You are probably aware that Oakland's Sean Manaea has been incredible in the early part of 2018. He has thrown a no-hitter (and a club-record 14 consecutive hitless innings). He has allowed more than one run in a game only once this season (he allowed two runs on April 10).
Manaea has a 1.03 ERA. The league is hitting .134 against him.
You get it. Manaea has been legendary. But here's maybe the most amazing part of all … he isn't doing anything that different. He's throwing the same pitches.
He's just throwing them slower.
Manaea has long been considered a major talent. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the first round of the 2013 Draft. Manaea was one of baseball's best pitching prospects when the Royals traded him to the A's to get Benjamin Zobrist for the 2015 pennant run. You can't say it was a bad trade for Kansas City no matter how good he becomes -- Zobrist was a crucial player as the Royals clinched their division, and he was superb in the postseason as Kansas City won its first World Series in 30 years.
Sometimes, when you're that close to being a champion, you just have to sacrifice the future. Sometimes it works, like when the Cubs traded sensational prospect Gleyber Torres for two months of Albertin Chapman and a World Series championship in 2016. Sometimes it doesn't, like when Washington dealt promising prospect Nick Pivetta for closer Jonathan Papelbon in 2015 and then didn't even make the postseason. But you can't blame a team for trying.
Manaea was seen by many as a future star because he had electric stuff -- he's 6-foot-5, left-handed, he threw in the mid-90s then, he had a good slider and a sneaky changeup. This is more or less the complete lefty starter kit. Manaea had a solid rookie season. He had a blander second season.
Something troubling happened that second year. Manaea's velocity dropped significantly. His average fastball and slider each dropped about a mph. It was worrisome. There were questions about his health. Manaea had started taking ADHD medicine before the season began, and it stifled his appetite. He lost 25 pounds. He felt weaker. Manaea and the Athletics shared the belief that once he regained his weight and health, his velocity would go back up.
Well, it's a year later. Manaea feels healthy. And his velocity is down even more. Manaea's average fastball is down to just 91 mph -- he often seems to work in the high 80s. His slider and changeup velocities are down, too.
But here's thing: The slower velocity has somehow made Manaea a better pitcher. Of course, the key isn't that he's throwing slower. It's that his command is so much better. Manaea is painting corners with that fastball. He's throwing the changeup with overwhelming confidence. His slider has been a bit more inconsistent, but when it's on, it might be his best pitch.
The league is hitting .143 against Manaea's fastball.
The league is hitting .133 against his changeup.
The league is hitting .087 against his slider.
When Manaea has all three of those pitches going, yeah, he's a threat to throw a no-hitter. The Athletics are blown away by his maturity. They did believe that Manaea would take a step forward this year and become a top-of-the-rotation type of pitcher, but now they are seeing him work over hitters like a left-handed Greg Maddux. It definitely has them pretty excited in Oakland.
A friend asks a quirky trivia question: Can you name the only player in baseball history with at least 3,000 plate appearances who has a higher strikeout percentage than on-base percentage?
I was in Washington on Monday night, and I watched as Bryce Harper came to the plate four times in the Nationals' victory over the Pirates on Monday night. He has been slumping the past couple of weeks, so I wanted to watch him closely.
Harper struck out twice. He was intentionally walked twice. He did not put the ball in play all night.
This was unusual -- Harper has not had a game where he did not put a ball in play since last June. Still, it struck me again that baseball is not like other sports. If you go to a basketball game to see Kevin Durant play or to a football game because you love Drew Brees, you will always see them do something impressive. In baseball, though, with everyday players, it's different. Not worse. Different.
You might not see anything at all.
"Where's Bryce?" the person next to me asked in the eighth inning when Harper was due up with a runner on second.
"He's on first already," I said. "They walked him."
"Well," she said, "that stinks."
That part does stink. I've railed about the intentional walk a million times already, but they are particularly galling now with so few balls being put into place. We are coming off the first month in baseball history where there were more strikeouts than hits per game. Strikeouts and walks made up 32 percent of the plate appearances, another record. I kept thinking that if I was a kid whose favorite player was Bryce Harper, and this was the only game I got to see, I'd feel a bit sad.
Sure, these games happen, they've always happened, they are a part of baseball. The trouble is that with balls in play at an all-time low, they're happening more.
Hint on the trivia question: His last name has six vowels in it.
OK, I'll admit it: I've spent too much time dealing with the fact that Detroit's Jeimer Candelario has not attempted a single stolen base in his short career. He has played in 69 games and he has zero stolen bases and zero caught stealing.
Now, the 69 games to start a career is nowhere near a record -- just in the expansion era since 1969, you can point to the glacial catcher Johnny Estrada, who played 612 games and did not attempt a steal in his entire career. Javier Valentin never attempted a stolen base in his rather lengthy career. Even among active players, Jesus Aguilar, John Ryan Murphy, Bruce Maxwell and several others have longer no-stolen-base-attempt streaks than Candelario.
Here's the difference: Candelario leads the American League in triples. To lead the league in triples, even for a month, means that you have at least a little bit of speed. He hit 20 triples in the Minor Leagues, so this isn't necessarily a fluke; he is not slow. Candelario just doesn't steal bases. He has stolen one base since 2014, that was with Toledo, and over that stretch, he was caught eight times.
Almost as quirky as Candelario: Oakland's Matt Chapman is also tied for the lead in triples. He too has not yet stolen a base in the Major Leagues. Chapman tried three times last year and was caught all three times.
OK, this wasn't our trivia question, but since we did that whole section on Candelario and Chapman, we'll give you a bonus one: Who holds the record for most stolen-base attempts without successfully stealing a base?
Answer: Pete Runnels tried 10 times to steal a base in 1952 and was out every single time. In fact, Runnels was thrown out the first 16 times he tried to steal a base. Finally on June 30, 1953, in the fifth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Athletics, he successfully stole second base for the first time. Runnels would go on to steal 36 more bases in his All-Star career.
This Josh Hader strikeout thing is getting completely out of control. On Monday night, he became the first pitcher in baseball history to strike out eight batters in an appearance of less than three innings. It's a slightly odd achievement, one that you probably need to repeat to get anyone to understand. So put it this way: Hader got an eight-out save on Monday. All eight outs were strikeouts.
Darth Hader has now faced 62 batters this season. He has struck out 39 of them.
These are high school numbers. Fairly often you will read a story about a big high school pitching prospect, and in passing the writer will say, "In addition to his 1.00 ERA, he has pitched 18 innings, allowed just four hits and has 39 strikeouts." That's what Hader is doing against Major League hitters so far.
Hader is doing it basically with two electrifying pitches: A four-seam fastball in the mid-90s and a devastating slider. What makes those pitches so good is that Hader does not get his strikeouts, in general, by getting hitters to chase out pitches out of the zone the way, say, Seattle's sensation Edwin Diaz does.
No, Hader throws his pitches in the zone, and batters still can't touch it. Hitters only make contact on 62 percent of the Hader pitches they swing at in the zone (lowest percentage in baseball) and they swing and miss one-fifth of all Hader pitches (20.2 percent swinging strike percentage is second in baseball, one-tenth of a point behind Diaz).
Hader is supposed to start. He entered 2017 as one of the best starting pitcher prospects around, and he has been developing a two-seam fastball and a changeup so that he can have the starter's repertoire. The Brewers undoubtedly will want to try Hader as a starter at some point.
But Hader has been so absurdly good as a multi-inning super weapon for the Brewers -- 13 of his past 14 outs have been by strikeout -- that you can't imagine Milwaukee changing things up right now.
The answer to our trivia question: Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the only player with 3,000 plate appearances to have a higher strikeout percentage (.308) than on-base percentage (.307).
Special attention must be paid to Russell Branyan, whose .329 strikeout percentage is the highest for any player with that many plate appearances, and it perfectly matches his .329 career on-base percentage.