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This team might have the best rotation ... ever

Through 48 games, Houston starters have allowed only 83 runs
MLB.com @mike_petriello

It doesn't take much effort to make a case that the Astros have the best rotation in baseball in 2018. It's actually harder to find reasons to suggest that they don't. They have a 2.25 ERA, by far the best in baseball. They have the best strikeout rate (30.1 percent), the lowest average against (.189), the lowest slugging against (.316), and they've done it all while throwing the most innings (308). They've been so good that their .188/.253/.316 line against basically means that every hitter against them turns into Michael A. Taylor, who's hitting .185/.255/.305.

Even better, think about it this way: The entire Astros rotation is striking hitters out like Luis Severino (30.8 percent), allowing the same average as Chris Sale (.188) and limiting slugging like Max Scherzer (.319). That is, of course, ridiculous.

It doesn't take much effort to make a case that the Astros have the best rotation in baseball in 2018. It's actually harder to find reasons to suggest that they don't. They have a 2.25 ERA, by far the best in baseball. They have the best strikeout rate (30.1 percent), the lowest average against (.189), the lowest slugging against (.316), and they've done it all while throwing the most innings (308). They've been so good that their .188/.253/.316 line against basically means that every hitter against them turns into Michael A. Taylor, who's hitting .185/.255/.305.

Even better, think about it this way: The entire Astros rotation is striking hitters out like Luis Severino (30.8 percent), allowing the same average as Chris Sale (.188) and limiting slugging like Max Scherzer (.319). That is, of course, ridiculous.

They have three legitimate Cy Young candidates in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton, who all live at the top of the AL ERA leaderboards. They also have Dallas Keuchel, who won the 2015 AL Cy Young. They also have Lance McCullers Jr., who just shut out Cleveland (baseball's hottest offense over the last 30 days) for seven innings in Sunday's 3-1 Houston win. They're so good and deep that Brad Peacock, who had a 3.22 ERA in his 21 starts in 2017, has been relegated to the bullpen. He can't crack this rotation.

This isn't a surprise. The Astros were expected to have the best rotation, and they do. Will that be all they are? We're nearly 30 percent of the way through the season. It's not too soon to see if they can stack up with the best rotations of all time.

The first question to ask is, how in the world do you even measure that? How do you compare a rotation in the baseball world of 2018 to ones we saw in the 90s or the 60s or the 40s?

It's not easy, but it's not impossible. Let's try this out a few different ways. Let's start with the absolute simplest one possible.

They might allow fewer runs than any modern rotation

Through 48 games, the Houston starters have allowed 83 runs. The fewest runs allowed by a rotation in the modern era (since 1920, non-strike years) are 342, by the 1967 White Sox, who pitched right in the middle of the historically low-offense late-60s. If the Astros were to maintain this pace -- easier said than done, of course, and perhaps impossible -- they would allow about 300 runs. They'd shatter the record.

Now: There's some caveats here, of course. Raw runs scored totals can be affected by defense, and starters simply don't pitch as many innings as they used to. Last year, no rotation threw 1,000 innings. In that 1967 season, 15 teams (out of only 20) did. 

So, give this one the grain of salt it deserves, but even then, it's impressive. The job of any pitcher is to prevent runs. This Astros crew could allow fewer than any modern rotation.

Video: HOU@OAK: Keuchel tosses eight frames, allows one run

This would be the best rotation ERA in modern history

ERA helps us put earned runs on a "per nine innings" basis, which helps with the issue above, but isn't perfect for a few reasons, namely that the sport's offensive environment does not stay consistent. In 1968's "Year of the Pitcher," the Major League ERA was 2.98. At the height of the high-offense era in 2000, it was 4.40. That means that depending on the year, a 3.50 ERA could either be very good or very poor.

We'll get to that. Let's start simple, though. Which rotations since the modern era began in 1920 have had the best ERAs from their starting pitchers?

Best rotation ERAs, 1920-present (non-strike years)

2.25 -- 2018 Astros
2.49 -- 1968 Cardinals
2.50 -- 1968 Indians
2.52 -- 1943 Cardinals
2.58 -- 1972 Orioles

With another caveat that we'll get to in a second, that's the top of a very impressive list. The '68 Cardinals featured Bob Gibson's magical 1.12 ERA year and a 23-year-old Steve Carlton; the '68 Indians had stellar years from Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell. You might not remember the '43 Cardinals, who had the benefit of war-weakened competition; you probably do remember the early 70s Orioles of Jim Palmer.

The Astros top them all. One problem: Comparing 48 games to a full season. That said, no team this century has had a lower ERA through 48 team games. No team since the 1972 Dodgers has gotten off to a better start (for this look, we're talking full staffs, not just starters, though in the past those were largely the same thing). With the understand that there's more season ahead than behind, this is meaningful.

Video: HOU@LAA: Verlander K's Ohtani for 2,500th strikeout

They're on track to have the best adjusted ERA in modern history

Remember when we said that raw ERA is fine, but it doesn't tell you enough if you don't know what run-scoring was like that year? A better way is to look at a pitching version of OPS+ (called ERA-), where 100 is 'league average' for that year and each point above or below 100 represents a percent above or below that league average.

Let's do exactly that. Compared to the average for that year, which teams have had the best ERA marks above average?

Best adjusted rotation ERAs, 1920-present (non-strike years) 

45 percent above average -- 2018 Astros (2.25 vs. 4.12 MLB)
29 percent above average -- 2016 Cubs
27 percent above average -- six teams including 1997 and '98 Braves

That's an enormous gap, and some impressive competition. You might remember that the 2016 Cubs won the World Series, and they did so on the strength of an elite starting rotation (and a great defense) that performed like one of the best ever. The 1997 and '98 Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. This has the same partial-season issue as above, but the point remains: What these Astros are doing is rarely ever seen.

They're on track to have the most Wins Above Replacement of all-time

All this talk about ERA ignores the issue about present-day starters throwing fewer innings, and a low ERA is more impressive over more innings. (Although, again, no rotation has thrown more innings in 2018 than Houston's.) 

That being the case, we can turn to Wins Above Replacement, which does -- unlike ERA -- account for how many innings you pitch. If we look at FanGraphs and put every rotation since 1920 on a 162-game scale, you'll see where the 2018 Astros would hypothetically end up.

Best rotation WAR, FanGraphs, 1920-present (non-strike years)

30.2 (projected) -- 2018 Astros
26.0 -- 2011 Phillies
25.9 -- 1971 White Sox
25.4 -- 1997 Braves
24.7 -- 1967 Twins

There's some new teams on this list, but it's a fun one too, with the Astros topping the 2011 Phillies of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. There's those 1997 Braves again. The Astros are on track to beat this record by 16 percent. That's a ton.

Pretty much all of this is subject to the fact that we can't simply take what has happened and expect it will happen for the rest of the year; "on pace" doesn't work this way. Mookie Betts is on a 162-game pace to hit 58 homers. The Yankees are on pace to win 112 games. Those things probably are not going to happen. For the Astros, someone will get hurt, or slump. Peacock, or Francis Martes, or David Paulino, or someone will have to enter and make some starts. Who knows how they'll treat September if they have a large divisional lead.

Tons of things could go wrong, is the point. But we've also seen more than enough to know that this isn't some kind of fluke. The 2018 Astros rotation is the best in baseball, by a lot. (Their bullpen has the AL's lowest ERA, too. It doesn't get easier.) At the end of the year, we may be talking about them as one of the best ever.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers Jr., Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander

Hader's feats generating All-Star, Cy Young buzz

Lefty reliever setting down batters at a historic clip
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MINNEAPOLIS -- Is Josh Hader pitching his way onto the National League All-Star team? What about the way-too-early NL Cy Young Award debate?

Brewers manager Craig Counsell will leave those questions to observers outside the clubhouse.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Is Josh Hader pitching his way onto the National League All-Star team? What about the way-too-early NL Cy Young Award debate?

Brewers manager Craig Counsell will leave those questions to observers outside the clubhouse.

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"I think Josh is pitching really well and affecting a lot of our games -- and affecting them in a pretty meaningful way," Counsell said. "And we highly value the impact he's making. Whether that merits [honors and awards], that's what baseball fans love to debate.

"I hope he keeps pitching like this, and I hope he makes them debate it."

In the wake of Hader's latest strikeout special, a 2 1/3-inning outing Saturday in which he struck out the final six batters he faced for a 5-4 win over the Twins, here are some of the more eye-popping things about the left-hander's start to the season:

• Ninety-five hitters have dug in against Hader. Fifty-six of them have struck out. That 59-percent strikeout rate would shatter the all-time record (min. 25 batters faced) set by the Reds' Aroldis Chapman in 2014, when he struck out 52.5 percent of hitters. The only other pitcher in history to strike out more than half of the hitters he faced was then-Braves closer Craig Kimbrel at 50.2 percent in '12.

• Hader, 24, is also on a pace to break Chapman's record for strikeouts per nine innings (min. 25 batters faced). Hader has 18.44 so far, to Chapman's 17.67 in '14.

• Hader's Major League-leading 0.51 WHIP after 27 1/3 innings is also historic. According to STATS Inc., the record-low WHIP for a pitcher in 25-plus innings is 0.36, by Ed Cushman of the Milwaukee Cream Citys in 1884. Hader's 0.51 is next, then Boston's Koji Uehara's 0.57 in 74 1/3 innings in 2013.

• Hader, a relief pitcher, entered Sunday ranked 11th in the NL in strikeouts. Every other pitcher in the top 28 is a starter who had pitched at least 15 more innings than Hader.

Tweet from @darenw: Josh Hader has struck out 44% of the batters he's faced in his career... 59% this season! That's crazy. Here's all 124 of his career strikeouts by pitch type and location pic.twitter.com/JcuKnUU2jg

• His strikeout rate is not abating as hitters get more aggressive earlier in counts. Twenty-seven of Hader's last 38 outs have come via strikeout.

• "I don't know if anybody has struck out 200 people out of the bullpen before, but …" Twins manager Paul Molitor said Saturday after Hader's outing left him on pace for 197 strikeouts in 56 games spanning 95 1/3 innings. His instinct was correct; nobody in Major League history has ever topped 200 strikeouts pitching exclusively in relief. Only six men have topped 150 strikeouts, led by 181 for Boston's Dick Radatz in 157 relief innings in 1974. The closest thing to what Hader is doing was Astros closer Brad Lidge in 2004, when he struck out 157 batters in 94 2/3 innings.

• Both of Hader's wins, five of his six saves and 10 of his 16 outings overall have spanned at least two full innings. The Dodgers' Mike Marshall owns the Major League record with 62 multi-inning appearances in 1974, the year he won NL Cy Young Award honors. Hader won't get to 62, but he does have a chance to become the first reliever since Mariano Rivera in '96 to get to 35 appearances of two-plus innings.

• His sling-like delivery makes Hader death on left-handed hitters, who are 1-for-28 (.036) against him. Miami's Justin Bour singled off Hader on April 22 at Miller Park.

• Hader has gotten to two strikes against 75 batters, for whom it looks like walk or bust. Five have walked. One -- Steven Souza Jr., with a full-count single off Hader last week -- has gotten a hit, for a batting average of .014.

• Hader's 57.1-percent contact rate is the lowest in baseball for pitchers who have logged at least 10 innings this season, but the Twins didn't come close to that on Saturday. They made zero after Eddie Rosario hit consecutive foul balls while leading off the eighth inning. That's a span of six different batters, 21 pitches/16 strikes, with no contact. In all, Hader threw 22 strikes, and the Twins had 15 swings and misses.

Video: MIL@CIN: Hader records 8 K's on 8 outs for the save

• The Reds know the feeling. On April 30 at Great American Ball Park, Hader logged an eight-out save while getting every out via strikeout. No one had ever struck out all eight batters in a 2 2/3-innings appearance.

"I'm really just trying to do my best to attack hitters and keep them off-balance," Hader said. "[On Saturday] the fastball was there, so it just came down to executing."

The buzz is building, with one national publication this weekend picking up on Hader's bid for the NL All-Star team.

Does Counsell worry Hader will get caught up in it if that buzz builds?

"Players are human. They're affected by a lot," Counsell said. "And a lot of things that we don't always advertise. They've got everything going on. They've got pressure. I'm not singing a sob story for the players, by any means. But keeping them focused on what they can control is important. So that's what we'll continue to do."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Josh Hader

Speed never slumps: Each team's fastest player

MLB.com @williamfleitch

One of the great baseball maxims is "speed never slumps."

Sometimes hard-hit grounders don't find a hole, sometimes line drives are right at a guy, sometimes the wind knocks down would-be homers. But speed is always there. Speed is of use everywhere, from a dribbler down the third-base line, to a ball hit into the gap, to the cascading tension of a stolen-base attempt. The game changes a little bit every year, but speed is always useful. Speed is always in vogue.

One of the great baseball maxims is "speed never slumps."

Sometimes hard-hit grounders don't find a hole, sometimes line drives are right at a guy, sometimes the wind knocks down would-be homers. But speed is always there. Speed is of use everywhere, from a dribbler down the third-base line, to a ball hit into the gap, to the cascading tension of a stolen-base attempt. The game changes a little bit every year, but speed is always useful. Speed is always in vogue.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the fastest player on every team.

To determine this, we'll be using Sprint Speed, which is a Statcast™ metric that measures speed in feet per second. The fastest players top out at a tick above 30 feet per second (think Billy Hamilton), while the slowest guys are around 23 feet per second (your typical aging catcher). And, as you might have figured out, MLB average is right in the middle, at 27 feet per second.

Sprint Speed leaderboard

Here's a look at the fastest player on each team. As you'll see, not all these men are base-stealing threats, and the fun is not always necessarily with the players' speed, but how they use that speed. These speedsters are baseball at its fastest. Which is quite often its best.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Aledmys Diaz
Sprint speed: 28.6 feet per second
The Blue Jays have one of the older lineups in baseball, and Diaz, as one of the few players under 30, stood out for his wheels ... at least before an ankle sprain put him on the disabled list.

Orioles: Craig Gentry
Sprint Speed: 28.9 feet per second
I feel like it says something fundamental about the Orioles that their fastest player is in his mid-30s.

Rays: Mallex Smith
Sprint speed: 29.5 feet per second
No surprise here: Smith has been one of the fastest players in baseball since coming up with the Braves. He's, at last, getting on base at a playable clip this year, too.

Red Sox: Mookie Betts
Sprint speed: 28.1 feet per second
He's the best at everything else on this team. Why wouldn't he be the fastest Red Sox player as well? As a sign of his improvement across the board, he's actually faster than he was last year, when he was ninth among Red Sox players.

Video: BAL@BOS: Betts collects 3 hits, 3 steals vs. Orioles

Yankees: Brett Gardner
Sprint speed: 28.9 feet per second
Gardner has essentially been the Yankees' fastest player for a decade. He has certainly been consistent: His sprint speeds since Statcast™ began tracking: 28.9, 28.8, 28.9, 28.9.

AL CENTRAL
Indians: 
Bradley Zimmer
Sprint speed: 29.7 feet per second
Second place on the Indians? The ageless Rajai Davis, now 37 years old.

Royals: Paulo Orlando
Sprint speed: 29.1 feet per second
Despite his speed, Orlando has stolen only 18 bases in the Majors ... oh, and he's the only Brazilian player with a World Series ring, so there's that.

Tigers: Victor Reyes
Sprint speed: 29.2 feet per second
Fun factoid: Miguel Cabrera isn't the slowest player on the Tigers. (That's Victor Martinez.)

Twins: Byron Buxton
Sprint speed: 30.7 feet per second
No surprise here. Buxton is the fastest man in baseball, just like he was in 2016 and 2015. (He was second to Victor Robles last season.)

Video: MIN@BAL: Buxton sprints 30.9 feet per second for grab

White Sox: Adam Engel
Sprint speed: 30.1 feet per second
Engel is one of the best defensive outfielders in the Majors, thanks largely to the speed that earned him a scholarship offer to play football at Wisconsin. (As a quarterback, alas.)

AL WEST
Angels:
 Mike Trout
Sprint speed: 29.4 feet per second
Of course. Trout has actually gotten faster every season since 2016. Second-fastest on the team is Shohei Ohtani.
 
Video: HOU@LAA: Trout sprints to run down Altuve's long fly

Astros: Derek Fisher
Sprint speed: 29.5 feet per second
The real question may be, is he faster than his NBA namesake was in his prime?

Athletics: Boog Powell
Sprint speed: 28.4 feet per second
This much is certain -- this Boog Powell is the fastest Boog Powell in MLB history.

Mariners: Dee Gordon
Sprint speed: 29.3 feet per second
The slowest player in baseball is also on the Mariners. Nelson Cruz's 22 feet per second average sprint speed means Gordon would almost certainly pass him if Cruz were on first base and Gordon hit a double.

Rangers: Delino DeShields
Sprint speed: 30.4 feet per second
There are no Statcast™ numbers for when Delino's dad played, but considering this guy is the second-fastest player in baseball, Dad's going to have to work hard to convince us he was faster than his son.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves:
 Ronald Acuna Jr.
Sprint speed: 29.8 feet per second
Believe the hype. When the fastest guy on your team also has the highest average exit velocity on your team (which Acuna does), and, oh yeah, he's only 20 years old, it is extremely exciting.

Video: ATL@NYM: Acuna's sprint speed clocked at 31 ft/sec

Marlins: J.B. Shuck
Sprint speed: 29.8 feet per second
Somehow, Shuck has never stolen more than eight bases in a season during his six-year MLB career.

Mets: Amed Rosario
Sprint speed: 29.0 feet per second
Don't look now, but Rosario started to hit after being moved to the ninth spot in the Mets' order; his batting average is .278 in the last two weeks. It'd help if a player with this sort of speed walked a bit more, though.

Nationals: Trea Turner
Sprint speed: 29.9 feet per second
Turner is on pace for more than 50 steals, he's getting on base at a .371 clip and he's holding his own at a premium defensive position. If he adds a little more power, look out.

Video: NYM@WSH: Statcast™ measures Turner's sprint to first

Phillies: Scott Kingery
Sprint speed: 29.5 feet per second
Kingery's not hitting at all yet, but you've seen enough of his raw tools to at least understand what the Phillies were thinking with the contract extension they gave him before he'd ever played a big league game.

NL CENTRAL
Brewers: Christian Yelich
Sprint speed: 28.5 feet per second
Think the Brewers had a specific plan this offseason? The two men they added to the lineup this offseason, Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, are the two fastest players on the roster by a good amount.

Cardinals: Harrison Bader
Sprint speed: 29.1 feet per second
Tommy Pham spent all winter attempting to increase his speed, but he still can't touch Bader, the Bronxville, N.Y., native who has taken over the Cardinals' fourth outfielder spot ... and may be ready for even more than that.

Cubs: Javier Baez
Sprint speed: 28.9 feet per second
Baez is starting to develop a little more plate discipline, which is really the only thing standing in the way of becoming an upper-tier superstar.

Video: CHC@CLE: Baez hustles to stretch base hit into double

Pirates: Starling Marte
Sprint speed: 28.9 feet per second
His oblique injury might slow him down a bit, but it is worth noting that after his nightmare 2017, Marte's numbers so far are the best they've been any year of his career.

Reds: Billy Hamilton
Sprint speed: 30.1 feet per second
At last, something Joey Votto isn't best at on the Reds. (Tucker Barnhart is the only regular slower than Votto.)

Video: CIN@SF: Hamilton covers 105 ft for a running catch

NL WEST
D-backs:
 Jarrod Dyson
Sprint speed: 29.2 feet per second
Vroom vroom.

Video: LAD@ARI: Dyson swipes third for his 2nd steal

Dodgers: Cody Bellinger
Sprint speed: 28.8 feet per second
Not much has gone right for the Dodgers so far this season, but Bellinger still contains a near-overflowing cauldron of talent.

Giants: Andrew McCutchen
Sprint speed: 28.7 feet per second
Unsurprisingly, the four fastest Giants are all over 30.

Padres: Manuel Margot
Sprint speed: 29.3 feet per second
He's actually tied with Franchy Cordero at 29.3. I'd still take Luis Perdomo over both of them in a race.

Rockies: Trevor Story
Sprint speed: 29.7 feet per second
Story is finally using his world-class speed on the basepaths this year; he already has seven steals, one shy of his career high.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Hitters are 1-for-44 (!) vs. Ohtani's splitter

It's hard to even put into words what Shohei Ohtani continues to do on a Major League Baseball field. In 150 some odd years of men hurling white spheres and swinging wooden sticks, there's no real comparison. 

As a hitter, Ohtani has six homers, 17 RBIs and a .321/.367/.619 slash line. And after striking out nine and giving up just two runs in 7 2/3 innings during the Angels' 4-2 win over the Rays on Sunday, he's now 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA on the mound. He has 51 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings. Much of that success, as he showed again on Sunday, is due to his video-game level splitter.

Cozart not a fan of Rays' reliever strategy

MLB.com @DKramer_

As the Rays experiment with and adjust their pitching strategy -- beginning the game with high-leverage relievers and deploying innings-eating starters later -- so, too, will the competition. The Angels got an early glimpse of combatting the unorthodox method over the weekend, facing reliever Sergio Romo to start on Saturday and Sunday, and at least one wasn't thrilled with the tactic. 

"It's weird," Angels third baseman Zack Cozart said in a recent interview with The Athletic. "I hope baseball doesn't go in that direction to where it's going to be more like Spring Training, having a pitcher go an inning or two and then change it out.

As the Rays experiment with and adjust their pitching strategy -- beginning the game with high-leverage relievers and deploying innings-eating starters later -- so, too, will the competition. The Angels got an early glimpse of combatting the unorthodox method over the weekend, facing reliever Sergio Romo to start on Saturday and Sunday, and at least one wasn't thrilled with the tactic. 

"It's weird," Angels third baseman Zack Cozart said in a recent interview with The Athletic. "I hope baseball doesn't go in that direction to where it's going to be more like Spring Training, having a pitcher go an inning or two and then change it out.

"I don't think that's good for baseball, in my opinion. It's definitely weird, not knowing who you're going to face in your first couple of at-bats. … Usually, you have a starter and you think you're going to have three at-bats probably. So you're going to use the first at-bat and you want to have success, see what he has if you haven't faced him before, stuff like that. When you're going Spring Training style, it's definitely a different ballgame. It's Spring Training; that's the best way I could describe it. I hope it doesn't go in that direction."

Video: Romo starts 2 games in a row, K's 6 over 2 1/3 frames

Two games is a wildly minute sample, but the Rays' strategy proved effective. Romo tossed 2 1/3 scoreless frames and struck out six of the nine batters he faced, including Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton on 18 pitches during the first inning on Saturday, an eventual 5-3 win for the Rays. 

In the second inning on Sunday, an eventual 5-2 Angels win, Cozart drew one of two walks issued by Romo, as the right-hander worked through 28 pitches before departing. However, Cozart believed that he was squaring up to face Matt Andriese, a starter, which thwarted his pre-at-bat preparation, he said. 

Video: TB@LAA: Romo strikes out Trout in the 1st inning

Utilizing effective relievers against the top of the opposing lineup has been explored more as bullpens have become more of a premium, though the strategy hadn't truly manifested within games until last weekend. The last pitcher to start on back-to-back days was Zack Greinke for the Brewers in 2012, though that was due to Greinke being ejected without recording an out in his first outing. He came back to toss three innings the following day. 

The Rays, who have long been analtically minded, also entered the year with limited rotational depth, and they announced early in Spring Training that they were going to experiment with a four-man rotation and relegate the fifth day for the bullpen, manipulating off-days when they could. However, beginning games with a reliever on the mound is an entirely new topic -- and it's drawing significant attention. 

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

Los Angeles Angels, Zack Cozart

Amazing stretch nets J.D., Belt Players of Week

MLB.com

Debuting in the same season seven years ago, a pair of 30-year-old sluggers garnered a blistering week that forced rookies to take notes.

Major League Baseball recognized last week's top performers on Monday by announcing Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez as the American League Player of the Week and Giants veteran Brandon Belt as the National League Player of the Week, presented by W.B. Mason.

Debuting in the same season seven years ago, a pair of 30-year-old sluggers garnered a blistering week that forced rookies to take notes.

Major League Baseball recognized last week's top performers on Monday by announcing Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez as the American League Player of the Week and Giants veteran Brandon Belt as the National League Player of the Week, presented by W.B. Mason.

It's the seventh time Martinez has been honored and the first time since Aug. 11, 2013, for Belt.

Martinez's first Player of the Week honor of the year comes after he hit .346/.414/1.000 with a 1.414 OPS and five home runs over seven games. After leisurely coming out of the gate in April, Martinez recorded his first two-homer day of the season on Sunday against the Orioles. Martinez and fellow red-hot teammate Mookie Betts are tied for the Majors lead with 15 home runs, marking the first time the Red Sox have had two players hit 15 home runs within the first 50 games of the season.

Video: BAL@BOS: Martinez crushes his 2nd homer to center

"A lot of people were talking about how Fenway was going to affect him," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "When it's 80 degrees and humid, it's a good place. We've seen it before. I've seen it firsthand. He's a guy that he stays with his approach. He drives the ball to right-center, and he has power."

Belt is heading toward a career year. The first baseman has racked up 11 home runs in his first 44 games of the year, five of those slugged in the past week. Since 2011, Belt's season high for homers is 18 -- done in 2015 and '17. After hitting .444/.500/1.074 with 11 RBIs and eight runs from May 14-20, the veteran insisted he's sticking to his conventional approach.

Video: Belt homers in 4 straight 2 separate times in 2018

"I've known my approach to work in the past," Belt said. "At times, I'd get away from it. I think I'm just sticking with it now through thick and thin and working on it as hard as I can and doing it to the best of my ability. When I get a pitch in my zone, I'm doing something with it."

Deesha Thosar is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Brandon Belt, J.D. Martinez

Nats prospect Soto gets first start, hitting 6th

MLB.com @DKramer_

Juan Soto was in the Nationals' starting lineup for Monday's game against the Padres and left-hander Robbie Erlin, batting sixth and playing left field. It will be his first Major League start.

At 19 years and 208 days old, Soto -- the Nats' No. 2 prospect and MLB's No. 15 overall-- is the youngest position player to make a start since the Rangers' Jurickson Profar in 2012. Prior to that, the youngest player to do so was teammate Bryce Harper. Soto pinch-hit in Sunday's 7-2 loss to the Dodgers, striking out against Erik Goeddel in the eighth inning.

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Juan Soto was in the Nationals' starting lineup for Monday's game against the Padres and left-hander Robbie Erlin, batting sixth and playing left field. It will be his first Major League start.

At 19 years and 208 days old, Soto -- the Nats' No. 2 prospect and MLB's No. 15 overall-- is the youngest position player to make a start since the Rangers' Jurickson Profar in 2012. Prior to that, the youngest player to do so was teammate Bryce Harper. Soto pinch-hit in Sunday's 7-2 loss to the Dodgers, striking out against Erik Goeddel in the eighth inning.

View Full Game Coverage

Soto's ascension to the Majors has been fast, in large part due to production. After signing as an international free agent in 2015, Soto surged through the Minors each of the past two seasons and was off to a stellar start this season.

MLB's best seasons by teenagers

He has hit .362/.434/.609 with 22 homers, 102 RBIs, 66 strikeouts and 58 walks over 512 plate appearances in 122 Minor League games.

Couple the significant, recent attrition to the banged-up Nats -- Howie Kendrick (Achilles tendon), Adam Eaton (ankle), Brian Goodwin (wrist) and Victor Robles (elbow), among others -- and the club had a positional void that, in part, allowed Soto to make the Major League leap.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

Washington Nationals, Juan Soto

MLB's best seasons by teenagers

Young stars made an impact from the start
MLB.com @_dadler

One of the most exciting parts of Major League Baseball is when an up-and-coming young player takes the big leagues by storm.

The latest is Juan Soto -- the Nationals' No. 2 prospect and No. 15 in the Majors per MLB Pipeline -- who was promoted on Sunday, making the 19-year-old outfielder the youngest player in MLB. Soto skyrocketed through the club's system, beginning the season at Class A and mashing his way to three promotions in a month, culminating with his arrival in Washington.

One of the most exciting parts of Major League Baseball is when an up-and-coming young player takes the big leagues by storm.

The latest is Juan Soto -- the Nationals' No. 2 prospect and No. 15 in the Majors per MLB Pipeline -- who was promoted on Sunday, making the 19-year-old outfielder the youngest player in MLB. Soto skyrocketed through the club's system, beginning the season at Class A and mashing his way to three promotions in a month, culminating with his arrival in Washington.

The game today is full of bright young talents, and many of MLB's current superstars ascended to the pinnacle of the sport at a young age. But some got their start even earlier than most ... even before turning 20 years old, like Soto. MLB.com is looking back at some of the most impressive teen campaigns -- from Bryce Harper to Ken Griffey Jr. to Dwight Gooden to Bob Feller to Ty Cobb.

Here are 20 of the best seasons ever by teenagers -- 10 hitters and 10 pitchers. The players are listed in order of their Wins Above Replacement for the season, using Baseball Reference's version.

POSITION PLAYERS

Bryce Harper, Nationals
Year: 2012. Age: 19
Wins Above Replacement: 5.2

Video: Must C Classic: Harper hits first postseason homer

Even when he was in high school, Harper was being touted as the next huge MLB superstar. He's become exactly that. It all started with his rookie campaign with the Nationals in 2012, when he hit .270/.340/.477 over 139 games with 22 home runs, 59 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. He finished the season with a 5.2 WAR, the most in the modern era for a teenage position player, and his 57 extra-base hits are the most in a teenage season in the modern era. Bryce was named a National League All-Star and the Rookie of the Year, he hit his first postseason home run that year -- and he's gone on to even bigger and better things.

Video: MLB.com looks over Harper's award-winning season

Mel Ott, Giants
Year: 1928. Age: 19
WAR: 3.9

Ott's Hall of Fame career started in 1926 at age 17, but his breakout effort came two years later at the ripe young age of 19. In 124 games for the New York Giants, Ott batted .322/.397/.524 with 18 home runs and 77 RBIs. Ott emerged as the Giants' primary right fielder and a force in the heart of their batting order, primarily hitting third or cleanup for a 93-61 Giants club that finished as the runners-up to the Cardinals in the NL.

Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners
Year: 1989. Age: 19
WAR: 3.3

Video: CWS@SEA: Ken Griffey Jr. hits his first MLB home run

The Kid was, well, a kid when he introduced the baseball world to one of the sweetest swings of all time, ripping a double in his first Major League at-bat. Griffey hit 16 home runs, drove in 61 runs and stole 16 bases for the Mariners in his debut 1989 season, hitting .264/.329/.420 in his 127 games. The Seattle icon and Hall of Famer finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, but his true emergence as a star would begin the following season.

Edgar Renteria, Marlins
Year: 1996. Age: 19
WAR: 3.2 

The Marlins were only in their fourth season as a Major League franchise when Renteria made his big league debut as a 19-year-old in May of 1996. The young shortstop would become a key part of the Marlins' rapid ascendance to shock-the-world World Series champs in 1997. Renteria finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1996. He hit .309/.358/.399 with five homers, 31 RBIs and 16 steals in 106 games while playing a premium defensive position. The next year, he would line the walk-off hit in Game 7 of the World Series.

Video: '97 WS, Gm 7: Renteria wins it for Fish

Ty Cobb, Tigers
Year: 1906. Age: 19
WAR: 2.5

The baseball legend showed the first inklings of the Hall of Fame career that was to come as a 19-year-old in 1906. Cobb had debuted with the Tigers the year before and played just 41 games; as an MLB sophomore, he upped that total to 98 games and hit .316/.355/.394 with a home run (it was the dead-ball era, after all), 41 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. The next year, he was a superstar, winning his first batting title, leading the Majors with 212 hits and 119 RBIs and leading the AL with 53 steals while helping turn Detroit from a sixth-place team into pennant-winners.

Buddy Lewis, Senators
Year: 1936. Age: 19
WAR: 2.1

Lewis turned in a more-than-solid 1936 campaign for the Senators at age 19. The third baseman provided stability out of the No. 2 spot in the order for Washington all season, hitting .291/.347/.399 with six home runs and 67 RBIs in 143 games. His 175 hits in 1936 are the highest single-season total for a teenager in the modern era, as are his 13 triples and 100 runs scored. Lewis would go on to become a two-time All-Star for the Senators, first in 1938, and then again in 1947 after returning from military service in World War II.

Travis Jackson, Giants
Year: 1923. Age: 19
WAR: 2.1

Jackson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1982, was a defensive star at shortstop for the Giants teams of the 1920s and '30s. His first extended stint in the big leagues came at age 19 in 1923, when he played 96 games, hit .275/.321/.391 with four homers and 37 RBIs, and most importantly excelled in the field at short and third base. He wasn't yet the team's anchor in the middle infield, but he was a contributor to the New York club that won the NL pennant.

Cesar Cedeno, Astros
Year: 1970. Age: 19
WAR: 1.8

One of the earliest great Dominican-born players after Felipe Alou and Juan Marichal, the four-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove center fielder got his start as a teenager for the Astros in 1970. He made his MLB debut in June and was impressive from the start. Cedeno played 90 games for Houston, hitting .310/.340/.451 with seven home runs, 42 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, and starting the next season, became a regular in the heart of the Astros' lineup.

Manny Machado, Orioles
Year: 2012. Age: 19
WAR: 1.6

Video: KC@BAL: Machado blasts the first homer of his career

Harper wasn't the only superstar to debut as a 19-year-old in 2012. Over in the American League, Machado was getting his first taste of Major League action in Baltimore. He wasn't the offensive force he is now out of the gate -- Machado hit .262/.294/.445 with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 51 games as a rookie -- but he was a game-changer defensively at third base right from the start. He's since made three All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and finished in the top five of AL MVP voting twice.

Tony Conigliaro, Red Sox
Year: 1964. Age: 19
WAR: 1.6

Video: CWS@BOS: Conigliaro homers in first Fenway at-bat

Conigliaro has one of baseball's sadder stories, as his promising career was derailed after he suffered a serious eye injury when he was hit in the face by a pitch on Aug. 18, 1967. In his first few seasons, the Red Sox outfielder looked like a budding star. He hit his first Major League home run in his first at-bat at Fenway Park, and as a rookie in 1964, he hit .290/.354/.530 with 24 home runs and 52 RBIs in 111 games. Those 24 homers are the modern-era record for a teenager in a season. The next year, as a 20-year-old, Conigliaro hit 32 homers to lead the league, making him the youngest home run champion in AL history.

Honorable mention

Mickey Mantle, Yankees
Year: 1951. Age: 19
WAR: 1.5

Video: BAL@NYY: Mickey Mantle hits his 500th home run

Mantle started his legendary Yankees career as a 19-year-old in 1951. He made his first start on Opening Day, batting third for New York against the Red Sox, and recorded his first hit with an RBI single. He was sent to the Minors after a slump, but made it back to the big leagues and finished the year with a .267/.349/.443 slash line, adding 13 home runs and 65 RBIs. He got limited action in the World Series -- which the Yankees won, beating the Giants -- but of course, The Mick went on to plenty of success in his Hall of Fame career, one of the greatest of all time.

PITCHERS

Gary Nolan, Reds
Year: 1967. Age: 19
WAR: 6.3

A Reds Hall of Famer, Nolan had a superb first big league season, and it was all the more remarkable considering his young age. When he made his MLB debut on April 15, 1967 -- which he won -- he hadn't even turned 19 yet. The right-hander finished his rookie year 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA in 33 games, striking out 206 batters in 226 2/3 innings and throwing five shutouts. He ranked fourth in the NL in ERA and strikeouts, and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting (Tom Seaver won). Arm trouble would shorten Nolan's career, but he was an All-Star in 1972, and won the clinching Game 4 of the 1976 World Series against the Yankees.

Dwight Gooden, Mets
Year: 1984. Age: 19
WAR: 5.5

Video: 1984 ASG: Dwight Gooden strikes out the side

Doc's legendary 1985 campaign as a 20-year-old is one of the most dominant seasons in MLB history, and he was the ace of the 1986 World Series champion Mets -- but before all that, he burst onto the scene with a brilliant rookie year at age 19 in 1984. Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and a Major League-best 276 strikeouts, pitching 218 innings over 31 starts. He was an All-Star (and struck out the side in his appearance in the Midsummer Classic), a runaway NL Rookie of the Year and the runner-up for the Cy Young (to Rick Sutcliffe). His 276 strikeouts are a modern-era rookie record to this day. No wonder they called him Dr. K.

Bob Feller, Indians
Year: 1938. Age: 19
WAR: 5.1

Feller actually played three seasons as a teenager, beginning his Major League career as a 17-year-old in 1936. But his age-19 season was the best of the three. In fact, it was his breakout year. The Hall of Famer went 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA in 39 games (36 starts) for the Indians, throwing 277 2/3 innings -- a modern-era record for a teenager -- and striking out a Major League-leading 240 batters. He made his first career All-Star team.

Chief Bender, Athletics
Year: 1903. Age: 19
WAR: 4.3

Another Hall of Famer on the list, Bender made his Major League debut just before his 19th birthday in 1903. He went 17-14 with a 3.07 ERA and 127 strikeouts for the Philadelphia Athletics as a rookie, throwing 270 innings over 36 games, 33 of them starts. Bender was the third pitcher in the A's rotation that year, behind a pair of fellow Hall of Famers, Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell. Bender would eventually become the team's ace and help the A's win three World Series during his career.

Rube Bressler, Athletics
Year: 1914. Age: 19
WAR: 3.5

Bressler is something of an interesting figure. He started his career as a pitcher in the later years of the dead-ball era (pre-1920), but converted into an outfielder and first baseman during the live-ball era. As a 19-year-old in his first season, the young left-hander went 10-4 with a sparkling 1.77 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 147 2/3 innings. He was mainly used as a reliever, pitching 29 games but starting just 10. It would end up his best season on the mound.

Wally Bunker, Orioles
Year: 1964. Age: 19
WAR: 3.4

After a one game cup of coffee as an 18-year-old in 1963, Bunker jumped into the Baltimore rotation in 1964 and had himself a great year. He led the American League with a .792 winning percentage, going 19-5 in his 29 starts, with an excellent 2.69 ERA in 214 innings. He was the first teenage pitcher in the divisional era to eclipse the 200-inning mark in a season. Bunker pitched 12 complete games for the O's, including one shutout, and was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Tony Oliva. He even received some MVP votes.

Bob Feller, Indians
Year: 1937. Age: 18
WAR: 3.4

Here's another one of Feller's teenage years -- he was good enough as a teenager to qualify for this list twice. Feller's age-19 season in 1938 was his breakout, but he had a solid year in 1937, too, even though he was only 18 years old. Feller pitched 26 total games and made 19 starts for the Tribe that season, going 9-7 with a 3.39 ERA and 150 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings.

Larry Dierker, Astros
Year: 1966. Age: 19
WAR: 3.3

Long before he was the NL Manager of the Year for the 1998 Astros, Dierker was toeing the rubber for Houston as a teenager in the 1960s. His MLB debut was on his 18th birthday in 1964, but his best teenage season came two years after that in his age-19 season in 1966. That was his first year as a full-time starter -- Dierker made 28 starts for the Astros, going 10-8 with a 3.18 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 187 innings.

Smoky Joe Wood, Red Sox
Year: 1909. Age: 19
WAR: 2.9

The dead-ball-era Red Sox hurler got his first extended stint in the Major Leagues as a 19-year-old in 1909, when he pitched in 24 games for Boston, making 19 starts. Wood went 11-7 with a 2.18 ERA that season, throwing four shutouts and striking out 88 batters in 160 2/3 innings. His best season would come a few years later in 1912, when he had a Major League-best 34-5 record, throwing 35 complete games and 10 shutouts as he led the Red Sox to a World Series championship over the Giants.

Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Year: 2005. Age: 19
WAR: 2.8

Video: SEA@DET: Felix makes his MLB debut, fanning four

After being named the Mariners' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2004 and pitching in the All-Star Futures Game, Hernandez earned his first Major League callup in August of 2005. When he made his MLB debut on Aug. 4 at 19 years, 118 days old, he became the youngest pitcher to appear in a big league game since Jose Rijo in 1984. King Felix made 12 starts down the stretch as a rookie, showing flashes of the talent that would make him one of the top pitchers in the American League in the seasons to come. Hernandez had a 2.67 ERA in those first 12 career starts, and he struck out 77 batters in 84 1/3 innings.

Honorable mention

Walter Johnson, Senators
Year: 1907. Age: 19
WAR: 2.7

The Big Train got his start in the big leagues a few months shy of his 20th birthday. Over the next two decades, he would build the Hall of Fame legacy that made him a baseball legend. But as a 19-year-old rookie, Johnson pitched only 14 games (12 of them starts) for the 1907 Senators. He went 5-9, but his record belied how well he pitched. Johnson had a 1.88 ERA in those 14 games, which included the first two of his all-time record 110 shutouts, and he recorded 71 strikeouts in his 110 1/3 innings on the mound.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

This week: NL East clash, Ohtani vs. Yanks

Must-see matchup each day as division races heat up
MLB.com @RichardJustice

We'll begin a new week with another Braves-Phillies series and end it with a Angels-Yankees pitching matchup -- Shohei Ohtani vs. Masahiro Tanaka -- that'll resonate across at least two continents. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.

As for the Braves and Phillies, this will be the fourth series between the two contenders in the National League East, currently led by Atlanta. But this time, it'll have a different feel because we're way past the point of thinking, "Aren't they cute, this pretending to be in contention and all?"

We'll begin a new week with another Braves-Phillies series and end it with a Angels-Yankees pitching matchup -- Shohei Ohtani vs. Masahiro Tanaka -- that'll resonate across at least two continents. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.

As for the Braves and Phillies, this will be the fourth series between the two contenders in the National League East, currently led by Atlanta. But this time, it'll have a different feel because we're way past the point of thinking, "Aren't they cute, this pretending to be in contention and all?"

As we approach the one-third point of the season, these teams have convinced just about everyone that they're the real deal and are good enough to contend for an NL playoff berth.

Watch live games on MLB.TV

That point was driven home again Sunday when the Braves ground out a string of remarkable at-bats and scored six -- count 'em six -- runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to stun the Marlins, 10-9.

Video: Must C Comeback: Braves score 6 in the 9th to win it

That's symbolic of something larger: 18 teams being within 3 1/2 games of first place, all of them thinking, like the Braves and Phillies, "We can do this."

Let's run down this week's schedule and pick the best of each day:

MONDAY: Yankees at Rangers (8:05 p.m. ET, MLB Network, MLB.TV)
Wait, what? Aren't the Braves and Phillies beginning a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park? Yes, they are, and it'll be a good one, beginning with Mike Foltynewicz going for the Braves and Nick Pivetta for the Phillies. The Braves lead the series, 6-3, in a division that the Nationals were supposed to control. But we can't resist a Yankees-Rangers contest that will feature two of the great pitching craftsmen in the game: Tanaka and Bartolo Colon. Memo to every young pitcher: Pay attention to this one and be reminded why location, movement and arm action are just as important as velocity. If you love the art of pitching -- not the power, but the art -- this one is for you.

TUESDAY: Rockies at Dodgers (10:10 p.m. ET, MLB.TV)
Can the Rockies return to the postseason with baseball's 22nd highest-scoring offense and a rotation that has yet to get untracked? It surely says something good that they've crept to near the top of the NL West with a long list of issues. As for the Dodgers, third baseman Justin Turner's return has sparked a mini hot streak, and now there's optimism that Clayton Kershaw could soon return. Those two developments won't automatically spark a run to the top of the NL West, but it's a great place to start.

WEDNESDAY: D-backs at Brewers (1:10 p.m. ET, MLB Network, MLB.TV)
Arizona's grip on the NL West has slipped away, thanks to a combination of pitching injuries and an offense that is scoring less than three runs a game this month. With center fielder A.J. Pollock injured, the D-backs need first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to get got. Meanwhile, the Brewers are back atop the NL Central, where they spent a large chunk of last season. They appear to be the team most capable of stealing the division from the Cubs.

THURSDAY: Astros at Indians (6:10 p.m. ET, MLB Network, MLB.TV)
These two teams play for the second time in as many weekends and would surprise almost no one with another friendly little head-to-head matchup in October. The Astros and Indians probably have baseball's two best rotations. Houston's bullpen is better, and both teams are attempting to get their offenses on track.

FRIDAY: Braves at Red Sox (7:10 p.m. ET, MLB.TV)
How about we hype this series as a 2018 World Series preview? The Red Sox began this season as one of a handful of teams that would surprise no one by returning to the Fall Classic and have passed pretty much every test so far. No team has been more fun to watch than the Braves and their mix of veterans and kids gaining confidence day by day.

SATURDAY: Cardinals at Pirates (4:05 p.m. ET, MLB.TV)
Injuries have hit the Cardinals hard in recent days. To lose shortstop Paul DeJong (broken hand), ace Carlos Martinez (pec muscle) and catcher Yadier Molina (pelvic area surgery) and still stay competitive, speaks well of the organization's depth. The Pirates are one of baseball's feel-good stories in riding a bunch of young guys to the top of the NL Central.

SUNDAY: Angels at Yankees (1:05 p.m. ET, MLB Network, MLB.TV)
Shohei Ohtani's every pitching start -- if not every at-bat -- has become must-watch baseball. This one has the added twist of Ohtani pitching against his fellow countryman, someone whose career he followed closely while honing his own game. It doesn't get any better than this one.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks

Hit and Run Baseball initiative introduced by MLB

Joint program with USA Baseball focused on engaging youth in gameplay
MLB.com @MannyOnMLB

Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced "Hit and Run Baseball" on Monday, a program supporting modified forms of the game that enable players to develop their skills in a more interactive format while also promoting player health and safety.

Hit and Run Baseball is part of the Play Ball initiative, and it will serve youth leagues, tournament providers and amateur coaches with recommended game formats that can be easily applied at all levels of youth and amateur baseball. Leagues and coaches can also create their own modified rules to best suit their individual league, tournament or team needs.

Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced "Hit and Run Baseball" on Monday, a program supporting modified forms of the game that enable players to develop their skills in a more interactive format while also promoting player health and safety.

Hit and Run Baseball is part of the Play Ball initiative, and it will serve youth leagues, tournament providers and amateur coaches with recommended game formats that can be easily applied at all levels of youth and amateur baseball. Leagues and coaches can also create their own modified rules to best suit their individual league, tournament or team needs.

More on Hit and Run Baseball

Coaches, leagues and administrators can find more information about the Hit and Run program at HitandRunBaseball.com.

"Hit and Run Baseball was created as a teaching tool designed to remind baseball participants that playing our game does not require a one-size-fits-all approach," said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. "There are many different ways to structure practice, games and tournaments so that players get the most out of their experiences, particularly through crisp pace of play while also limiting pitch count burdens on pitchers."

The main tenets of the Hit and Run Baseball program are:

• Quicker pace-of-play with more game action by reducing the number of pitches per at-bat, increasing the frequency of balls-in-play, and giving teams bonuses for hitting certain pace-of-play goals.

• More engagement with youth players by introducing more diverse game situations, giving players the opportunity to play different defensive positions and providing more opportunities to participate defensively.

• Improved player health and safety by limiting pitch counts, particularly among the youngest age groups.

• More teaching opportunities for coaches to provide immediate feedback to players.

Pilots of the Hit and Run Baseball program have resulted in games being played in a shorter time frame with more plate appearances, more balls in play and pitchers throwing fewer pitches.

"The importance of fun and actionable forms of game modification was identified early on in our strategic plan for growing our sport," said Rick Riccobono, USA Baseball's Chief Development Officer. "By creating this platform, we aim to make baseball available to a wider audience of participants by normalizing alternative methods of gameplay and further energizing the experience within the game."

Among the youth and amateur organizations that support Hit and Run Baseball are the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC), American Legion, Babe Ruth League, Dixie Youth, Dixie Boys & Majors, Little League International, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF), Ripken Baseball, USA Baseball, NCTB, PONY Baseball and Softball and Perfect Game.

Strategy and adjustments for the program moving forward will be guided by a committee consisting of leadership from throughout the professional and amateur levels of baseball, including Cal Ripken Jr. (Baseball Hall of Famer; MLB special advisor; vice chair of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation), Michael Cuddyer (special assistant of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins; USA Baseball Sport Development contributor; two-time MLB All-Star; member of the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame), Steve Keener (president and CEO, Little League International), Elliot Hopkins (director of sports, sanctioning and students services, National Federation of State High Schools Association), Paul Mainieri (head coach, Louisiana State University Tigers), John Vodenlich (head coach, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks), Josh Bloom (medical director, Carolina Sports Concussion Clinic; head medical team physician of the Carolina Hurricanes and USA Baseball), Kyle Stark (vice president and assistant general manager, Pittsburgh Pirates), Shaun Larkin (coordinator of skill development, Los Angeles Dodgers organization; former Minor League manager and coach; former collegiate and high school coach), Sean Campbell (senior director of sport development, USA Baseball) and David James (vice president of baseball and softball development, Major League Baseball; head of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.

Astros-Giants a family affair for Cole, Crawford

MLB.com @alysonfooter

HOUSTON -- On Tuesday, two brothers-in-law will make their way to Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston and take in a ballgame between the Astros and Giants.

This doesn't sound all that unusual. After all, countless family members do this every day throughout a season. Why make note of it?

HOUSTON -- On Tuesday, two brothers-in-law will make their way to Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston and take in a ballgame between the Astros and Giants.

This doesn't sound all that unusual. After all, countless family members do this every day throughout a season. Why make note of it?

Well, in this case, the brothers-in-law won't be watching this game in a leisurely manner. Come to think of it, they won't even be watching the game together.

And they'll be rooting against each other -- sort of.

The brothers-in-law in question are Gerrit Cole, one of several co-aces in the Astros' starting rotation, and Brandon Crawford, the Giants' All-Star shortstop. Cole is married to Crawford's sister, Amy, a former softball player whom he met on his first day of college at UCLA and started dating about a year later.

Amy will most likely be in the stands when the Astros and Giants open a two-game series in Houston on Tuesday. Her husband is the scheduled starting pitcher; presumably, her brother will be in the starting lineup.

This takes sibling rivalry to an entirely new level.

"Overall, it's fun," Cole said. "I think he enjoys competing; I enjoy competing."

This won't be the first time Crawford has stepped into the batter's box to face his brother-in-law. Cole played for the Pirates in the National League for several years before he was traded to Houston, meeting Crawford's Giants for two series each season.

In total, Crawford has four hits in 18 at-bats against Cole. Since Cole became an official member of the family -- he and Amy married in November 2016 -- Crawford is 2-for-6 with two strikeouts.

In the big picture, this means very little. Hitters can tally more than 600 plate appearances over the course of a full season. Pitchers can face dozens of hitters and throw thousands of pitches. The times that Crawford and Cole face each other come and go in the blink of an eye.

But it's fun to talk about, no?

"It's more fun for family, I think, than it is for us," Crawford said. "It doesn't help that he's a really good pitcher -- probably one of the best in baseball this year. That doesn't add to the fun of it for me."

Still, it must be strange for Cole to look to home plate and see someone so important to him on a personal level, and be tasked with making sure that person has a bad experience at the plate.

Is it weird?

"I've been asked that question for like five years now, and I can't really come up with a word that kind of encapsulates," Cole said. "I think it's probably hard for both of us to block out the idea. I root for him, he roots for me and now we're not rooting for each other anymore. Amy certainly gets put in a little bit of a predicament as well."

Ah, yes. So what does Amy do when her husband is on the mound, pitching to her brother?

"I don't know what she tells him, but she tells me that she roots for me to get a hit but not drive anybody in, and for him to win," Crawford said.

That's pretty much Cole's understanding as well.

"She's rooting for the most positive outcome for each of us that doesn't have an effect on the game," Cole said. "She wants us both to do well -- but not really at the expense of each other."

Monday was an off-day for both teams, giving them a free night in Houston. The Coles and Crawfords planned to spend that evening together. Maybe they'll mention Tuesday's game; more likely, they'll stick to less complicated subjects.

What's important is that while they're not friends on the field, when they're away from the park, they have genuine affection for each other.

"He's a consummate professional," Cole said. "A good husband, a great dad. A good example to look up to."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole, Brandon Crawford

Hicks brings the heat back to St. Louis

21-year-old reliever makes history with two 105-mph fastballs