FIRST HALF OBSERVATIONS OF THE AMERICAN LEAGUE

Major League Baseball

SO HOW’S IT GOING?

I have grave concerns about the state of play in the American League. As we enter July, most teams are woefully out of the race for the postseason. Many teams are now playing for and hoping for a great draft slot for 2019. And frankly, it was like that before the first pitch of the season was even thrown. Some teams were out of the pennant races before they even began. That isn’t different from previous seasons. What is different is the number of non-competitive major-league franchises

Fans want to see competitive baseball teams. If their team is not in the hunt they want to see young, exciting players that give hope to the future. Can we say that about the Texas Rangers? Can we say that about the Kansas City Royals? I can’t. And there are more in that category.

I do fear for the near and long-term future of the game of baseball.

By the end of June most teams were approaching the midway point in games played. Some teams have hit the 82 game mark, others had not. The end of June, first week of July is a good time to take stock of things. How’s it going so far in major-league baseball? Any issues? Any problems? What’s been great? What hasn’t been so great? We are now one week into July. But the statistics through the first week of the fourth month of the baseball year were pretty revealing.

I wish to start with the greatest fundamental problem of this baseball season. By mid-week of the first week of July, every American League team has virtually been eliminated from postseason play with the exception of the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners. All the other American League clubs are playing for a high 2019 draft pick. It stinks.

On the last day of June, Tampa Bay was playing excellent baseball. They were 14 games out of the lead in the East. One week later they are 15 games out. Minnesota had hopes of catching Cleveland in the Central. They lost Byron Buxton to injury and poor production, Miguel Sano is in the minor leagues, Ervin Santana still hasn’t thrown one major-league inning this year, Lance Lynn has been a bust and they find themselves 11.5 games behind Cleveland.  That is three more games out after the last week of June. Things are going worse for them, not better. Can they make up 12 games in the standings? Perhaps-but the Indians would have to have one of the all-time in-season collapses for that to happen. I doubt it. The Twins appear to be toast for 2018.

As June became July Houston and Seattle had the best chance to win the West. The Mariners were only 1.5 games behind the Astros this past Thursday, even without Robbie Cano. Oakland was 9 games back, and fading. The West is a battle. And it could go on through the second half of the season.

It would appear the contenders will turn to the also-rans to strip them of any pitcher on the non-contending teams who is breathing, can comb his hair, makes too much money or is on the last year of a contract. The Yankees will get their starter. The Indians and Astros may find a reliever. Boston may look to fortify as well. Manny Machado trade talk continues as I write this with the Orioles shopping at high-end stores rather than the big box discount outlets. Maybe they will get a huge haul for Machado. Maybe not. By the time you read this he may have been traded. Pitchers like Lance Lynn have become available due to the Twins collapse. Others will be named as “trade bait” as we approach the end of the month and the non-waiver trade deadline approaches. One-time buyers like the Twins will now become sellers. The buyers will be in constant touch with the sellers from the cellars.

ATTENDANCE

And here is the sobering news for MLB and team officials.  Here are some interesting and very problematic attendance figures through April, May, June, and the first week of July.

Average daily attendance for the:

Baltimore Orioles=20,231. Camden Yards was once an iconic baseball lovers’ destination with sold out games, electricity, great food down Eutaw Street, a fabulous baseball venue and excitement every game. Not now. Not this year. On average, 20,000 fans watched their games, up a tick at this writing from the end of June when the number was less than 20,000. To me, this is one of the saddest cases in baseball attendance. Hotels have been built around Camden Yards to accommodate flocks of out-of-town baseball fans. Rooms are more available now than ever in the area.

Chicago White Sox=17,693. Guaranteed Rate Field and the Chicago White Sox certainly aren’t drawing fans like the best or even mediocre days of Comiskey Park or even the most recently named U. S. Cellular Field. I guess White Sox fans aren’t crazy about watching a team in transition. I hope that changes when Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Michael Kopech show up. It can’t be too soon. Their north side neighboring Chicago Cubs fans are turning the Wrigley Field turnstiles at a clip of 38,350 per game. What’s wrong with this picture? Same city, but a tale of two totally different baseball clubs separated by a few miles geographically. It’s as if they are in totally different cities. Changing the name of the venue a few times hasn’t helped improve the product on the field. Yet.

Cleveland Indians=21,508. Some say Cleveland is a football town. That really isn’t true. Great Indians teams have sold out Progressive Field and Jacobs Field before that. The economy is not great in Cleveland, but there is no excuse for the horrible crowds. But frankly, this Tribe team has scuffled mightily at times and only their presence in the Central division has kept the attendance at least at 20,000. It could have been even worse. What would have happened if they were in the American League East and lower in the standings? A first-place club should draw like a first-place club.  That’s exactly what is happening in Houston (35,904) and New York for the Yankees (42,774). A 15,000 to 20,000 person difference in per game attendance
makes a world of difference regarding revenue production-and ultimately spending.

Detroit Tigers=21,877. The Tigers are a very exciting young team. They don’t play the best baseball, Miguel Cabrera is out for the year and no huge baseball names remain. The team is searching for a star. A lack of star power and a lack of wins has hurt attendance badly. I don’t see that changing much in the future, either. Detroit is a good baseball town. Fans are loyal. They seem to be enjoying watching Jeimer Candelario, Nicholas Castellanos and Niko Goodrum on television with the comfort of home rather than seeing the games live at Comerica Park.

Minnesota Twins=23,687. Through June the Twins have laid a colossal egg. Can they regroup and be competitive the rest of the season? I doubt it. But, they may be able to trade some of the veterans and shore up their future by trading guys like Brian Dozier and/or Lance Lynn. This may even get worse before it gets better. Byron Buxton has been demoted to Triple-A to join an underachieving Miguel Sano. Buxton is still recovering from injury, but when will he return? Sano has seen his weight get out of control and his skills erode in the first couple months of the season. Fans have seen him swing and miss far too often. The Twins front office has challenges ahead.

Kansas City Royals= 20,282. Well, I guess those Championship clubs are certainly a distant memory.
There are plenty of good seats available at Kaufman Stadium to come watch a club in total disarray and one that is likely years away from contending again. Why didn’t the Royals shore up their club when they knew they would be torn apart by aging veterans and free agents? I have no idea, but this may be a bottom-feeding club for several years and the attendance will reflect that status. They chose to sign Alex Gordon to a long-term contract but didn’t make deals with Eric Hosmer and Alonzo Cain to keep them in Kansas City. It is still a great baseball town with lots of enthusiasm, but the team is in competitive trouble. At this writing the team has won 25 baseball games and has lost 61. I hope their scouting department is out scouring the world for the next wave of Royals players, because for now, the cupboard seems fairly barren.

Oakland Athletics=15,847-This is a real shame. So far, we still don’t know where the Athletics will be playing their future games and the fan base waits and waits to learn the team’s ultimate destination. In the meantime, the Oakland Coliseum remains fairly empty even though the club is playing good, but inconsistent baseball as the season progresses. Nice young players like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson provide an exciting core for the future. But nobody is watching them in person. The current venue is uninviting, sterile and does not compete with modern facilities. They can’t get the new place built fast enough-but they haven’t even announced a new location. Even if they are close to a decision, it will take at least three or four years to complete a new facility. Oakland waits. The team seems to be running in place at the present time. One day they can beat anyone, the next day they scuffle. I think they have a fantastic manager in Bob Melvin, but they just don’t have a deep enough roster to threaten either Houston or Seattle in the division.

Tampa Bay Rays=14,758. If I were a Rays fan I guess I would be sick and tired of all the talk about moving the club. When? Where? Less than 15,000 people are showing up per game to watch a team that is playing good baseball with a different philosophy and plan of bullpen pitchers being used as starters. So far, that method is working fine. The team is exciting to watch. But fans certainly aren’t rushing to buy tickets for a team that is once again-in transition. The Rays used to have pitching depth that was the envy of all of baseball. They would search high and low for offense. Now they are searching for starters. Who knows if their pending deal in the Ybor City area at the other end of the bridge and in the Tampa area rather than St. Petersburg will either happen or be successful if it does? Can Florida support two MLB teams? Right now they aren’t even supporting either the Rays or the Marlins. For good reasons.

Eight American League clubs, more than half are looking at very poor attendance through almost the first half of the season. Of them, only Cleveland has a realistic chance to be playing in the postseason.

Eight American League clubs have not drawn a million fans with almost half the season in the books. That my friends, is a problem. I guess they are very grateful for their television and radio rights money. And we can’t forget that each club got a huge, huge equity payment from the sale of MLB.com to Disney. As I have stated many times on this site, we can never feel sorry for any major league baseball owner. Some choose to spend their money on player personnel. Others are more frugal and probably have less to work with. That’s baseball. Parody has come and gone, if it ever really did exist.

MAKING CONTACT, BALLS IN PLAY, STRIKEOUTS

One of the most troubling aspects of the current edition of major-league baseball is the lack of contact being made game after game. It is not unusual for 20 minutes to elapse during a game before a ball is put in play. I have to ask the question-how long can baseball attract new fans with so little action in the game? I think younger fans spend much more time on other aspects in their lives than watching baseball games. It really is frightening. And it isn’t only in the American League. Next week I’ll look at the National League’s woes.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it should be acceptable to strike out. With one exception. Nothing good happens when a hitter strikes out. The only exception is hitting into a double-play. That’s worse. Two outs for the price of one. But have you noticed how many hitters are returning to the bench after taking a called third strike? I don’t get. In Little League I was taught that with two strikes I had to shorten my swing and swing at any pitch near the strike zone. I couldn’t leave a deciding pitch up to the whim of an umpire. I had to take control with two strikes. What in the world are these guys thinking? Fooled, are they? Were they looking for a breaking ball and got a fastball? Was it the opposite way around? Watch the pitch out of the pitcher’s hand and at least swing. And walk back to the dugout upset. And don’t get a “high five” or a “fist bump” for striking out. I just don’t see that many guys that are upset when they strike out. I don’t want them to throw their bat, but I want to see some disgust on their face or in the way they carry themselves. No, not all players act like it’s just a walk in the park. There are still plenty of guys that hate to strike out. But the number is dwindling. The strikeout is far too acceptable today by the hitter, the manager and the front office. Fans have no say in the matter except to refuse to buy a ticket to a game or turn their TV or radio to a baseball game. And that is happening more and more.

By the middle of the first week of July the Texas Rangers had struck out 826 times in 88 games. They had 705 hits. I don’t like that math. The Chicago White Sox had struck out 831 times in 87 games. There are only 27 outs in a full nine inning game. The Rangers and White Sox are striking out 9.3 to 9.5 times per game. More than a third of there outs are via strikeout, assuming they are using 27 instead of 24 outs. The Rangers and White Sox are not to be found anywhere near a respectable part of the American League standings, and I am trying to determine if there is a correlation between strikeouts and winning teams. Here is a glimpse of the impact of strikeouts.

Here are some strikeout totals for five contending teams at the middle of the first week of July:

Yankees=759
Red Sox=683
Indians=685
Astros=694
Mariners=686

If those are the major contenders, and I think we can assume they are, it is evident that the division leading clubs are putting the ball in play with greater frequency. Most teams have roughly the same number of at-bats. In a few cases the difference is negligible.  The White Sox actually have fewer at-bats than the Red Sox, Astros, and Mariners. The Yankees have fewer than all of them. The Indians have the second fewest. But I think the numbers are important.

The Yankees total would be even lower, but Aaron Judge (114) and Giancarlo Stanton (115) skew the Yankees strikeout total. I was surprised that Gary Sanchez has 63 strikeouts, because I thought it was more. Of course, he is injured now and not playing.

WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

The phrase “wait until next year” was popular when I was growing up. My team would fall out of contention by the All-Star break and fans were resigned to wait until next year for any type of improvement in the club.

Is it at all realistic to think the teams that have fallen out of their divisional races so early this year can right the ship and be competitive in 2019?  Is there hope that an injection of prospects from trading veterans this year will elevate the “have not” teams to the upper part of their respective divisions? It is unrealistic to think a huge difference can take place in one year. But it has happened before. The Astros and Cubs have both taken the deep dive to rebuilding. They have both survived as Champions. Can that happen to the White Sox? The Tigers? The Royals? The Rangers? Only time will tell.

Baseball has long had teams that have not been competitive for numbers of years. There were always one or two cellar dwellers that could be counted upon to puff up the winning records of their better competitors. Losing is not new to baseball. However, the number of pathetic clubs that have virtually no chance of winning their division as the first pitch of the season is thrown is alarming to me. How long will it take for Detroit or Chicago or Kansas City to be truly competitive over a 162-game season in the Central? How about Texas in the West, or Baltimore in the East? Those are the teams that I feel are buried for the foreseeable future. It used to be one or two perennial cellar dwellers per league. The number has grown.

How patient will an aging baseball fandom be in waiting for their team to rebound? Will the younger population turn to soccer or other sports? Will their busy lives at work and in more diverse lives keep them further and further away from watching baseball live at the stadium? If they are interested in baseball, will they continue to stream and watch games on their numerous devices as is now happening with great frequency? Those are the issues that face the Brass of major league baseball.

The problem with every team I just listed (with the exception of the White Sox) is a lack of institutional depth. They have farm systems that don’t have the quality players to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, or Indians. The Mariners do not have farm system depth, but they have a general manager willing to trade important players if he feels he is upgrading his team. Jerry Dipoto is fearless when it comes to making attempts to improve his Mariners roster. Other general managers and front offices are much more reticent to trade household names or those type players they have had under control and contract since their development days.

While the rich get richer, the poor run in place. I believe the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros will all get even better than they are today before the Tigers, White Sox or Royals show any serious improvement in their fortunes. I’m not as sure about the Indians and Mariners.

Next week I’ll take a look at the National League through the first week of July and see how they’re doing. But believe me, the picture isn’t much prettier.

Popups

Chris Davis of the Orioles makes a ton of money. He has no financial worries for the rest of his life and the lives of generations of his family to follow. Davis signed a 7-year, $161MM contract in…wait for it…2016. Just two years ago. He will be paid $23MM in the year 2020. Yet, here he is hitting .152 with seven home runs after half the season has been played. Amazing. And it isn’t just Davis that isn’t coming close to providing value for his contract. But that is part of baseball’s problem. Long-term contracts have killed many franchises. I’m not sure, however, that some baseball execs can stop themselves from spending someone else’s money. Cases like that of Davis have driven owners to hire more metric driven general managers with deep and extensive math skills. The horrible contracts have also led some owners to be very, very frugal in an effort to avoid signing contracts like the one signed by Chris Davis.

Joey Gallo continues to be a feast or famine hitter. He has some of the greatest strikeout swings in the game. But his power is lethal when bat meets ball. He has hit 21 homers and is hitting .192. I’m not sure that average will ever improve much.

The Twins thought Logan Morrison would add to their offense and build on his very good 2017 season. So far, it is safe to say Morrison is a bust. He is part of the reason the Twins have not been competitive in the AL Central so far. He is not alone on the Twins all non-productive team as I illustrated above.

I’m thrilled to see the Yankees have returned Brandon Drury to the parent team. With Gleyber Torres out for a bit, maybe Drury will see some playing time. I still expect him to be traded by the end of July. We may see more of Drury in the Yankees lineup in the coming games to “showcase” him to clubs looking for help at 3B, his best position.

It really is tough for me to watch Victor Martinez hit at the plate or run to first base. He is a mere shadow of his past at this point in his career. Martinez was one of the finest pure hitters I ever saw when he broke in with the Cleveland Indians. Time takes a toll on all of us. But I’m glad I still get to see him play. A regular .300 plus hitter in the past, this year VMart is hitting just 241. Given the lack of production from Martinez and now without Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers aren’t scaring many opponents.

How would Joey Gallo, Khris Davis and Jesus Aguilar do in the Home Run Derby? I don’t think we’ll find out, but those guys have some awesome power and it would be fun to watch.

Largely unnoticed is the fact that White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson has 20 stolen bases as I write this. Anderson stole 15 all of last season. He is making himself into a very capable base stealer. He needs more plate discipline so he can walk more often. He has walked only 20 times in 335 plate appearances.

Next week I’ll write my observations about the state of the National League.

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About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff