Contact, Sacramento, and winning in Pittsburgh

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Luis Arraez proves the value of contact, even in this free-swinging era of big-league baseball.

Arraez, the second baseman for the Miami Marlins, posted the highest batting average in the majors last year, .354, winning the National League’s hitting crown. He earned the American League’s title the previous year as a member of the Minnesota Twins, hitting .316.

So what’s his secret?

It’s simple, really. He puts the bat on the ball.

Arraez also led the majors last year with a contact rate (CT) of .941. CT is the percentage of at-bats in which the hitter put the ball in play. A CT of .941, in other words, indicates that the batter struck out only 5.9 percent of the time.

Below is my all-contact team for 2023, showing the player with the highest CT at each position. (The rankings were limited to batters who made at least 300 plate appearances.)

It’s worth noting that the nine members of the all-contact team had a collective batting average of .287 last year. Everybody else in the majors combined for a BA of .247. Point made.

Let’s say you run a company. You decide to move your headquarters to a new city. Do you close the old office before finding a new one?

Of course not. That would be stupid.

But it’s what owner John Fisher and the Oakland Athletics did.

The A’s have already gotten Major League Baseball’s approval to move to Las Vegas in 2028. But — oops! — their lease at the Oakland Coliseum expires at the end of this season. So Fisher recently announced that his team will play in a minor-league park in Sacramento for three seasons as a stopgap.

It’s a ridiculous move for several reasons: (1) It escalates the A’s rinky-dink operation to an utterly new magnitude of rinky-dinkiness. (2) It guarantees that the diamond at Sutter Health Park will be ravaged by overuse, since Sacramento’s minor-league team reportedly will continue to play there with the A’s as co-tenants. (3) It deprives Sacramento of any emotional connection to the majors, since its new (and temporary) team will be known solely as The Athletics, with no city name attached — as if it’s some kind of barnstorming softball squad.

All myths aside, Oakland has never supported the Athletics very well. I made the case last year that it was long past time to move the team out of the Bay Area. But, at the very least, MLB should have insisted that grown-ups be put in charge of the relocation.

Barry Bonds is so closely associated with the San Francisco Giants that his years in Pittsburgh are easily forgotten.

But Bonds did indeed launch his big-league career with the Pirates, playing center and left field between 1986 and 1992. He won three Gold Gloves and two National League Most Valuable Player Awards before slipping out of town as a free agent.

We all know what happened at Bonds’s next stop on the West Coast.

We also know what happened to the Pirates. They reached the National League Championship Series in each of Bonds’s final three seasons — falling short of the World Series all three times — and then they collapsed after he left.

Pittsburgh enjoyed only four seasons above .500 after 1992 (in 2013-2015 and 2018), as signified by gold dots in the following graph of winning percentages. That’s why this year’s fast start by the Pirates — winning six of seven games in their first two series — has the club’s fan base so excited. Will 2024 be the year that finally brings winning baseball back to PNC Park?

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Baseball tinkered with its rules last year — widening the bases, limiting pitchers’ throws to first — in an effort to encourage thievery.

The alterations worked. Big-league runners amassed a total of 3,503 stolen bases last year, up 41 percent from 2,486 in 2022.

Today’s quiz harkens back to some of the great base stealers of the past. Look to the bottom of this newsletter for the answers.

1. Who is baseball’s all-time stolen-base king?

2. Who was the first player in the 20th century to steal more than 100 bases in a single season?

3. Who was the last player to pile up more than 100 steals in a given year?

4. Who is the career leader in stolen bases among players who are currently active in the majors?

5. Which club topped the majors in steals in 2023?

  • A. Arizona Diamondbacks

  • B. Cincinnati Reds

  • C. Kansas City Royals

  • D. Washington Nationals

Nearly three years have passed since Miguel Cabrera lofted the 500th home run of his career on August 22, 2021. He was the 28th batter to join the exclusive 500 club, and he’ll probably be the last for quite awhile.

Giancarlo Stanton is the only active player with more than 400 homers, and he still sat 97 short of 500 after the first week of the current season. Keep in mind that Stanton hit a total of 90 homers in the past three seasons combined, and you can see that he’s far from a lock to reach the magic number.

Ten active players had career totals of more than 300 home runs early in the 2024 season. Here are their counts (along with their current ages in parentheses), according to Baseball Reference:

The 1984 Detroit Tigers — the team that I rate as the very best of the Modern Era (1961 to the present) — came roaring out of the gate. They won their first five games in ’84, sweeping their opening series with the Twins and the White Sox.

The undoubted highlight of the first week was an April 7 no-hitter by future Hall of Famer Jack Morris. It was far from a perfect game — six Chicago batters drew walks — but Morris never seemed to lose his confidence.

Hecklers at Comiskey Park tried to rattle the Detroit pitcher as he strolled to the mound for the ninth inning. They yelled that he would never get the final three outs without allowing a hit. Morris turned around. “Just watch,” he said.

The Tigers held a one-and-a-half game lead in the American League East on the morning of April 9, 1984.

The 1962 New York Mets — the team that suffered the most defeats in the Modern Era — were still waiting and wondering as of April 9. The opening of the franchise’s inaugural season was slated for April 11 in St. Louis.

Casey Stengel, the 71-year-old manager of the Mets, had previously guided the New York Yankees to 10 American League pennants and seven World Series titles between 1949 and 1960, greatly aided by a powerful lineup led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Stengel dreamed about adding similar firepower to the Mets’ anemic batting order. “Of course, Mantle and Maris would help my managerial ability,” he joked.

1-C. (Henderson was the only big leaguer to reach 1,000 steals. He finished with 1,406 in 25 seasons from 1979 to 2003.)

2-D. (Wills stole 104 bases with the Dodgers in 1962.)

3-B. (Coleman had 109 stolen bases for the Cardinals in 1987.)

4-B. (Marte’s career total stood at 338 at the end of the 2023 season.)

5-B. (The Reds collectively stole 190 bases last year to lead the majors.)



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