I was driving around today after taking the dogs down to the local reservoir for a walk when a disgruntled Dodgers fan called in to MLB Radio. His complaint: Dave Roberts doesn't utilize the sacrifice bunt enough.
As the hosts pointed out, the Dodgers are actually fourth in the majors in sacrifice bunts -- though with 39 entering Wednesday's game, that's a far cry from the 103 that Walter Alston had the team execute in 1965 or the 95 under Tommy Lasorda in 1988.
Both of those Dodgers teams won the World Series, but the point here is that the game has changed. Nobody bunts anymore. Four American League teams have fewer than 10 sacrifice bunts. The Dodgers have just eight from position players, so the caller was right: Roberts doesn't bunt.
We know the reasons. Everyone is trying to hit home runs, and the Dodgers are very good at that, leading the National League. The analysts in the front office have proven that the bunt is usually a bad strategy, giving up an out while decreasing the chances of a big inning.
This gets to my other point: The base hit is dead. Well, it's not dead, but it's getting close to needing life support. The overall MLB average of .248 is the lowest since a .244 mark in 1972, which so scared major league owners that the American League instituted the designated hitter for 1973. Why bunt if the next batter is likely to strike out or hit a home run?
This brings us to the batting races. In an era when the value of batting average is discounted, with fewer singles and more strikeouts than ever, it isn't a surprise that we're also seeing fewer .300 hitters. At the moment, there are just 17 qualified regulars batting .300. There are just two batting .320 or better: Red Sox Mookie Betts (.334) and J.D. Martinez (.331). Christian Yelich leads Scooter Gennett in the NL race, .319 to .317.
To put those totals in perspective, let's go back to 1969, the first year after the mound was lowered (plus an expansion season that gave us 24 teams). Two .320 hitters would be the fewest in a season since then (four seasons had three: 1973, 1974, 1978 and 1982). Compare that to 2000: 26 regulars hit at least .320 that year, including 15 who hit .330, with Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Helton both batting .372. The 17 .300 hitters wouldn't quite be the lowest total since 1969 -- there were 16 in 1973 and 1978 -- but in 1999, 55 players hit .300!
This isn't whining, just pointing out how the game has evolved and why Dave Roberts never bunts. The pitchers are better and throw harder, and the same group of players from 1999 wouldn't all hit .300 against today's pitchers.
The batting races, however, are still fun. The Betts-Martinez race not only affects Martinez's Triple Crown bid (and possible MVP Award) but also rekindles memories of two famous batting races involving teammates.
In 1984, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield of the Yankees headed into the final four-game series against Detroit both sitting at .342. Entering the final day, Winfield led .341 to .339. Mattingly hit third, Winfield fourth. In the first inning, Mattingly singled, while Winfield grounded out. In the third, Mattingly led off with a double, and Winfield walked (which must have killed him). In the fourth, Mattingly doubled again, and Winfield singled, leaving Mattingly at .343 and Winfield at .342. In the fifth, Mattingly flew out, and in the sixth Winfield flew out. It came down to the final at-bat against Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez (who won the Cy Young and MVP that year). Mattingly singled, and Winfield grounded out, and the batting title belonged to Mattingly.
A more controversial race was the 1976 contest between George Brett and Hal McRae of the Royals. Both were at .331 entering the final day. As in 1984, it came down to each player's final at-bat in the bottom of the ninth. Brett, batting third in the lineup, needed a hit to move ahead of McRae. He lofted a fly ball to left that Twins left fielder Steve Brye misplayed, and it turned into an inside-the-park home run. McRae then grounded out, giving Brett the title, .333 to .332.
As McRae grounded out, he made two obscene gestures to the Twins dugout and had to be restrained when Twins manager Gene Mauch came on the field. McRae accused the Twins of racism after the game, suggesting that Brye was playing too deep and hesitated on the play, saying, "I know they let that ball fall on purpose." Mauch called the accusations the worst thing that happened to him in 35 years in baseball.
Martinez has been playing catch-up in this year's race for a few weeks now. He last led Betts on Aug. 28, .338 to .336, but a few days later, he had slipped to .329 while Betts was at .340. Martinez went 3-for-3 while Betts went 0-for-4 on Wednesday in Boston's 10-1 loss to the Yankees, so the race is back on (Betts .334, Martinez .331).
Yelich and Gennett were going head-to-head again Wednesday, when Yelich pulled ahead by going 2-for-4 in the Brewers' 7-0 win while Gennett went 1-for-2 with two walks. That's a fun race because Gennett would certainly be one of the more surprising batting champs in recent years.
Michael Cuddyer won the 2013 NL race at .331, a surprise considering he had a career average of .271 entering that season. But that also came with the Rockies, and six Rockies have won batting titles since 2007. You have to go back to Freddy Sanchez in 2006 to find a surprise similar to Gennett. Sanchez was in his second full season and hit .291 the year before, but he also was 28 years old. He hit .344 but hit .300 just one other season. Bill Mueller hit .326 for the Red Sox in 2003 (the only time he hit .300 over a full season in his career) but had hit .330 in a partial season as a rookie in 1996 and topped .290 four other times.
OK, some quick thoughts on Wednesday's games ...
Louis flips one out. pic.twitter.com/Bsxq4QyXW3— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 20, 2018
Another case of Déjà Voit. pic.twitter.com/csp1qndiVT— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 20, 2018
The side note here: Price has had two bad starts since May: Both against the Yankees and both at Yankee Stadium (he gave up five home runs to them on July 1). Could be nothing, could be something, but it probably means the Red Sox rotation, if they play the Yankees in the division series, would be Chris Sale and Price at Fenway and Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees had to be thrilled to see Luis Severino go seven innings and 109 pitches, marking the first time he has lasted seven innings since Aug. 8, though you do wonder why he came back out in the seventh with an 8-1 lead and all those September relievers on the roster.
Puig! Yasiel Puig gave us one of the signature moments of the season with a dramatic three-run, pinch-hit home run in the seventh to give the Dodgers a 5-2 lead over the Rockies -- his sixth home run in his past 18 at-bats. The Dodgers held on to sweep the series and open a 2½-game lead in the NL West.
SEPTEMBER. BASEBALL. pic.twitter.com/3WdRYOMrZG— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 20, 2018
The huge key was Walker Buehler, who threw 36 pitches in the first inning as the Rockies took an early 2-0 lead (an error meant the runs were unearned). Given the pitch count, it looked like there would be an early hook for Buehler, but he managed to go six innings and finished with 12 strikeouts, throwing just 65 pitches in his final five innings. Clayton Kershaw (2.17 ERA in second half), Buehler (2.14 ERA in second half) and Hyun-Jim Ryu (2.21 ERA, 42-to-3 SO/BB ratio since coming off the DL on Aug. 15) are a pretty formidable trio right now.
Brewers win, Cubs lose: Gio Gonzalez shut down the Reds with six scoreless innings (another one of David Stearns' go-for-it pickups), and Jesus Aguilar hit his 33rd home run as he soared past 100 RBIs. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, blanked the Cubs 9-0 behind Robbie Ray, so the Brewers again are 2½ games back. Combined with the Cardinals' loss to the Braves, Milwaukee's wild-card lead is three games over St. Louis.
Cole Hamels had his first bad start for the Cubs, with seven runs and nine hits in six innings, including two home runs. Hamels had major home run issues with the Rangers, but he didn't allow any in his first seven starts with the Cubs. He has allowed five in his past three outings.
Jason Kipnis walks it off in grand style: How's this for your 1,000th career hit:
Here's your random fun factoid of the night, courtesy of Paul Casella of ESPN Stats & Information: This was just the second walk-off grand slam in MLB history in a game that had been 1-0. The other belongs to Ron Santo for the Cubs on Sept. 25, 1968.
With Josh Donaldson in Cleveland, Kipnis has made his past five starts in center field, with Jose Ramirez sliding to second base. It will be interesting to see how this affects the Indians in the playoffs. An outfield of Michael Brantley in left, Kipnis in center and Melky Cabrera in right is pretty bad, all three with below-average range and Kipnis lacking experience (as we saw last season when the Indians tried the same thing in the playoffs). Of course, if they strike out 15 batters a game like they did Wednesday -- Carlos Carrasco had 11 in 6⅔ innings and leads the majors in strikeouts in the second half -- there won't be many balls in play.