Manny Machado leads youth brigade headed for All-Star Game
Saturday won't be a day soon forgotten for Manny Machado. Even though the Orioles lost, he hit his major league-leading 39th double (in his 88th game) and had reason for two celebrations: his 21st birthday and his first selection to the All-Star Game. "It's been a great 24 hours," he said Sunday.
That his first All-Star selection came on his birthday was a necessary reminder of how young Machado is, given his uncommon poise and production on the field. He's shown an advanced approach at the plate, resulting in 34 multi-hit games and a pace for 71 doubles, which would break Earl Webb's record of 67 from 1931. And, despite never playing third base before last year, he's played stellar defense. On Sunday, for instance, he ranged halfway from the foul line to the third-base dugout before making a spectacular throw to first base for the out.
Only eight players aged 21 or younger have appeared in a big league game this season, and four of them -- Machado, Angels leftfielder Mike Trout, Nationals rightfielder Bryce Harper and Marlins righthanded starter Jose Fernandez -- are All-Stars this season, another clear example of baseball's youth movement.
Never before have four players so young participated in the same All-Star Game. In fact, there have never even been three such players in the same game. (In 1959 there were three under-21 All-Stars -- Orlando Cepeda, Jerry Walker and Vada Pinson -- but back then there were two All-Star Games, and they didn't all play the same game.)
"There's a lot of young talent coming up and faring well this year in professional baseball," Machado said, adding that he feels honored to be part of it. "It's the new generation of baseball."
This year's quartet of under-21s aren't the only players in their first quarter-century either. Diamondbacks lefthanded starter Patrick Corbin and Brewers shortstop Jean Segura are both 23 years old; Mets righthanded starter Matt Harvey and White Sox lefthanded starter Chris Sale are both 24. Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown and Pirates lefthanded starter Jeff Locke are 25.
Furthermore, six of the first 13 picks in the 2010 draft have reached the majors and four are All-Stars: Harper (No. 1), Machado (No. 3), Harvey (No. 7) and Sale (No. 13).
"Back in the day, when I was growing up watching baseball, usually the All-Star Game was especially heavily centered around more of the veterans," said Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, one of the few to know what it's like to be a big leaguer at age 20. "Now with more of the social media and stuff, people want to see their favorite players.
"The fans control the vote, but the players go out there and control how the fans vote [with their play]."
There's no doubt that the prevalence of social media has made it easier for organized online voting campaigns, but there are also simply more really young players who are truly impactful than there has been in a generation or two -- all of which will tidily consolidated in one night at Citi Field next week.
• Oakland is reportedly promoting infield prospect Grant Green today. The 2009 first-round pick is hitting .318/.374/.500 in Triple-A this year and could be a cost-effective impact acquisition for a club lacking the payroll to add talent from outside the organization.
• Manny Ramirez singled in his first at bat with the Rangers' Triple A affiliate and finished the night 1-for-3 with a walk. At 41 years old with two career PED suspensions and just five big league games played over the last two seasons, Ramirez is a longshot to make an impact in Texas, but signing him to a minor league deal was certainly a low-risk move for the organization.
• Rockies rightfielder Michael Cuddyer's 27-game hitting streak was not only almost twice as long as his previous career high (15, three years ago), but it was seven games longer than that of any other major leaguer this season and tied for the third-longest streak since the dawn of the current pitching-dominated era in 2010. With strikeouts up and batting averages down, sustaining hitting streaks will only get harder.
Here are three big snubs to this year's All-Star Game, and three of the flimsiest selections.
1. Josh Donaldson, Athletics, 3B
Donaldson just keeps on hitting, with a .319/.388/.536 slash line, 23 doubles and 15 homers. Making that production even more impressive is that he calls O.co. Coliseum home -- as a result, his adjusted OPS+ of 156 ranks fifth in the AL.
2. Mike Minor, Braves, SP
The Braves, in general, were snubbed with only one selection (closer Craig Kimbrel) despite leading the NL East. First baseman Freddie Freeman is a longshot entry to make the club via the Final Vote given that Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig is on the ballot, and Minor is as deserving as anyone on the Braves' roster anyway. Minor leads the talented Atlanta rotation with a 3.15 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and his 2.71 ERA since the 2012 All-Star Game ranks sixth in the majors during that time.
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals, SP
Given the voluminous hype that has surrounded his career, it's hard to fathom that Strasburg could ever be underappreciated, but that's what has happened in light of his 4-6 win-loss record and his sluggish April. Strasburg has shrugged that aside and now has a 2.24 ERA, which translates into a 169 adjusted ERA+ -- third best in the majors.
1. Justin Masterson, Indians, SP
Masterson has been vitally important to Cleveland's success this season, but even as his team's best pitcher, his numbers don't quite stack up against league peers. Masterson has a 3.78 ERA that ranks 19th among AL starting pitchers and his ERA+ of 102 ranks 23rd.
2. Torii Hunter, Tigers, OF
There's no doubting that Hunter is playing well (.309 average) and that the AL outfield class is weak, but his lack of power (6 HRs, .443 slugging) hurts his credentials, as does his defense: though previously a deserving annual Gold Glove winner, Hunter is rated as below-average by both FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating and the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus.
3. Ben Zobrist, Rays, 2B/RF
This is not entirely a condemnation of Zobrist, so much as it is a comment about a selection of the wrong Rays position player. While Zobrist has been perpetually underrated for most of his career, he is having a down year by his standards (.724 OPS, 1.9 fWAR), whereas Evan Longoria is having a spectacular season (.891 OPS, 4.3 fWAR). Zobrist's inclusion, however, at least gives AL manager Jim Leyland a valuable utility player.
Even though the duration of the average start has remained relatively unchanged from last year -- 5.90 innings in 2013 as opposed to 5.89 in '12 -- major league starters are on pace for many fewer complete games this season. The league is currently on target for just 105 complete games this year, which, according to a STATS LLC search, would set a new record for fewest in the Modern Era, breaking last year's record of 112.
If this year's trend continues, then each of the last 25 seasons would rank among the bottom 25 seasons for complete games.
As a result, the percentage of starts that are a complete game are also and more drastically at a historic low; so far in 2013, that rate is 2.2 percent. As recently as 1992, it was 9.9 percent. The highest it has been in the last 74 seasons is 46.3 percent, a never-to-be-matched frequency established in 1945.
Hardy's locker in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium was mostly vacant before Sunday's game because the recent All-Star selection was in a back room watching the men's final at Wimbledon between eventual champion Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
"I've always been a Djokovic fan," Hardy said, noting his confident style of play.
It's little wonder that Hardy has a keen interest in the sport, as his father, Mark, is a former pro player and a current tennis pro in their hometown of Tucson, Ariz. Hardy played tennis through middle school -- "I didn't take it as serious as I wish I had," he said -- before focusing on baseball in high school. But he still watches a lot of tennis and even attended the last two U.S. Opens thanks to fortuitously timed road series in New York.
Nowadays, the Orioles take their table tennis pretty seriously -- the table in their home clubhouse is in regular use -- and no one is better than Hardy, who says he's lost only one game this season (a spring training defeat to pitcher Jason Hammel). The rigors of his day job, however, have made his title defense bouts more sporadic.
"Lately not so much," Hardy said, when asked how often he picks up a table tennis paddle. "I've been pretty exhausted from playing every single day. It's a workout for me when I play Ping-Pong -- it's not just fun. It's rallying. It's throwing my title on the line every time I go on the table."
Hardy said he'll probably play a lot more "real" tennis after retiring from baseball, so he doesn't risk any undue strain on his elbow or shoulder. But he and his older brother, Logan, did spend one offseason playing a lot of tennis about five years ago. The two hit with each other and often picked up doubles matches with pairs on neighboring courts, playing well enough that their vanquished opponents would ask where they played in college.
Humility came later that winter, however. While visiting their father, Mark Hardy gave them 30 minutes of pointers before challenging them to an unorthodox, 2-on-1 challenge match. Mark would defend the singles boundaries on his side of the court and get to serve, while J.J. and Logan would defend the doubles lines. Mark Hardy won all 10 points.
"We thought we were good, and then he did that to us," J.J. Hardy said. "We haven't really played since."
Don't be surprised when the Rays win 90 games for the fourth straight season. Despite a sluggish start -- they were under .500 on May 17 -- they are now 49-40 and have a proper offense to go with their annually outstanding pitching and defense (which should be improved further now that David Price is healthy). Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the AL in runs scored this year and is on pace for 764 runs; for perspective's sake, the Rays won 91 and 90 games, respectively, the last two seasons while scoring just 707 and 697 runs, ranking 8th and 11th in the AL.