Baseball’s most unusual season is halfway over

By Tyler Kepner

The logo of the 2020 All-Star Game looms over the action at Dodger Stadium from a billboard above the right-field pavilion. The game was supposed to be held last month in Los Angeles, for the first time in 40 years, but the coronavirus pandemic canceled it.

The Dodgers will get their turn in two years, after Atlanta next summer. In the meantime, they are playing like All-Stars almost every day. The Dodgers were one of four teams to reach the halfway point of this 60-game season Sunday, doing so with the majors’ best record, at 22-8.

The problem for the Dodgers, who are seeking their first championship since 1988, could be the expanded playoff format. In an effort to maximize postseason revenue, Major League Baseball will welcome 16 teams to the playoffs this year, up from 10, eliminating the wild-card games in favor of eight best-of-three series.

An extra playoff series, especially one so brief, adds another impediment to every team’s title hopes. The eight that survive the new round will then play the traditional division series, championship series and World Series — possibly at a so-called bubble venue, to limit travel and reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

In the regular season, the most radical changes to the sport have been timesaving measures that will not be used in October: a seven-inning format for games played as part of doubleheaders and a runner on second base at the start of all extra innings. Both had been used in the minors.

“The one that people have been surprisingly positive about is the extra-innings rule,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said recently. “I’ve been quoted as saying I didn’t think it was going to be used in the big leagues. But I think people have really liked it. It’s exciting; that’s a good thing. Whether it becomes permanent or not, that remains to be seen.”

He added: “The one thing I want to be clear on: All these changes were health-driven. Every single one of them we made for one reason only. We weren’t looking to experiment, we weren’t looking to get something in the back door. We did them because our health experts said they were a good idea to do.”

New rules mean new wrinkles for keepers of MLB records. A pitcher will not be credited with an official no-hitter or a perfect game if it comes in a seven-inning game; those achievements must last at least nine innings.

But the phantom runner on second base raises the fascinating possibility of a pitcher throwing a perfect game but still allowing a run. Here’s the situation: A pitcher works nine perfect innings of a scoreless game, then starts the 10th with a runner on second. A ground ball moves the runner to third, a sacrifice fly scores him, the next batter makes an out.

In that case, the pitcher retired all 30 hitters he faced but would still be charged with an unearned run and, possibly, a loss. But he would also get credit for a perfect game.

“Yes, because the perfect game definition is ‘no batters reach safely,’ and that player did not reach safely as a batter,” said John Labombarda, senior editor and baseball researcher for the Elias Sports Bureau. “But when I was first asked this question, my reaction was: What are the chances that this is going to happen? In baseball history, there’s been only two pitchers to take a perfect game into the 10th inning. The likelihood of it happening is so slim.”

In each of those instances, the pitcher lost his perfect game in extra innings: Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix in the 13th inning in Milwaukee in 1959 and Montreal’s Pedro Martínez in the 10th inning in San Diego in 1995.

Seattle’s Félix Hernández threw the majors’ last perfect game, on Aug. 15, 2012, against the Tampa Bay Rays. This is now the longest stretch in the majors without a perfect game since the 13-year gap between Catfish Hunter’s for Oakland in 1968 and Len Barker’s for Cleveland in 1981.

Here are a few more interesting tidbits from the first half of a most unusual season:

Debuts for Tigers Prospects

Two top pitching prospects for the Detroit Tigers, Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, made their major league debuts on consecutive nights last week against the Chicago White Sox. Detroit took both pitchers in the 2018 draft, 254 picks apart. Mize, a right-hander from Auburn, was chosen first overall, and Skubal, a lefty from Seattle University, was taken in the ninth round.

Mize became the first No. 1 overall pick in more than five years to debut for the team that drafted him. The last was Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, who went first overall in 2012 and arrived with the Astros three years later. Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first pick in 2015, was traded from Arizona to Atlanta before he reached the majors.

Mize was the 18th pitcher chosen first overall in the draft, which began in 1965. Only six have reached 100 victories in the majors: Mike Moore, Andy Benes, David Price, Tim Belcher, Floyd Bannister and Stephen Strasburg. Another, the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole — the first overall pick in 2011, by Pittsburgh — has 98 career wins.

Were Two-Way Players a Fad?

Jake Cronenworth, a rookie, belted the San Diego Padres’ fifth grand slam in six games Saturday. He has become a valuable and versatile contributor, with starts at second base, shortstop and first base — but no appearances on the mound.

Cronenworth was a two-way player at the University of Michigan and pitched in seven Class AAA games last year for the Tampa Bay Rays organization, which traded him and Tommy Pham in December. He also threw bullpen sessions for the Padres this spring. But as enticing as the idea of a two-way player has been in baseball lately, the concept has been tough to pull off.

Two of the top four picks in the 2017 draft — the Cincinnati Reds’ Hunter Greene and the Rays’ Brendan McKay — were selected as two-way players. But McKay appeared as a hitter only four times last season (once as a designated hitter, three times off the bench) and will miss the 2020 season after shoulder surgery. Greene had 30 at-bats in rookie league, then focused on pitching and had Tommy John surgery in 2018.

The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani also had the procedure that year, and he has pitched only twice since. Ohtani was shut down with a forearm strain after two starts this summer and was hitting just .181 as the designated hitter in 83 at-bats through Sunday. Without him, the Angels have continued their recent tradition of ineffective starting pitching; their starters’ ERA was 5.96 through Saturday, worse than every team but the Tigers.

No. 93 Comes Off the Hanger

When reliever Pat Neshek signed with the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2018 season, he chose No. 93. Neshek, a student of baseball history, had searched the uniform number database at Baseball Reference to find a number that would be unique in the annals of the game.

“People were like, ‘Why?’” Neshek said. “Nobody had it before — pretty simple explanation.”

Another reliever, Adam Cimber, became the first to wear No. 90 that season, first for San Diego and then for Cleveland. After Neshek took 93, only four numbers were still unused: 80, 86, 89 and 92.

No. 80 came off the board last year, when pitcher Ryan Eades wore it for Minnesota. Two more numbers fell this month, with St. Louis reliever Genesis Cabrera donning No. 92 on Aug. 15 and another Cardinals reliever, Jesús Cruz, using No. 86 three days later.

Now, the final frontier has arrived: No. 89, issued to New York Yankees pitcher Miguel Yajure, who was promoted to the majors last week. Yajure, a 22-year-old right-hander from Venezuela, is awaiting his quirkily groundbreaking debut.

Ray Chapman’s Other Distinction

Last Monday was the 100th anniversary of the death of Ray Chapman, the only major league player to be killed by a pitched ball. Chapman, the Cleveland Indians’ shortstop, was struck in the head by the Yankees’ Carl Mays at the Polo Grounds the day before. Mays, a submariner, had noticed Chapman moving his back foot, perhaps to bunt, as he delivered the fatal fastball up and in.

Chapman holds a lesser known distinction in baseball: He remains the single-season leader in sacrifice bunts, with 67 in 1917, a record that may stand forever. Without pitchers batting this season, teams were averaging 0.07 sacrifices per game through Saturday, the lowest percentage ever. Nine teams have zero sacrifice bunts all season.

Reds Pitcher Likes the ‘Higher Stakes’

Before opening day last month, the Reds’ Trevor Bauer pointed out that every start would feel more like a series than a single game. One game in a 60-game season is the equivalent of 2.7 games in the usual 162-game schedule.

“Higher stakes,” he wrote in a text message. “My favorite.”

It sure seems that way. Through the weekend, Bauer was 3-0 with a major-league-best 0.68 ERA in four starts, including two seven-inning shutouts. He also led the majors in walks plus hits per inning pitched (0.57) and fewest hits per nine innings (2.7).

Bauer could become the first Cincinnati pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, which has been given out since 1956. Every other franchise that was active then has had at least two winners.

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