Like the man at no. 10 during the Dodgers-Diamondbacks brawl, let's jump right into the fray.
10. Yasiel Puig, the Cienfuegos Slammer (LAD-PIR)
I left Puig off the list last week, and certain factions were upset. So here he is, in all his shiny glory. But a word of warning: Sure, the guy has been playing well, but it's a small sample size. He's due to regress. (Last sentence intended exclusively for the desk of Jay Caspian Kang.)
The only thing that makes me feel good about Major League Baseball’s recent public resurrection of the Biogenesis affair is that the public face of the 20-odd targets of the investigation (if you can call it that) seems to be Ryan Braun. That’s not because I think Braun deserves to have his name dragged through the mud again — as someone who enjoys watching the most skilled players in the game do what they do best, I certainly don’t want Braun to sit out for 50 or 100 games, and while I’m all for suspending athletes who break the rules, I don’t think it’s fair to throw out those rules whenever they deliver an outcome you don’t like. I like Braun a lot, and I hope his name is cleared.
But I’m just glad this isn’t only about Alex Rodriguez. Because I’m tired of one of the greatest players of all time being turned into a punch line.
Welcome to this new series, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the art of pitching. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers' duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers' duel ever.
This Week's Pitchers' Duel
Dallas "Houston" Keuchel (HOU) vs. Hisashi "Tacoma" Iwakuma (SEA)
With the second overall pick of the Major League Baseball draft on Thursday, the Chicago Cubs picked corner infield prospect Kris Bryant out of the University of San Diego. In the coming days, given the Cubs' history, I imagine we will be treated to a number of pieces about whether Bryant will be capable of turning around a franchise looking for its first World Series since the election of William Howard Taft. And maybe he will. He seems to be a can't-miss prospect, with power that should translate quickly and easily to the big league level. But since I feel like I have already lived this story and had my heart broken, let me briefly tell the tale of a second overall pick, Dustin Ackley. Ackley was once the best college hitter in the land, who came to Seattle to turn around a franchise that has never won a World Series, and today finds himself rebuilding his swing in AAA Tacoma. The story of Ackley, who was sent down to AAA Tacoma over Memorial Day weekend, begins at the end of a disastrous 2008 Seattle Mariners campaign. Buoyed by a rare stellar pitching performance from future Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey (who was a curiosity then, showing little indication of what was to come), the Mariners won their final three games of the season, allowing the Washington Nationals to claim the worst record in baseball and the right to draft Stephen Strasburg. I remember the series both for the weird sense that no one cared that Raul Ibanez was likely playing his final games in Seattle (apparently everyone else knew he was coming back years later as the 41-year-old reincarnation of Richie Sexson) and the sense that of course. Of course the Mariners would fail to lose. All they had to do to get the best pitching prospect of a generation was not sweep the A's. Of course, they swept the A's.
The Mariners haven't been good in a long time. The franchise hasn't made the postseason since 2001, when a phenomenally good team that had shed three surefire Hall of Famers over the three previous seasons in Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez (Rodriguez's since-soured reputation notwithstanding) equaled the Major League record for wins in a season. After that came an inglorious decline phase as the roster aged, and the team, while still good, missed the postseason in back-to-back years. Then the floor fell away like muscle mass off of Bret Boone's biceps.
In case you were out looking for a shooting star to wish on, but finding only derelict satellites, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
It took two overtimes and 53 saves from Tuukka Rask, but the Boston Bruins took a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals with a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at TD Garden. Rask was jubilant after the win, saying, "Rask! Rask! Rask!" while pounding his stick on the ground. When asked what had inspired him to produce such a stellar showing, Rask added, "Rask! Rask! Rask!" before again pounding his stick on the ground. When asked whether Boston's poor showing after taking big leads in previous rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs had him at all nervous going into Game 4, Rask slashed the reporter in the knee with his stick, severing the bottom portion of his leg from the rest of his body, before adding, "Rask! Rask! Rask!"
After 13 scoreless innings, the White Sox and Mariners engaged in a seesaw battle at Safeco Field, including a game-tying Kyle Seager grand slam, before Chicago finally put away Seattle, 7-5, in the 16th inning. White Sox pitcher Addison Reed, who pitched three innings in relief, wound up getting the win despite allowing all five Mariners runs. Adjusting for park and opponent, Reed's win is hold on a second, let me just carry the three yes, yes, yes, eureka! It is the proof I've been looking for! Wins are the most useless statistic in sports! I win! Now if anyone has seen where I've put my ironic victory trombone, I have some Sousa marches to play whilst stomping around my living room in my boxer shorts.
In case you were out protesting your local movie theater for continuing to show After Earth, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Miami Heat played their best game of the Eastern Conference finals when the stakes were the highest, closing out Game 7 with a 99-76 win over the Indiana Pacers behind another exceptional performance from LeBron James and a resurgent Dwyane Wade. "What about me?" said a distant voice from the nether reaches of the Heat locker room after the game. "The Big Three we were to be, and yet there are but two I see." When no one acknowledged the voice squeaking off in the periphery, it grew louder. "Remember me? Ol' Chrissy B? So sad am I to feel and see, that I've been forgot, been left behind, I'm all for naught, you're so unkind." But despite his growing voice, no one noticed the sad, lanky man in the corner in the midst of jubilant celebrations, no one except Shane Battier, who registered a DNP-CD in Game 7, who told Chris Bosh to stop using slant rhyme if he wanted to be noticed.
Brad Marchand had two goals as the Boston Bruins destroyed a lackluster Pittsburgh Penguins team, 6-1, to go up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. What appeared on paper to be a relatively even series is turning into a massive mismatch with the Bruins outscoring Pittsburgh 9-1 through two games in a display that can only be described as the sort of savage thrashing that an actual bruin would deliver to a flock of actual penguins, with the bruin eating nine penguins before succumbing to the cold, and dying tragically on the glaciers of Antarctica, far from her home, her bear husband, and her cubs.
Most of the big-ticket free agents reeled in last winter have been, at least so far, colossal busts. The Dodgers' $147 million has bought them five starts' worth of Zack Greinke. The Angels' $125 million investment has yielded a .222/.283/.399 line from Josh Hamilton. The Braves spent $75.25 million on B.J. Upton, who is hitting .148/.236/.252.
With a few exceptions, the best free agents of the past offseason have also been some of the cheapest. As more and more teams re-up their best players before they can reach free agency, mastering the art of shrewd shopping becomes more important, whether your payroll tops $200 million or is one-third that size. Granting that we're only eight weeks into the season, it could be instructive to run through the most successful free-agent pickups of the Hot Stove, and see if we can pick out any traits and patterns common to the best of the bunch.
Here are those top snags, going position by position.
In case you were even busier not making up with Sergio Garcia, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Despite an epic comeback to force overtime, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker proved to be too much for the Memphis Grizzlies, who fell into a 2-0 hole in the Western Conference finals after falling, 93-89, to the San Antonio Spurs. "All praise to Tim for this win," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. "He spends his offseasons as a scoutmaster, so bear traps are kind of his thing. And in this case he set a really good one made out of leafy foliage and letting Jerryd Bayless try to beat us. I was nervous it wasn't going to hold, but Tim's such a calm presence that we stuck with it and came out of there with another trophy for our mantle." Popovich then laughed nervously and added, "figuratively."
Joe Thornton led the San Jose Sharks to a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings to even up their series at two games apiece. When asked if Thornton was a thorn in his team's side, Kings coach Darryl Sutter said, "No. He's a Thornton on their side." When asked again, Sutter angrily replied, "You want your headline? Here's your headline: Sharks Swim Over Deposed Kings as Thornton Proves a Thorn in the Too Slow Quick's Side." Sutter then yelled angrily, "You monsters! Look what's become of you. Making me, Daryl Sutter, utter those words in that order! Look what's become of me!"
In case you were busy not making up with Sergio Garcia, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Detroit overcame a Patrick Kane third-period goal, as the Red Wings topped the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-1, to take a 2-1 series lead in their Western Conference semifinal matchup. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville held himself responsible for the loss, explaining, "I motivated our team before Game 1 by having them all watch Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Worked like a charm. Then I'm like, boom, stick with Scott, but emphasize teamwork: Black Hawk Down. But they all got hung up on the title. Mixed message on my part. OK, Game 3, Prometheus. Huge mistake. Movie makes no sense. Totally lost control of the team." When asked if there were any actual tactical or line adjustments he would implement, Quenneville said, "I'm this close to going with Thelma & Louise before Game 4 just to mix things up."
In case you were busy doing hilarious takes to a nonexistent camera when your friends and associates said absurd things, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
In a conclusion to a magnificently contested series that makes me wish to wax poetic, the San Antonio Spurs overcame a poor shooting night from their backcourt to oust the Golden State Warriors from the NBA playoffs with a 94-82 Game 6 win. Despite its premature end, twas a series in which all of the participants were worthy of the title warrior, even those generals who bestrode the sideline battling with their wits rather than their bodies. Sing oh muses of the ankle of Steph Curry, son of Dell, which brought countless ills first to his enemies, and then to himself! Such was the sovereign doom of a cursed team, and the will of Stern writ large: There shall be contested yet between famed warriors The Bron and Timothy Who Dunks a Finals that shall split the world in twine!
In a non-conclusion to an adequately contested series that makes me wish to speak plainly, the Knicks kept their hopes of an Eastern Conference finals showdown with Miami alive, beating a depleted Pacers team, 85-75, at Madison Square Garden. "Just taking it one day at a time," said Knicks coach Mike Woodson after the game, "because if we do more than that we'll become aware that the winner of this series gets the Heat and oh, no that's terrible! The winner of this series gets the Heat! Oh no, they have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Oh man, they also have Chris Bosh. Why did I stop taking it one day at a time? Why?"
In case you were busy weighing the pros and cons of employing Vinny Del Negro at your place of business, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Dwyane Wade was scintillating down the stretch as the Miami Heat moved on to the Eastern Conference finals after a 94-91 win eliminated the Chicago Bulls from the NBA playoffs. After the game, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose did a teleconferenced interview from his home, saying, "Oh no! I was ready to go tomorrow! What are the odds? Come on guys, we had this! Oh well, guess I got to shut it back down." Just as the feed went out, the camera trained on Rose zoomed out to reveal a shoddy backdrop of a Chicago home in the middle of a sunny beach locale, with Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich in the background drinking extravagantly large blended drinks.
The top seed in the West has fallen as the Memphis Grizzlies ousted the Oklahoma City Thunder with an 88-84 win. Meanwhile, in Blaine, Washington, Chad McFadden, a man whose allegiances were as divided as his geographic proximity to Vancouver and Seattle, awoke up from a decadelong coma. Bleary-eyed and confused, he cheered the Grizzlies win while lamenting that what seemed to be the Sonics were once again unable to make the Finals as the top seed. "I remember '94, before there even was a Grizzlies team to spit my affection wait what the hell is this? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? SOMEONE EXPLAIN TO ME WHAT HAPPENED! THE ONLY PERSON I RECOGNIZE IS BRYANT BIG COUNTRY REEVES!" But it wasn't Bryant Reeves at all that he recognized, and when McFadden was told that he was watching Pau Gasol's little brother dominate defensively for the Memphis Grizzlies against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had once been the Sonics, McFadden lost consciousness again.
In case you were out looking at buffalo and thanking the heavens that you never had to actually traverse the Oregon Trail by wagon, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Paul George and the Indiana Pacers remained red hot at home as they pushed the New York Knicks to the brink of elimination with a 93-82 win. This battle of the second- and third-best teams in the Eastern Conference has now tilted firmly in favor of Indiana, which has New York residents stunned. "This was our year," said Daniel Czaplinski of Woodside. "We at least had to make it to the Heat. The Pacers? Gimme a break. Who the heck are they?" When asked if he had seen the Pacers play at all this season, Czaplinski said, "Yeah, they had that Zeller kid, and Oladipo. Not sure what happened to them, but Melo shouldn't be letting this George Paul guy take over. This is an abomination and all these bums should be fired."
The Spurs grabbed a pivotal Game 5 win in the friendly confines of San Antonio, beating the Golden State Warriors, 109-91, behind 25 points and 10 assists from Tony Parker. Parker, a noted French person from Belgium, was quietly finishing off a pack of Gauloises after the game before he mused about the idea of a falcon he had in his mind. "You know, bird that does not exist, your ability to fly is less impressive to some because of your lack of corporeal form. But to me, nonexistent falcon I just named Tweet-Tweet, you are more impressive, as you at least know you do not exist, where as real falcons contend daily with the illusion of reality." After a brief pause when Tweet-Tweet likely asked Parker for his last Gauloise, as Parker dropped one onto the ground next to him, Parker added, "And that is how I defeat the Warriors. They expect me to move at speeds, or to distribute the basketball. But that's all the secondary creative act. The original creative act was forgetting my own creation. Here, let me imagine a treatise for you to read." Unfortunately, Tweet-Tweet does not read French, and used Parker's imaginary philosophical text as bedding for his imaginary nest.
On April 17, the Seattle Mariners played a 14-inning game that doubled as a perfect embodiment of their team.
Felix Hernandez, the team's one true star, twirled a masterpiece, firing eight innings of one-run ball with 12 strikeouts and no walks against the potent Tigers offense. Just about everyone else was terrible. Prolific outmaker Franklin Gutierrez, leading off the game for some unknown reason, struck out four times, helping to sabotage a potential game-winning rally in the 10th inning with a truly hideous at-bat. Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak both failed miserably in big spots. Jesus Montero reminded us he can't run. Eric Wedge reminded us he can't manage. The Mariners finally lost when the slothlike Smoak ran into the final out of the game, nullifying Ackley's first extra-base hit of the season. For M's fans, this was no ordinary game. It was a baseball snuff film come to life.
That night's loss was Seattle's sixth in eight games. The Mariners went on to lose five of their next seven. When podcast partners/Mariners diehards Matthew Carruth and Jeff Sullivan recorded their April 25 show, they didn't hold back. "Welcome to another fuckin' stupid podcast about the goddamned Mariners," the show began. "This team fucking sucks."
After a blowout loss to the Orioles on Tuesday, the Mariners sit at 12-17, already 6½ games out of first place. Barring a miraculous frosted-tip intervention, the M's might be headed for their fourth straight losing season. Speculation is mounting that Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, and others might not keep their jobs much longer. And the fate of the season, as well as everyone's jobs, depends largely on three colossal disappointments struggling just to hit their collective weight.
In case you were busy because no one at the game of Celebrity you were playing could get Lark Voorhies, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Chris Paul scored his team's last eight points, including an acrobatic runner with 0.1 seconds remaining, as the Los Angeles Clippers edged the Memphis Grizzlies, 93-91, to take a 2-0 lead in their playoff series. "I don't know how he does it," Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said after the game. "Seriously. He seems to have a really good understanding of floor spacing and leadership. Is there like, a book he read? Because if so, could anyone tell me the name of it so I can throw it on my Kindle? It would be greatly appreciated."
The Chicago Bulls evened up their series with the Brooklyn Nets with a 90-82 win at the Barclays Center. The Barclays Center is not to be confused with Bar Clay Centre, also located in Brooklyn, which allows patron to both paint their own pottery and sample delicious Belgian ales. Team officials denied rumors that Nets guard Deron Williams, who went 1-for-9 in the loss, mixed the two up before the game. But afterward, there were a suspicious number of shoddily constructed clay trophies strewn about the Nets locker room with "Wurlds #1 PG," and "Chris My Paul," scrawled on them.
Stating the obvious, strikeouts are a wonderful thing for a pitcher. Retire a batter by your own hand and you don't have to sweat the vagaries of luck, defense, park effects, and all the factors that can conspire to ruin a pitcher's day, through no fault of his own. More broadly, strikeouts are a great predictor of success: Other than the occasional Carlos Marmol, the top strikeout pitchers in baseball often double as the top pitchers in baseball, period.
But that doesn't mean pitchers can't find success in other ways. In 2011, Jim Johnson shook off a career full of mostly unimpressive results to become one of the league's top setup men; few noticed because he lacked the glory that comes with getting the last out of games. Given his first extended shot at closing last year, Johnson flourished, marking just the 12th time in history that a pitcher had racked up 50 or more saves. The Orioles played a ton of close games last year and famously posted the best record ever for one-run games, which played a big part in Johnson's gaudy save totals. But Johnson himself was responsible for much of that success, and not because of his strikeouts. The right-hander's 15.2 percent K rate ranked just 219th among 270 pitchers with 60 or more innings pitched last year. His 62.3 percent ground ball rate, on the other hand, ranked 6th among those same 270 pitchers, his tidy 5.6 percent walk rate ranking 45th. If you walk very few batters and induce a ton of grounders, you're simply not going to put many men on base, nor allow many extra-base hits. Sure, you'll be susceptible to a few five-hoppers sneaking through the infield. But if that's the worst of a closer's problems, he's probably going to put up a bunch of big seasons.
He might not fit the profile of the fire-breathing ninth-inning man. But Johnson is one of the game's best, his hold on the closing job is rock-solid, and there's no regression monster lurking around the corner.