MLB Hot or Not: Closers Crumble While Judge Keeps Raking

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Baseball in 2020 has been an adventure. And the award for biggest understatement of the year goes to (opens envelope) … Jesse Pantuosco!

Weird? Buddy, we left “weird” behind a loooong time ago. 2020 is “weird” on steroids. The Phillies played their fourth game of the season Monday night. Their division rival, the Atlanta Braves, played their 11th. So yeah, not a normal year. But hey, it’s still baseball … well kind of. Between all the rule changes (abbreviated doubleheaders, 16-team playoffs, universal DHs, the 10th inning starting with a dude on second base), Irish goodbyes and hot mics, I don’t even know anymore.

Anyway, now that players have had a couple weeks to dust off the cobwebs, let’s take inventory of who is hot and who definitely is not.

Hot: The Orioles … wait, what?

The Orioles celebrating a victory over Tampa Bay
Photo credit Rob Carr, Getty Images

After getting the tar beat out of them in an Opening Night loss to the Red Sox (not exactly world-beaters themselves), it looked like the Orioles, coming off three straight last-place AL East finishes, were headed for doormat status once again. What other outcome could there be for a team desperate enough to employ Jose Iglesias, he of 32 lifetime homers (that’s one every 85.2 at-bats), as its No. 3 hitter? But since then the O’s have rallied, winning five of their last seven including a weekend sweep of Tampa Bay. With the COVID-depleted Marlins next on the Orioles’ docket, Baltimore could be as many as six games above .500 heading into its weekend series at beltway-rival Washington. How’s that for a plot twist?  

Cold: Shohei Ohtani

Slumps are a dime a dozen in the big leagues and usually not much cause for concern. That said, it’s hard to have a worse two weeks than Shohei Ohtani just had. All he’s done in that time is hit below the Mendoza line (.148) with twice as many strikeouts as hits while pitching to a ghastly 37.80 ERA in two difficult-to-watch starts. Now shelved with a pronator strain (the best-case scenario is that he resumes throwing in 4-6 weeks), the once-promising 26-year-old can add his name to a growing list of Anaheim headaches.

Hot: Kyle Lewis

It took the 2016 Golden Spikes recipient (awarded annually to the top player in college baseball) longer to arrive than anticipated, but now that Kyle Lewis has finally reached the big leagues, it looks like the exciting 25-year-old is here to stay. Lewis has put on a clinic offensively, hitting an eye-opening .386 with three homers through 44 at-bats this year. It’s true he’s been a frequent strikeout victim (only Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna has logged more punch-outs in the early going), but he also leads the majors in hits with 17. In fact, Monday night’s 0-for against the A’s snapped an 11-game hit streak for the former first-round pick. A 6’4” lumberjack with a sweet, right-handed stroke, Lewis should be a middle-of-the-order fixture in Seattle for years to come.

Cold: Closers

Craig Kimbrel reacts after serving up a home run to Milwaukee slugger Christian Yelich
Photo credit Nuccio DiNuzzo, Getty Images

Let’s face it. The ninth inning has always been a slippery slope. It takes a special mindset to hammer those final few nails and lately, Craig Kimbrel and Edwin Diaz haven’t been up to the task. It’s almost impressive how much carnage Kimbrel has packed into his 1 1/3 innings this year, yielding four runs, two hits (both home runs), four walks, a wild pitch and a hit batsman over that disastrous span. A seven-time All-Star with World Series pedigree, Kimbrel appears to have fallen behind Rowan Wick in Chicago’s bullpen pecking order. Diaz has battled a similarly dire case of the yips, collapsing against Atlanta before submitting another tepid display days later versus Boston. A complete zero since his arrival in Queens (5.58 ERA with eight blown saves in 70 appearances), the right-hander won’t be long for the late innings if his early struggles persist.

Hot: Shane Bieber

Shane Bieber—of no relation to Canadian pop star Justin—represented the Tribe in last year’s All-Star Game, compiling 15 wins and a stellar 3.28 ERA during his breakout 2019. The 25-year-old has stepped in as Cleveland’s resident ace, filling the shoes left by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, now of the Texas Rangers. Bieber proved worthy of his first Opening Day assignment, massacring the Royals for 14 strikeouts—one shy of his career-high—across six shutout frames. He followed that masterpiece up with another gem his next time out against Minnesota, limiting the high-powered Twins to three hits (all singles) over eight scoreless innings. Bieber’s 27 Ks through two starts are tied for the most in major-league history.

Cold: Christian Yelich

Christian Yelich has been among the toughest outs in baseball throughout his career, but not this season. The one-time MVP entered August with a revolting .037 average in 27 lifeless at-bats. Milwaukee’s five-day coronavirus layoff (the result of the Cardinals’ recent outbreak) appeared to do Yelich some good as the outfielder reached safely in three of his five trips to the plate Monday against the White Sox. There’s plenty of baseball left to be played in 2020—assuming teams can mind their COVID Ps and Qs—but I don’t think any of us were expecting this kind of start from Yelich, who launched 44 homers with a career-high 30 thefts for the Beermakers last year.

Hot: Millennial Yaz

Teammates mobbing Mike Yastrzemski after his walk-off home run against the Padres
Photo credit Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski, has been brilliant in the early portion of 2020, pacing MLB in both walks (12) and runs scored (11) while also ranking among the majors’ top six in both on base percentage (.490) and OPS (1.183). A late bloomer—he didn’t reach the bigs until his age-28 season—Yastrzemski went ballistic in last week’s win over the Padres, belting two homers including a bay-bound solo blast to walk it off in the ninth. The Giants aren’t anyone’s idea of a playoff team, but that shouldn’t stop Yaz from making 2020 his best year yet.

Cold: The Cardinals and Marlins 

Rob Manfred’s shortcomings have been endlessly exposed as MLB has navigated, among other challenges, the continued prevalence of COVID-19, growing labor tension and dwindling viewership, particularly in the younger demographic. Throwing players under the bus for COVID marked Manfred’s latest heel turn, though it’s true the Marlins and Cardinals both should have known better, flouting the league’s social distancing mandate by going out to bars and casinos. I get it. It’s hard enough to coup up broke 20-somethings, let alone overnight celebrities with endless resources and states like Missouri and Florida aren’t helping the situation with their lax COVID regulations. But if we want baseball to continue and the virus to stop spreading, players need to do their part, no matter how frustrating that may be. Derek Jeter called the Marlins’ recent outbreak a “wakeup call” and that acknowledgement of fault is a good place to start. But MLB needs buy-in from all involved—that includes players, coaches, front office, medical staffs and yes, even you, Commissioner Manfred—to survive this crisis.

Carolina Reaper Hot: Aaron Judge

Coming off a pair of injury-plagued seasons, many wondered if Aaron Judge would ever again reach the meteoric heights of his breakthrough 2017. Well wonder no more. The 6’7” goliath has been relentless, hitting an electric .391 with six long balls and 13 RBI over his last six contests. Monday marked Judge’s first game without a homer since July 26, but he still contributed two hits in New York’s 6-3 victory over Philadelphia, which ran the Bombers’ win streak to seven. Judge has amassed just two walks this year, which begs the question, why are teams still pitching to him? I would have given him the Bonds treatment a long time ago.

Colder Than an Igloo in February: Yoenis Cespedes

Yoenis Cespedes leaves behind a complicated New York legacy
Photo credit Mike Stobe, Getty Images

WFAN's Evan Roberts described the Mets’ ill-fated Yoenis Cespedes experience as the baseball equivalent of trying to turn a casual one-night stand into a fruitful and lasting marriage. That analysis is pretty spot-on as Cespedes, despite occasional glimmers, was never cut out for the Big Apple. Not that we expected much from a player who injured himself in a boar encounter last summer (while he was supposed to be recovering from heel surgery, no less), but the 34-year-old’s bizarre ghosting episode Sunday was, even for Cespedes, highly unprofessional. Whatever the reason for Cespedes’ sudden departure, whether it was rooted in legitimate health concerns amid a pandemic or born from frustration over his own lackluster performance (he struck out in 15 of his 31 at-bats), the soon-to-be free agent leaves behind a complicated New York legacy.

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