lot of bullpen innings in Game 5 without Morton?

Which player is going to be the biggest difference-maker going forward?

Doolittle: It’s a hard thing to predict, but let’s go with Carlos Correa. Game 3 will be pivotal and with Ian Anderson going for Atlanta, Correa’s penchant for mashing changeups might come in pretty handy. He’s got a .930 OPS against changeups for his career and 1.066 this season. If the Astros get some traffic on the bases for him, Correa might be poised to cash in.

Olney: Framber Valdez. He turned the American League Championship Series with his Game 5 dominance of the Boston Red Sox, and the Astros need him to do that again. He’ll be pivotal in this Series.

Schoenfield: We mentioned Bregman above, so let’s go with his third-base counterpart, Austin Riley, who is hitting a lukewarm .245/.288/.429 in the postseason with 19 strikeouts and just three walks. That’s a 36.5% strikeout rate — way up from his 25.4% rate in the regular season. In other words, he looks a lot more like 2019-20 Riley than the guy who will finish in the top 10 of MVP voting this year. He may not be the biggest difference-maker, but the Braves will need him to make more of an impact.

What is the storyline you’ll be following most closely as the Series shifts to Atlanta’s Truist Park?

Olney: I’m fascinated by what choices the Braves make with their rotation going forward — and the possible (even likely) role that Kyle Wright must play. Nobody has ever doubted his talent, but as Snitker said the other day, he hasn’t had a lot of innings in the minors, so when he’s gotten opportunities in the majors, he’s struggled — most notably that playoff game against the Dodgers last year when he didn’t get out of the first inning and L.A. put up an 11-spot in the frame. He was added to the Braves’ roster for the World Series, just in case, and welp, that moment may have arrived with Morton’s injury. That’s why Snitker got him an inning of work in Game 2 — and he looked exceptional. Will that foster enough confidence for the Braves to give him another shot on the big stage? Will they bet on his talent and the 137 good innings he had in Triple-A this year? They need him.

Rogers: The weather. I know it’s cliche but Houston hasn’t dealt with much adversity this season in that department, though they did hit in some cooler temperatures in the ALCS. Games 3 and 4 could be cold and wet, as it’s expected to be in the high 40s or low 50s with rain. Perhaps it shows up on defense, where Yordan Alvarez will be wearing a glove for the first time in a long time. The elements should be a factor in Atlanta.

Schoenfield: I’m curious to see what the Astros do with their outfield defense without the DH. Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have been the team’s best hitters in the postseason and Michael Brantley is hitting .352. If Baker wants to get all three bats in the lineup, that means moving Tucker to center field, where he’s played just 28 innings all season. Defense matters, but it’s also hard to sit Brantley or Alvarez. I’d go with defense and play Chas McCormick in center and Alvarez in left, saving Brantley to hit for the pitcher, catcher Martin Maldonado or McCormick if it’s a key situation.

With the Series tied at 1, what does each team need to do to win three more games?

Doolittle: Mash. The pitching puzzle for both teams is complicated and it’s going to be a race between the collective fatigue of both staffs and the final out of the Series. Both of these offenses should be able to feast on tired pitching when they encounter it, so the team that puts up the most rallies like the Braves’ first three innings in Game 1 or the Astros’ second inning in Game 2 is going to win.

Rogers: Houston just has to pitch a little. The Astros’ offense doesn’t go dormant for very long, so as long as they don’t get multiple really bad starts, they’ll be all right. Atlanta needs a surprise performance or two. That probably means on the mound but it could be at the plate, where they may get down in a game but eventually outscore the Astros when everyone least expects it. If the Braves win the Series it will be by some unpredictable means. They’ve done as much so far in the postseason. See Eddie Rosario for evidence.

Schoenfield: Beat the other team’s starter. Both bullpens are looking really tough right now. We love our late-inning World Series drama, but I don’t know if we’re going to see any late-game lead changes. (OK, I don’t completely trust Will Smith. He’s due to give up a high-leverage home run.)

Doolittle: I had the Astros in seven. With a split in Houston, the biggest thing that has changed is that the Braves have lost one of their big three pitchers. I don’t see why I’d want to change course now, even if for the time being Atlanta has seized the home-field advantage.

Olney: I picked the Braves in six games and I’ll stick with that — but without much confidence. These are two really closely matched teams right now, I have no idea what’s going to happen. And it’s awesome.

Rogers: I took Houston in six. Like the ALCS, they will win two of three on the road and win it back at home. Atlanta losing Morton only helps that prediction. Nothing I’ve seen so far has changed my mind about the outcome.

Schoenfield: I’ll stick with the Astros. Morton’s injury is huge and it just feels like all those right-handed relievers in the Houston bullpen can shut down the back half of the Atlanta lineup, especially with Riley scuffling. If we see the same Luis Garcia in Game 3 that we saw in Game 6 of the ALCS, we may not even make it back to Houston.

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What to know about 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame vote

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The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of the Baseball Writers Association of America voting Tuesday, and it’s a winter tradition that has become as much fun as shoveling wet, heavy snow that sits atop a layer of super-slick ice. Hall of Fame debates are no longer just about who was a better baseball player, but weighing whose transgressions voters are willing to look past and whose they won’t.

Last year, 401 members of the BBWAA participated in the voting, meaning players needed 301 votes (75%) to get elected. Despite a ballot that featured 10 players with at least 60 career WAR — a total that roughly makes a player a viable Hall of Fame candidate — the writers didn’t elect anybody, with Curt Schilling coming closest at 71.1% of the vote and leaving him 16 votes short of election.

Schilling, facing his final year of eligibility in 2022, then asked to be removed from the ballot. “I’ll defer to the veterans committee and men whose opinions actually matter and who are in a position to actually judge a player,” Schilling wrote on his Facebook page. The Hall of Fame’s board of directors voted unanimously to leave Schilling on the ballot. The response from the BBWAA? A player usually receives a final-year boost, but Schilling — no stranger to controversy, of course, even before his little pique of anger — has seen his support decline. Via Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker, we know Schilling’s percentage on public ballots (voters who reveal their selections before the results are announced) dropped to 59.6% (through 161 ballots revealed). He’s not getting in.

To be fair, it’s not like the writers are against electing anybody. Last year, the average ballot contained 5.86 names, despite 14 blank ballots. So far this year, the average ballot contains 7.63 names. They just can’t agree on which players are Hall of Famers.

That gets us to this year’s announcement. It’s the final time on the ballot for Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa — along with the first for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, the two newcomers with the strongest credentials. Some things to watch for heading into the 6 p.m. ET announcement:

1. Will Ortiz get elected?

It’s looking like … maybe? Ortiz is sitting at 83.6% of the public vote, with nearly 44% of ballots revealed. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock. The percentages for the pre-result ballots are always higher and steroid-associated players usually take an even bigger hit. Bonds, for example, received 73.7% of the pre-result public ballots last year, but just 42.6% of the private ballots. The question: Is Ortiz viewed as a steroid guy? That is a complicated answer. His name was leaked as part of the 2003 anonymous survey testing, but he never failed a test after that. Of course, neither did Bonds or Clemens. I don’t think Ortiz is viewed in the same light as those guys, in part because he didn’t break records, and in part because … well, everyone loves Big Papi.

In fact, this is where Schilling, warts and all, may have a legitimate gripe. He trounces Ortiz in career WAR, 79.5 to 55.3. Ortiz, of course, had his legendary moments in the playoffs — but so did Schilling, who has a 2.23 ERA over 133 career postseason innings including the World Series, which he won three times. On numbers alone, Schilling should be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer while Ortiz is a borderline case. The only first-ballot Hall of Famers with a lower career WAR than Ortiz are Lou Brock and Kirby Puckett.

While Ortiz might go for 1-for-1 on the ballot, Schilling will go 0-for-10. Is it really as simple as Ortiz is beloved while Schilling isn’t? That’s part of it — certainly it has been the past three or four years, when Schilling’s noxious social media behavior turned some voters off him. It has also been bad timing on Schilling’s part. He hit the ballot in 2013, a year that included nine players since elected to the Hall of Fame, along with Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. The voters were so confused, nobody made it. The next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas joined the list, making it even more crowded, and then Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz after that. The ballot was incredibly crowded for several years — remember, voters can vote for a maximum of only 10 players — and Schilling could never get the momentum going. Once he did, he torpedoed his own case.

There is something else in play here when comparing Schilling to Ortiz — or to a similar candidate like Smoltz. Bill James recently published a study that showed “one team” players fare much better in Hall of Fame voting than players who played for multiple teams. Ortiz played for the Twins, but nearly all his career value came with the Red Sox. He’s a “one team” player. Schilling spread his value among the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox. This has also perhaps hurt Gary Sheffield, who played for eight different teams and earned at least 5 WAR with five of them.

2. Will Bonds and Clemens make it?

They are polling at just over 75% — 77.2% for Bonds, 76% for Clemens. Again, based on past results, that means they will fall short as both take a hit in the nonpublic voting. A year ago, both were over 73% in the pre-result ballots, but would finish at 65%, so a similar 8% drop will leave them shy of election.

They will next be eligible for the Today’s Game era committee (as will Schilling), which considers players who made their mark from 1988 to the present and happens to be the next committee up in the cycle in December. It will be fascinating to see who makes it onto that 10-person ballot (which can also include managers, executives, umpires and owners) and how the 16-person committee will consider them. Given previous rejections of Mark McGwire on the Today’s Game ballot, Schilling may have a better chance at election than Bonds and Clemens.

3. How will Alex Rodriguez fare?

Rodriguez is at 40.9%, normally a strong starting point for a candidate. Of course, most candidates didn’t hit 696 home runs, drive in more than 2,000 runs or win three MVP awards — or admit to using PEDs or get suspended from the game for a season. Bonds and Clemens received just under 40% their first time on the ballot, so Rodriguez’s ultimate fate might end up tracking theirs. If Bonds and Clemens do get elected via the Today’s Game era committee, that might help Rodriguez.

play

4:03

Outside The Lines examines the Hall of Fame candidacy of Alex Rodriguez, and why it’s not likely he gets inducted his first time on the ballot.

4. How high will Scott Rolen and Todd Helton climb?

They are the best of the rest, with Rolen polling at 69% on his fifth ballot and Helton at 56% on his fourth. They won’t finish that high, but with Rolen already past the 50% threshold (he finished at 52.9% last year) and Helton perhaps going over it this year, their eventual election would seem guaranteed. With the recent selection of Gil Hodges by the Golden Days era committee, every player who received 50% of the vote from the BBWAA has eventually been elected. That might change with Schilling, Bonds and Clemens, but the path looks good for Rolen — perhaps as soon as next year, and then Helton maybe the year after that.

5. Andruw Jones vs. Omar Vizquel

Last year, Vizquel received 49% of the vote (finishing ahead of Helton) while Jones received 33%, both on their fourth ballot. Both have a Hall of Fame case that rests significantly on defensive prowess: Vizquel as an 11-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, Jones as a 10-time Gold Glove winner in center field. Vizquel played forever; Jones had his last good season at age 29. Vizquel had little power; Jones hit 434 home runs. Jones had a significant edge in career WAR, 62.7 to 45.6. Nonetheless, a year ago, voters favored Vizquel.

Turn the clock ahead 12 months and Vizquel’s Hall of Fame chances are dead. A report from The Athletic in December 2020 — at which time many voters had already submitted their 2021 ballots — revealed that Vizquel’s wife, Blanca, who was filing for divorce, alleged that he physically abused her in 2011 and had been booked for fourth-degree domestic violence assault in 2016. This past summer, a former bat boy for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox’s Double-A affiliate, filed a civil case alleging Vizquel had sexually harassed him when Vizquel managed the club in 2019 (Vizquel was dismissed at the time after an MLB investigation).

This has caused Vizquel’s support from the BBWAA to crater. He’s polling at just 11%, way down from the 41% he received from the pre-result public ballots a year ago. Note that Vizquel has always received much more support from the private ballots (69% last year) — a group that tends to be less analytically minded and thus not pay as much attention to his low career WAR total. Regardless, a large percentage of BBWAA voters have withdrawn support.

Jones also has a domestic violence arrest in his past, on Christmas Day in 2012. His then-wife told police the couple had an argument about cleaning the house after a Christmas party and Jones put his hands around her neck, saying, “I want to kill you, I want to [expletive] kill you.” Jones pleaded guilty and received probation.

Jones’ support has increased this year. He has received 48.5% of the public ballots, up from the 39% of the pre-result figure from 2021. Yes, you can argue that he is the stronger Hall of Fame candidate, but he is borderline no matter how much you loved his defense. Jones has strong support from the sabermetric crowd and also fits into the “one team” category, since all his good seasons came with the Braves. If Jones inches closer to that 50% mark, his chances for future election also look good.

6. Will Billy Wagner see an increase?

The two other players currently above 40% are Wagner and Sheffield. Wagner is on his seventh ballot after receiving 46.4% last year, while Sheffield is on his eighth ballot after receiving 40.6% a year ago. With Lee Smith getting elected a few years ago via the Today’s Game committee, Wagner is next in line among closer candidates. Wagner was more dominant than Smith — a 2.31 ERA and 187 ERA+ to Smith’s 3.03 and 132. Smith pitched more innings (1,289 to 903) and had more saves (478 to 422). Wagner has received a big increase the past two votes, from 16.7% to 31.7% to 46.4%. The early returns aren’t showing another similar jump, so perhaps his support is leveling off. Even if the BBWAA ultimately rejects him, however, he feels like a slam-dunk selection for a future Today’s Game committee.

In the end, it’s possible the BBWAA throws a second straight shutout, although my guess is Ortiz does make it on the first ballot. Bonds, Clemens and Schilling won’t be there alongside him. Pick your side of the line on whether you think they should.

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting

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The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball

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NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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