Much is made of the ages of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to explain their downturns in performance. And, sure, that probably is part of it.
For example, one AL executive said there were indicators in the second half last year that Verlander’s stuff was beginning to go in the wrong direction — was it age that was leading to the swing-and-miss component of his fastball not being nearly as good as his career norms?
Still, the overall result in Verlander’s age-39 season was a 1.75 ERA and his third Cy Young Award. It was not like he was 7-14 with a 5.00 ERA.
Maybe the years are catching up to him now, but then consider these stats: 2-6, 5.08 ERA.
Those are the numbers for Sandy Alcantara, who was Verlander’s counterpart last season as the NL Cy Young winner. He was looking more and more like Verlander 2.0 — not just an ace, but also a big-innings horse. Yet Alcantara does not turn 28 until September, and his stats have fallen off the cliff this year, arguably even more so than Verlander’s.
Dylan Cease, who finished second to Verlander for AL Cy last year, has seen his ERA nearly double from 2022 (2.20) to this season (4.22). He is 27.
Alek Manoah, who was third in the AL Cy Young voting, was so bad this year (1-7, 6.36) that he was demoted to the Blue Jays’ minor league complex to rework his mechanics and settle his mind. He is just 25.
The second- and third-place finishers in the NL, 29-year-old Max Fried and 26-year-old Julio Urias, are both on the injured list. Fourth-place finisher Aaron Nola, 30, has a 4.38 ERA even after six shutout innings Thursday.
So, yep, age is a consideration. But if 30 heads of baseball operations were asked on Feb. 1 who they would want in their rotations in 2023 regardless of salary, Verlander and Scherzer almost certainly would have been in most, if not all, of the top 10s. So would Alcantara, Cease and Manoah.
Let’s take a deeper dive into last year’s NL Cy Young results, which saw 12 pitchers receive votes.
Carlos Rodon and Edwin Diaz have yet to pitch this season due to injury — and there is a decent chance Diaz does not make it to the mound this season, especially if the Mets fall completely out of the race.
Fried, Urias and Kyle Wright are in the midst of long IL stints.
Corbin Burnes’ ERA has risen 1.02 (from 2.94 to 3.96), Nola 1.13 (3.25 to 4.38), Yu Darvish 1.74 (3.10 to 4.84) and Alcantara 2.80 (2.28 to 5.08). Alcantara’s 2.80 differential between last year and this year is the fourth-largest among pitchers with at least 150 innings in 2022 and at least 50 so far in 2023. The fifth-largest? That would be Verlander at a 2.75 differential.
Cardinals closer Ryan Helsey gave up nine earned runs in 64 ⅔ innings last season. He has allowed nine in his first 25 innings this year while his strikeout rate has fallen from 39.3 to 32 percent.
The removal of all of these pitchers — in Rodon’s case, not just from action so far, but from the National League — has opened up the Cy Young field considerably; notably for the two pitchers who received votes last season who are having results in 2023 on par with 2022 — Arizona’s Zac Gallen and San Francisco’s Logan Webb.
So, for Awards Watch this week, the focus is on the NL Cy Young.
Gallen, Webb, the Cubs’ Marcus Stroman and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw are arguably the front-runners with Gallen’s teammate Merrill Kelly, Webb’s teammate Alex Cobb, Stroman’s teammate Justin Steele and the Braves’ Bryce Elder in pursuit. The peripherals for Zack Wheeler and his recent surge (one earned run in 19 ⅓ innings over his past three starts) foretells the Philadelphia righty also finding his way into this competition.
And while Edwin Diaz will not be in the running this season, his brother, Reds closer Alexis Diaz, led the NL in saves and in strikeout rate (44 percent). Second place in the NL is not particularly close — the 38.3 percent of Craig Kimbrel.
Whose career do you got?
In the offseason, the Mets covertly had conversations with teams about Starling Marte.
Mets people will depict it as standard business. That they listen on all of their players. You never know what you might hear. You never know when someone might offer $1.25 for $1. That it would be negligent not to know the values of your players around the sport. But there is a huge gap between shopping and information-gathering.
Two outside executives have portrayed to me that the Mets were a little more motivated than that, a little more aggressive, a little more open to concepts.
The initial way I heard this was that these conversations became more intense when it appeared as if the Mets would sign Carlos Correa. But I have yet to talk to a Mets executive who said Steve Cohen was pressuring the club to move money to add Correa.
Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and player availability often can be in the ear of the listener.
But the way that Marte is teetering toward not just a little decline from his age-33 to now his age-34 season makes me wonder if the Mets saw something concerning last year.
In 2022, Marte was an All-Star. He finished 19th for NL MVP. He generated 3.8 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference). That was the same as young Orioles star Cedric Mullins. His late-season injury absence resonated as the Mets’ offense grew more stagnant without its regular second-place hitter.
This season his WAR is 0.1. His OPS-plus has fallen from 133 to 81. His defense has taken several steps of regression. His average exit velocity and sprint speed have continued an annual decline over the past several seasons.
Marte still has 20 stolen bases in 23 tries this year, and June has been his best month of 2023 — though that still has yielded just a .696 OPS. He has two years at $39 million left for 2024-25.
In this week’s version of “Whose career do you got?” I searched for a speedy outfielder whose career began a swan-dive at about where Marte is now. I came up with Jacoby Ellsbury.
With the way it ended in New York for Ellsbury, it could get lost just what a catalytic player he was for the Red Sox. At his best in 2011, Ellsbury nearly won the MVP, finishing second. He only received MVP votes once more, finishing 15th in 2013 in his last Red Sox season. Ellsbury was a one-time All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner. Marte is a two-time All-Star and Gold Glover, and last year was the only year he received MVP votes.
Ellsbury had 5,375 plate appearances in his career, registering 104 homers, 343 steals, a slash line of .284/.342/.418 and 31.2 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference). Marte has 5,537 plate appearances with 145 homers, 334 steals, a slash line of .288/.344/.447 and 38.7 WAR.
Marte has an edge in the regular-season stats and is, of course, still playing — though at what quality?
But is some of the distance narrowed by Ellsbury being such a central figure on two championship Red Sox teams? Notably, he came up to the majors for good in Sept. 2007, and hit .438 with four doubles in the World Series sweep over the Rockies.
Roster stuff maybe only I noticed
Reliever Grant Hartwig is the first American undrafted free agent signed to his first pro contract by the Mets to play in the majors since T.J. Rivera, the Bronx product who played for the Mets in 2016-17.
Got my attention
Through games of June 10, Luis Arraez was hitting .402. The Miami second baseman then went 1-for-19 to drop to .378, and it felt like so many runs at the mythical .400 in my lifetime — a nice flirtation, but just too darn hard to achieve.
But then in the next three games, Arraez accumulated 11 hits, which included his second and third five-hit games of the season, to bring his average back to .400. However — accentuating how difficult the .400 level is to retain throughout a season — Arraez amassed three hits in the next two games … and his average fell to .398.
It made me look at five-hit games in a season. Arraez is the 20th player to do it exactly three times in a year. On that list are Hall of Famers such as Tris Speaker and Dave Winfield. But the last two players to do so before Arraez were journeymen types — Ender Inciarte in 2017 and Yunel Escobar in 2015.
Arraez, though, has more than half a season to produce one more five-hit game. If he does, he would join an august group of historically great hitters: Ty Cobb (1922), Stan Musial (1948), Tony Gwynn (1993) and Ichiro Suzuki (2004), all of whom share the single-season record of having done it four times.
I had another thought about Arraez: If he actually sustained a chase for .400, how much would America care?
Because Tony Gwynn’s chase for .400 never had a conclusion in 1994 due to a labor stoppage and cancellation of the end of the season, the last legit .400 pursuit was George Brett’s in 1980. He was hitting .400 as late as Sept. 19.
If Arraez is doing the same, will there be treatment akin to Aaron Judge chasing 61/62 homers last year with break-ins into each at-bat? More? Less?
I remember the national fervor in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were pursuing Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers. Did the steroid revelations kill the chance we ever will feel the same way about any MLB record pursuit again? Has baseball just dimmed so much further in the national consciousness?
Or is .400 and Ted Williams in 1941 still nostalgic and romantic and a round enough number to grab the country?
The passionate fan will care greatly. How about the casual fan? How about the bandwagon fan who wants to go on a fun ride? Judge is larger than life and plays for the most famous baseball team in the world. Arraez is not as big a human or name, and he plays for the Marlins.
I’m always amazed (and concerned) when I wander into a bar in my lower Manhattan neighborhood and the Mets and/or the Yankees are playing, and it is not on a single TV — and I am not talking about nights when there are, say, NBA playoff games.
This happened again this week, for example: four TVs, one off, three on the College World Series on ESPN, which I assume is just because ESPN is always on and no one thinks to change a channel. In an entire evening, not one patron asked to have one of the local teams put on the TV?
Would folks be demanding TVs all over the country be tuned to Arraez at-bats if he is hitting, say, .401 on Sept. 10?
When Anthony Volpe on Wednesday night hit his 10th homer to go along with his 15 steals, I began to think about what was the lowest batting average ever for a player who produced a 20/20 season. Volpe finished that game hitting .194.
The answer is .220 by Keon Broxton, who in 2017 totaled 20 homers and 21 steals for the Brewers.
The second lowest was .230 by Howard Johnson, who had 24 homers and 23 steals for the 1988 Mets.
Through Wednesday, Volpe was one of 14 players who had double-digits in homers and steals before the statistical midpoint for games played.
The second-worst batting average of that group belonged to another rookie, Brewers outfielder Joey Wiemer, who was a 10/10 guy with a .213 average.