A friend and co-worker of mine is a big Houston Astros fan. I bumped into him in the office Wednesday afternoon and asked him if he had watched Zack Greinke's debut with the team. He joked that of course he watched it since he has missed only 10 minutes of Astros baseball all season. Yes, it's fun when your team is good and exciting. I told him to enjoy his World Series title this year.
Things are so good in Houston that even Yuli Gurriel, perhaps the most nondescript regular in the Astros' lineup, is tearing it up. In the Astros' 14-3 win over the Rockies on Wednesday, Gurriel went 2-for-4 with eight RBIs, mashing his 23rd home run and matching the club record for RBIs in a game. Over his past 35 games, Gurriel is hitting .379 with 18 home runs and 48 RBIs -- an RBI total that matches what Christian Yelich did in his final 35 games of 2018 when he went on the tremendous run to win National League MVP honors.
Back on June 22, Gurriel was hitting a lackluster .258/.293/.389, subpar numbers for a first baseman and especially subpar numbers for a first baseman in rabbit ball 2019. Gurriel had been a solid enough contributor the past two seasons -- 2.4 WAR in 2017, 2.3 WAR in 2018, making him a slightly above-average regular -- but if you were to pinpoint a potential weakness on the Astros on June 22, you would have suggested Gurriel.
No longer. Since that date he leads the majors in batting average and RBIs -- but not in home runs. That honor belongs to Nelson Cruz. He went 0-for-4 on Wednesday in the Minnesota Twins' 11-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves, but since June 23 he's hitting .331/.422/.812 with 19 home runs and 40 RBIs.
Not only are Gurriel and Cruz the hottest hitters in the majors, but they also are two of the oldest regulars. Gurriel turned 35 in June. Cruz turned 39 in July. Only 22 players 35 or older have batted at least 200 times this season. Only nine of them had at least 1.0 WAR entering Wednesday's action and only five -- Cruz (3.5), Brett Gardner (3.2), Robinson Chirinos (2.6), Edwin Encarnacion (2.5) and Gurriel (2.3) -- have at least 2.0 WAR. Gurriel and Cruz are excelling in a young man's game.
Both also have been two of the biggest beneficiaries of the juiced ball. Gurriel hit 18 home runs in 529 at-bats in 2017, 13 in 537 at-bats in 2018. This year he has 23 in 423 at-bats. His average exit velocity is exactly the same as last season and though he's hitting a few more balls in the air compared to 2018, his fly ball rate is actually slightly less than it was in 2017. The ball is just going out of the park more often.
Cruz continues to defy the aging process. And, yes, we have to mention the PED suspension back in 2013 when he was with the Texas Rangers. When he signed a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners in 2015, the contract was widely criticized. All he did was lead the majors in home runs and rank fourth in RBIs over those four seasons. He hit 37 home runs for Seattle in 2018, but there were a few signs the bat was starting to slow down a bit: He hit .256, his lowest average since he became a regular, and his extra-base hit rate was also the lowest.
He could still mash, however, and the Twins scooped him up for $14 million plus a $12 million team option for 2020. Cruz said he signed with Minnesota because he liked the young talent on the team and thought they had a chance to win. But you also wonder how much of a market there was for a 39-year-old designated hitter, even one coming off a 37-homer season.
Cruz is hitting .296/.386/.654 with 32 home runs -- and remember, he missed almost a month of action and has played just 86 games. This is technically his age-38 season (seasonal age is based on age on June 30, Cruz turned 39 on July 1), but his 170 OPS+ ranks sixth all time for players that age:
Ted Williams, 1957: 233
Barry Bonds, 2003: 231
Babe Ruth, 1933: 176
Bob Johnson, 1944: 174
Ty Cobb, 1925: 171
Nelson Cruz, 2019: 170
Cruz should easily reach 40 home runs. The only two 38-year-olds with that many are Bonds in 2003 (45) and Darrell Evans in 1985 (40).
The Twins wanted Cruz for his power and his veteran leadership. He has provided that and much more.
The Mets are one game out (of the wild card): The Mets beat the Marlins 7-2 to complete a four-game sweep. That's 13 wins in their past 14 games as they've climbed from eight games back in the wild-card race to one game back in two weeks. Amazing.
You know who's having a quiet yet effective season? Michael Conforto. He hit two home runs and is up to 25 (I know, a lot of players have 25 home runs) and is hitting .261/.370/.512. Good season without much attention.
Now comes the hard part. The Mets cleaned up on the portion of the schedule they had to -- vs. the Padres, Pirates, White Sox, Pirates again and Marlins. Of their next 11 series, however, nine are against teams above .500. The other two are against the Royals and Diamondbacks.
The Mets have four shutouts during this stretch with a 2.55 ERA. The bullpen -- the much-maligned bullpen -- has a 2.89 ERA over the 14 games, although because the starters have been so effective, the relievers have had to average only 2.6 innings per game. That means Mickey Callaway hasn't had to use the bottom of the pen.
It's also worth noting that Edwin Diaz remains a question mark. He has had just two saves in the 13 wins, the same total as Seth Lugo, and he allowed a run in both saves. He also has allowed home runs in three of his past five appearances. Let's see what happens when he's holding a one-run lead and has to get through Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman.
P.S.: The great Joe Posnanski has been going down a rabbit hole he may not escape from, writing each day about the ongoing streak of consecutive days in which at least one player hits at least two home runs. On most days, it's more than one player. With Conforto's two home runs, the streak is up to 24 days with a multihomer game.
Jose Ramirez may be heating up: The Indians swept the Rangers 2-0 and 5-1 in a doubleheader with Zach Plesac tossing six scoreless innings in the first game and Terry Francona using five relievers in a bullpen game in the second win. The big news, however, was Ramirez homering in both games. Ramirez had a sub-.600 OPS as late as June 16, a slump that went back to last August. Since then he has looked like the hitter who finished third in the MVP vote in 2017 and 2018: .311/.348/.646.
Ramirez is one of those extreme launch-angle guys, but he had the double whammy early on: too many pop flies and too many grounders. His breakdowns before and after June 17:
Before: 76 grounders, 59 fly balls, 53 line drives, 29 pop-ups
After: 44 grounders, 50 fly balls, 40 line drives, 12 pop-ups
He's also simply swinging and missing less -- 16.6% before and 9.4% since. His overall swing rate has remained at 43%, so it doesn't appear to be a change in aggressiveness or anything like that. Just fixed whatever was going on with his mechanics.
Hit 'em where they ain't: The Dodgers beat the Cardinals 2-1 with this walk-off hit from Russell Martin:
That's 10 walk-off wins for the Dodgers, two more than any other team, and how's this for a remarkable stat: The Dodgers are 5-4 when trailing by one run entering the bottom of the ninth. The rest of MLB is 17-113.
Yankees play Orioles, hit more home runs: The Yankees bashed five more home runs in a 14-1 win over the Orioles -- Gio Urshela and Kyle Higashioka each hit two and Cameron Maybin added the other one -- and they now have 53 against the Orioles, setting a season record for one team versus another:
2019 Yankees vs. Orioles: 53 in 15 games (13-2 record)
1956 Yankees vs. Athletics: 48 in 22 games (18-4 record)
2017 Yankees vs. Orioles: 46 in 19 games (12-7 record)
1956 Reds vs. Dodgers: 44 in 22 games (11-11 record)
The Yankees have hit 43 home runs in 10 games at Camden Yards (including five games with at least five home runs, which is just bonkers, I don't know how juiced the ball is).
Of course, it has been a nightmare for most of the season for the Orioles no matter who they face. This is now 12 games in a row the Orioles have allowed multiple home runs (yes, that's a record): 2, 3, 3, 5, 2, 5, 2, 2, 2, 5, 6, 5.
The Orioles' pitching line over those 12 games: 106⅓ IP, 128 H, 42 HR, 6.86 ERA. Remarkably, the Orioles are 5-7 in those games.