THE BIG HIT | The First Power Rankings of the Season

by Ken Napzok

It’s time again to start ranking the week that was in baseball in our own special way.

5 – Kolten Wong’s Glove

With all the chaos and drama of this offseason, it’s just nice to see the simple game of baseball played at a superhuman level. It’s a reminder of the game’s inherent beauty and all of our desires to get back to watching baseball instead of being angry at it. 

On March 3rd, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong made an absolutely stunning stop on the other side of second base and oh so casually flipped the ball back to his double-play mate Paul DeJong who completed the play with a laser throw to first. It’s a shame it took place in spring training…

… I’m not saying this play belongs in the Hall of Fame, but it should be appreciated. Especially since it comes so early in camp when players are just getting their feet back in the pool. These are the plays that make us tune in and the type of play that will keep Wong in the mix.

Kolten Wong has been trying to break through to the next level since arriving on the scene with a 2014 season that saw him finish third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. It’s been an up and down road for him since, but he’s only 28, set a career-high in stolen bases last year, and will always have a chance if he keeps making plays that. 

Above all, it’s just nice to get back to drama-free baseball thanks to this great play in a game between the Cardinals and the… * checks the box score * Astros. 

Ah, damn it. 

4 – Mic’D Up!

We love it when we get to drop some eave on our favorite sports stars. Whether you grew up watching NFL Films highlights in which you heard Lawrence Taylor crunching Ken O’Brien or all the way up to these fancy, modern times where mic’d up stadiums lead to some raw sounds that provide us with tantalizing insight into the “sounds of the game,” getting to hear what goes on during the games we watch never ceases to be a fun treat.

You know… just a fun… innocent treat. 

Like Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo trying to predict a pitch and asking for someone to “bang for me.” 

Ouch, babe. 

Looks like the Astros have a long road ahead of them. Forget stringent comments and online jabs from players around the league. This isn’t official statements of rebuke or scorn. This is a punchline. When the anger turns to straight-up mockery, you know the road to redemption is tougher than you think, because now you’re just a joke. 

I know there isn’t a lot of room for pity with the Astros, but, oof, what a long season this will be for them. 

They weren’t alone, though.

Yankees relief pitcher Zach Britton used his time in the mic’d up sun to take shots at the Red Sox. 

The jokes. The laughter. The honest and open disdain. 

Perhaps we should just mic up every player to find out what it really going on with each pitch. Use technology to fight technology. Hey, Rob Manfred, there is your TV ratings grab! 

3 – Baseball Moms

The White Sox are a very good team.

Yes, we still have to play out this season, but after a great offseason full of big moves and small adjustments to strengthen the roster the Pale Hose are finally ready to make a grand return to post-season glory. 

Just ask Dallas Keuchel’s mom Teresa.

At a team dinner hosted by Dallas Keuchel, his Mom stood up in front of all of the White Sox players, officials, and boosters and gave them their rally cry for the season.

Playoffs or die, bitches!

The room cheered. 

Now, it was later revealed that Dallas put her up to it, but that doesn’t matter. She did it… because that’s what a good baseball parent should do. Love, encourage and speak the truth. 

The 2020 Chicago White Sox will have a lot of pressure on them to go beyond just competing. The goal needs to be to win. But to have that goal stated with the love, pride, and joy of a supportive parent — that just might make a difference.

Playoffs or die, bitches. Playoffs or die indeed.

2 – A-Rod’s Morals

Everyone has a take on the Astros and the Sign Stealing Scandal that will not be going away for some time. 

Everyone.  

And that includes Alex Rodriquez.

Yep, ARod. The guy who served the longest suspension in Major League Baseball history for sins against the game has some thoughts on the Astros players and their morality.

Cue the jokes. Cue the snark. Cue the cynicism that rules the day. 

Except if you really slow down your gut reaction to the headlines that read “Cheater Arod lectures cheaters in Houston” you’ll find some truth and real contrition. 

ARod is right. He’s correctly pointing out the one common denominator in the worldwide scorn for the Astros. Whether you hate the Astros now (and plan on doing so forever) or find yourself ready to move past the scandal, there is a shared feeling that not having received actual, tangible consequences is one thing — but to not feel sorry for the whole thing is another sin entirely.  My feet are firmly — like two feet planted — in the You Can’t Suspend Every Player Ever Camp, but even I and many others like me have found the complete lack of contrition from current Astros a bit tough to take. 

There has not been enough remorse. Plain and simple. This is not to suggest that current Astros aren’t in a real tough position when it comes to talking about the scandal. I’m sure there are things they can or can’t say, but it seems like former Astros are leading the way on actually appearing to be sorry for what happened. 

ARod is an easy target. He has been for a while.  A good portion of his career was fueled by actions and substances that cheapened, undercut, and, in some minds, erased everything he accomplished. Yet back then what seemed to drive us fans a little more bonkers was the fact that he didn’t seem to care. Same for some of the other players on “those” lists.

Yet in this clip, ARod seemed to be speaking directly from his heart and has a complete understanding of what he wrong ON the field and, more importantly, OFF of it. Maybe you’ll never find it in your heart to forgive him, but it’s nice to see that he learned something from it all. 

We can go back to mocking him another day — but for this week. A lot of people should listen to ARod. 

Especially in Houston.

1 – Bernie Brewer

Since 1973 the mascot of the Milwaukee Brewers has been the permanently gregarious Bernie Brewer. Inspired by a real-life fan from 1970 named Milt Mason, the frosty mug of Bernie Brewer has been a staple at Brewers’ home games for decades. Despite a forced retirement in 1984 due to the reconstruction of Milwaukee’s County Stadium, Bernie was always close to the hearts of those fans cheering on Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and, I guess, Billy Jo Robidoux. He returned by popular demand in 1993 and has been sliding down his big yellow slide for every Brewer home run since. 

Well, now he’ll be seen a lot more over the next few seasons thanks to the big contract extension the club has given Christian Yelich. The deal will keep him swinging in beer suds pinstripes until 2028 for a cool, crisp $215. 

That Yelich will be giving Bernie Brewer a reason to slide so many times per season is a big change from the 9 and 7 home run kid that began his career in the neon fast lane of Miami. Since finding his footing in Milwaukee, Yelich has grown into the role of a bonafide slugger following a 36-home run season and a 44 home run effort last season. If not for that damn injury he might have hit 50 and the Brewers might have held on to their Wild Card lead over the Nationals. 

But, beyond that, Yelich has continued to mature as a player and member of the community. He’s signing on for the long haul because he likes playing in this blue-collar city just as much as he likes the cut of the Brewers organization’s jib. And that is just as important as the stats when a team decides to go all-in on a guy already in uniform. The Brewers have their new anchor player. A pillar to build the franchise around for a long time. Which means more home runs and more and more trips down the slide for Bernie Brewer. 

All hail the foam mustache. 

Real Fantasy Tips

Every year around early February the newsstands suddenly become full of those super glossy, bright, and bold Fantasy Baseball magazines that we all flock to. It’s like Christmas, your birthday, and free Taco day during the World Series all rolled into one. Action-packed covers of your favorite regional baseball players! Articles about the best middle relievers and their WHIP! Projected line-ups!!!! 

It’s exciting.

Truly.

Yet every year — season after season — none of these magazines highlight the one player that you’ll need on your roto team. Particularly if you play in a Fantasy League dedicated to only ONE of the professional leagues. If you only draft from the NL or AL then you definitely NEED this player if you want to win the day, take the cash prize, and have bragging rights over your friends and fellow roto nerds until the next spring. 

The One Dollar Catcher.

Ah, yes, the overlooked, under-appreciated, taken at the last possible second in your draft, catcher that everyone grumbles about on draft day. 

Toss all the scorn you want at him, but the catcher position is still there, BOTH spots, and I, for one, urge you to never overlook this position. 

While everyone is searching for their Javy Lopez, I urge you to look for your Eddie Perez.

All the way back in 1998, Atlanta catcher Javy Lopez — then 27 and on top of the world with skills and good looks — had his first break out season. He went from All-Star to MVP candidate with .284, 34 home run, 106 RBI season. For the benefit of 5 X 5 league owners he tossed in 73 runs and 5 key stolen bases. If you had Javy Lopez on your team for that 1998 season then there was a good chance you were battling for the money positions in the standings late into the fall. He was that good then, and that good now.

But what if you DIDN’T have Javy Lopez? What if you begrudgingly tossed a one dollar bid late in the draft on Javy’s back-up, 11-year major league veteran Eddie Perez? Maybe he’ll get an at-bat or two a week while giving ole’ Hearthrob Lopez a break. How would your team fair then? 

Pretty good. 

Pretty. Pretty. Pretty good. 

Perez had a career year that season. In just 149 at-bats, (Javy was a workhorse back then) Perez smacked 6 homers and drove in 32 while logging a .336 average and .941 OPS. (long before we paid proper attention to that stat). And for the 5 X 5 crowd, he scored 18 runs and stole a base. ONE. WHOLE. BASE. 

All for the bargain-basement price of one buck. Maaaaybe two bucks if you happened to get into an End Game bidding war with a fellow owner also in need of a number two catcher. 

Oh, sure, not every back-up catcher is going to go off like Eddie Perez in 1998.) And in 1999 — a season in which he took home the NLCS MVP award.) Most likely you’ll get a defensive-minded back-up that bats. 220 and runs to first with the grace of pick up truck carrying too many couches on an open highway, but don’t fall for the trap of waiting until the end of the draft to get your one buck hero. 

Do it for your team. Do it for Eddie. 

New Stat Watch: DRA+

Join me, my friends, in the drive to get this new statistic officially added to the record books, box scores, and the backs of baseball cards. 

DRA+ 

Drive Range Average +

Inspired by this week’s events at a Top Golf in Arizona, this new stat will help measure the true king of the driving range in Major League Baseball. 

This became necessary when Mickey Mantle for the Modern Age, Mike Trout, giggled his way to one of the most impressive golf drives ever recorded. Tiger Woods, John Daly, and the rest of the PGA greats have nothing on Trout. (Um, let’s check his short game, though) The three-time American League MVP simply strode up to the tee at the Top Golf in Scottsdale in his skinny jeans, launched it into New Mexico, and laughed it up as part of a charity event put on by Albert Pujols. 

And the Internet exploded… as it does. 

It was quite a feat. The sound. The speed. The cackles of everyone around him not concerned with any Instagram rumors about what he takes. It was worthy of the 10 million views and counting. 

Except at the same event, Cody Bellinger, the NL MVP, decided he was not to be outdone by his Southern California baseball counterpart. With a lot less laughter around him, the lefty casually and quietly launched a legendary drive of his own into the Arizona night. 

Fewer people were around to marvel at it and Bellinger’s screams of “get over the night” added a touch of intensity to it that was both admirable and would have probably cost him an election. But the drive was just as impressive and worthy of the attention IT received. 

But then…

Many, many fans jumped into the fray to remind us all that this is old news if you’re an avid follower of Twins slugger Nelson Cruz. Last November, he did the same thing…. Driving a ball out of a Top Golf… in skinny jeans… but with a HALF SWING.

Look, I went to the Top Golf Scottsdale myself last year and once drove a ball back toward the bar. Each one of these drives boggles my mind. 

Boggles I says. Boggles. 

So, this is why I’m officially starting my campaign to get DRA+ added to this sport of sports. 

How do you figure out Driving Range Average +?

Simple. 

You take the distance of the drive then divide that by how many beers the player had the time of swing and then subtract the number of people at the Top Golf watching you at the time of your swing. Then put a little plus sign next to that number to make it seem like you’ve really cracked open a scientifically advanced way to measure these players’ performance. 

Without knowing the exact yardage of each drive from Trout, Bellinger, and Cruz, let’s say give them all a 500. Because really, to most of us, anything over two hundred yards from the tee might as well be equal to the distance of going to the moon and back. (Don’t lie to yourselves, weekend municipal course warriors.) 

So, for Trout, let’s go 500 yards divided by 2 beers (at least) minus 29 screaming bros. That’s a DRA+ of 221+.

Bellinger had fewer people watching, but the misplaced intensity of at least three beers, so 500 divided by 3 minus 5. That’s 162 +. Big reward for fewer people watching, but that extra beer cost him. A lot. 

Cruz clearly hadn’t started drinking yet and appeared to only have the person holding the camera watching. That’s an impressive DRA + of 499 +

I look forward to this stat emerging onto the scene to truly measure the skills of Major League Players driving golf balls to impressive friends, influence people, and raise awareness for the charity of their choice. 

Thank you for attending my TED Talk. 

This week in baseball history…

… Noooomar walked away from the game. 

On March 10th, 2010, Nomar Garciaparra signed a one-day contract with the Boston Red Sox and retired in the uniform that he started his 14-year career in, thus ending a great career that got lost in the shuffle of injuries, bad blood, and an explosion of offense that came after him.

The history of baseball is full to the brim of great What If questions. Those lingering, haunting, sometimes painful questions about what could have been if not for reality rearing its harsh head into the story. As Derek Jeter prepares to walk into the Hall of Fame one vote away from unanimous approval, it’s bittersweet — particularly for Red Sox fans — to go back to the 1997 season and think about what was just as much as what could have been.

Derek Jeter had just won the AL Rookie of the Year award and became the talk of baseball. The hotshot, plucky shortstop had emerged to the top of the ranks by slapping clutch hits to right field and leaping from deep in the hole at shortstop to make the most of his defensive skills… and helping to return the Yankees to championship glory. But here came Nomar. 

The Southern California boy had shown up in cold, frosty Fenway in 1996 looking to do the same thing for the venerable Red Sox, but his first full season in 1997 was an absolute statement. 30 home runs, 98 RBI, a league-leading 209 hits, and league-leading 11 triples. He ran away with the Rookie of the Year award and the long-suffering Red Sox organization and fans had a newfound rush of hope.

It was time to break some curses. 

Garciaparra’s next three seasons were even better than his first, including two straight batting titles in ‘99 and 2000, and with Pedro Martinez now anchoring the pitching staff you could not blame any Boston fan for daydreaming about that World Series title. 

But the curse was not yet to be broken.

His 2001 season was marred by a wrist injury and he played only 21 games. Though he returned for two more great seasons that were on par with his previous best efforts, something had changed. A new ownership group had arrived, and the Derek Jeter’s and Alex Rodriquez’s of the world were getting more love in the glamorous shortstop world. Garciaparra rightfully wanted a big contract extension, but the club began exploring a big trade to bring in ARod and send Nomar to the White Sox. 

Bad blood soon began to flow. 

An Achilles injury, his supposed lackluster defense, and desires for a big contract signing bonus spiraled out of control and on July 31st, 2004 Nomar was traded to the Chicago Cubs… a trade that helped bring in some key pieces that led the Red Sox to the impossible. They won the World Series. 

From there, aside from one solid All-Star season with the Dodgers in 2006, injuries grabbed hold of Nomar Garciaparra, and he never recaptured his early success or the headlines he once had. Jeter kept on going until well past 3,000 hits and ARod kept smacking balls around the yard — PEDs and all. 

Garciaparra retired with a lifetime .313 average, six All-Star game nods, and a collection of stats most kids would give a lot up to have. However, the great What If hung over all of it like a gloomy shadow that made you forget about the sunshine. 

The Hall of Fame won’t be calling and Garciaparra wasn’t the first player ever to have injuries and bad timing keep him away from the dizzying heights of the game. And he won’t be the last. But on the ten-year anniversary of Nomar walking away from the game don’t get too lost in the What Ifs. Celebrate What Was. Nomar Garciaparra was one of the biggest stars of his era. 

Walk Off Quote

“I’ll play out the string and leave baseball without a tear. A man can’t play games his whole life.” – Brooks Robinson, one of the best at playing games ever.

***

Ken Napzok was hurt by his fear of a pitched ball, but he is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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