Home Featured Extra Innings: Injuries pile up for AL favorites, top prospects getting the call, surprising starts and more

Extra Innings: Injuries pile up for AL favorites, top prospects getting the call, surprising starts and more

by Chris Brown

As Major League Baseball begins to formulate plans for some sort of a postseason bubble, COVID-19 continues to disrupt the regular season. On Thursday, two positive coronavirus tests led to the postponement of two games and left the fate of other contests in question. Unfortunately, this type of situation is not new for the league in 2020, so despite another disruption to schedules, the MLB season will keep chugging along.

Every Friday, Extra Innings gets you caught up on the biggest storylines across the baseball world and provides analysis of what lies ahead. Let’s jump right into this week’s addition:

Injuries are continuing to pile up across the majors, with some teams especially impacted.

Few teams have seen more star players land on the injured list in recent weeks than the Yankees and Astros. Let’s start in New York, where Aaron Judge (calf strain), Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring strain), DJ LeMahieu (thumb sprain), Zack Britton (hamstring strain) and Tommy Kahnle (Tommy John surgery) are all sidelined right now. Britton just landed on the IL on Aug. 20, and Gleyber Torres (hamstring injury) and James Paxton (arm discomfort) exited the Yankees’ loss to the Rays the same day. After being swept by Tampa Bay, Aaron Boone’s team has lost its lead in the AL East. 

For most teams, such losses would be insurmountable. Make no mistake, the road ahead certainly isn’t going to be easy for the Yankees, but they do have incredible depth, particularly on the offensive end. First baseman Luke Voit has homered five times in his last four games, upping his season total to 10. As Ryan Spaeder pointed out on Thursday, Voit is batting .279/.383/.538 with 41 home runs and 103 RBI over his last 162 games played. He looks like legitimately one of the best first basemen in the AL at this point. And across the diamond is Gio Urshela, who’s backed up his surprise breakout in 2019 with a .846 OPS this season. Outfielders Clint Frazier and Mike Tauchman have also performed well in a limited sample size this year.

Then there’s the Astros, who have improved on a rocky start to the season with eight straight wins despite the major injuries continuing to pile up. The team is currently without the 2019 AL Cy Young winner (Justin Verlander), the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year (Yordan Álvarez), the 2019 MLB saves leader (Roberto Osuna), the 2019 AL MVP runner-up (Alex Bregman) and a four-time All-Star outfielder (Michael Brantley). José Altuve is hitting .190 on the season, which certainly doesn’t help matters. Much of the Astros’ recent success can be attributed to a pitching staff that’s tallied a strong 3.41 ERA in August. While they’re within striking distance of the A’s in the AL West, they certainly have plenty of challenges ahead as they look to win the division for a fourth straight season under new manager Dusty Baker.

Top prospects are getting called up at an astounding rate with the playoff races wide open.

Of course, the Yankees and Astros aren’t the only teams that have been hit hard by injuries. While injuries are never a good thing, if you had to find a bright side, it’s the number of top prospects that have gotten the call in recent weeks. Some of that is due largely to injuries, while poor performance from major leaguers and the 16-team playoff field are also key factors. Whatever the reason, it’s an exciting time for young talent. Casey Mize, the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball (per MLB Pipeline), made his big-league debut for the Tigers on Aug. 19, becoming the first starter in franchise history with seven strikeouts and zero walks in his MLB debut. Joey Bart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft (behind Mize), was called up the very next day. The Giants’ top prospect, the projected successor to Buster Posey behind the plate, is the 15th-ranked prospect in MLB.

Also getting promoted to the majors in recent weeks: Angels outfielder Jo Adell (No. 6 overall prospect), Braves outfielder Cristian Pache (No. 14), Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson (No. 18), Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers (No. 30), Phillies infielder Alec Bohm (No. 31), and Phillies pitcher Spencer Howard (No. 36). As MLB.com’s Andrew Simon noted Thursday, the top four picks from the 2018 draft (Mize, Bart, Bohm, and the White Sox’s Nick Madrigal) have all made it to the majors.

Kenta Maeda has tapped into his full potential with the Twins.

The right-hander has been an underrated arm for the past several years while pitching for the Dodgers, but due in large part to the structure of his contract and Dodgers incredible pitching depth, the team often limited his pitch count and shuffled him back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen and back again. Now in his first year with the Twins following an offseason trade, Maeda has been let loose to great effect, as made even clearer in his most recent start.

On Aug. 18, Maeda set a new Twins record with eight consecutive strikeouts in an incredibly dominant start against the Brewers. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before Milwaukee third baseman Eric Sogard looped a base hit into shallow right-center field. While he didn’t end up logging the win, Maeda tallied 12 strikeouts and generated an eye-popping 26 swinging strikes in his 9+ innings of work, throwing a career-high 115 pitches. After the outing, Maeda’s season line: 3-0, 2.27 ERA, 0.63 WHIP, 33 K/BB in 31.2 IP. 

Statcast data reveals that the 32-year-old has done a few things differently this season, including throwing his fastball less frequently, mixing in his slider and changeup more often instead. Overall, though, much of Maeda’s success comes from the fact that he has five distinctly different pitches he can locate with pinpoint accuracy. When Maeda is on, batters have to watch for various speeds and locations and changes from at-bat to at-bat, something that keeps them guessing. He’s now serving as the ace of a pitching staff that entering Aug. 20 had posted the fourth-best ERA in baseball this season. Add that to the Twins’ powerful offense and you’ve got a team to watch out for in October. 

Some surprising names are off to incredible starts in 2020.

Aug. 21 marks exactly one month since Opening Day, making this a good time to check in on the top performers to begin the year. Four weeks in, several players who got off to hot starts have cooled off, while the players still performing surprisingly strong deserve real attention. I decided to take a look at the top five players in Baseball-Reference wins above replacement (a measure of a player’s overall value) through Aug. 20. Three intriguing names ranked in the top five among both hitters and pitchers. 

Let’s start with hitters, where Mookie Betts (2.1 WAR) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.9) lead the way, to no major surprise. The next three players are quite interesting, though. No. 3 is Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who entered Thursday with an AL-leading 1.157 OPS. Heading into play Aug. 20, Lowe had hit seven home runs and driven in 16 runs with a .374 average over his last 15 games. The 26-year-old missed significant time last year due to injury, but has now played roughly a season’s worth of games in the majors in his career, hitting 31 homers and 30 doubles and stealing seven bases with a .272/.345/.537 batting line.

Also of note amongst the top five hitters in WAR are outfielders Mike Yastrzemski (4th) and Anthony Santander (5th). While both are performing at a level no one expected, neither came entirely out of the blue, as Yastrzemski hit 21 homers in 107 games for the Giants last season while Santander hit 20 longballs in 93 games for the Orioles. Santander leads baseball in extra-base hits (20) while Yastrzemski ranks 11th in OPS.

On the mound, the Rangers’ Lance Lynn has continued his incredible start to the season and currently leads all pitchers in WAR (1.9). The 33-year-old leads baseball in innings (39.1), is fifth in strikeouts (42) and fourth among qualifiers in ERA (1.37). After posting a disappointing 4.48 ERA in 2019, the Reds’ Trevor Bauer has also impressed, posting a major league best 0.68 ERA through his first four starts of the season. The biggest surprise in the top five was undoubtedly Colorado’s Kyle Freeland, whose incredible start has really come out of nowhere after he posted a 6.73 ERA and 3-11 record last year. Freeland has posted a microscopic 0.63 WHIP and strong 2.56 ERA for the Rockies through just over 30 innings. Continued success from him would go a long way in assuring Colorado reaches the playoffs for the first time in three years.

What’s on Deck?

I’ve now written in Extra Innings for two straight weeks that the streak of days without all 30 MLB teams in action has continued. I guess let’s make it three weeks in a row. Due to COVID-19 postponements and rainouts, that stretch is now up to 26 consecutive days, with no clear endpoint given the Mets situation. 

As for this weekend’s action, the Braves are set to host the Phillies, with Aaron Nola and Max Fried squaring off on Friday in a battle of two of the top pitchers in the NL this season. Veterans Jon Lester and Dallas Keuchel will oppose each other to open up a three-game set between the Cubs and White Sox at Wrigley Field. And the Padres will host the Astros in another series of note.

Photo by Kris Dunn / Flickr

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