So that was a fun game, huh?
In a way -- actually, in a couple very specific ways -- last night's win was perhaps the most encouraging victory of the year for the Cardinals. In a season which has already seen nearly 50 big red Ws run up the flagpole, last night's had two capital eye capital em Important Moments, or at least moments that felt that way.
Actually, there was one moment, and one overall performance, since narrowing Carlos Martinez's night down to just one moment feels reductive. Maybe the moment when he gave up the leadoff single to start the third inning, and then seemingly just decided, "You know what? Fuck this. I'm done being generous," and proceeded to shut down the Marlins over the next five innings, when before that moment it looked like his night was going to be nasty, brutish, and short. He wasn't perfect the rest of the night, by any means -- his fastball caught more of the plate, and was just plain more up, than I think anyone would have preferred (outside of Marlins' fans and hitters, I suppose) -- but he did what he had to do to get through and shut down a Miami offense that has been as much miss as hit this season.
Or perhaps the moment was Giancarlo Stanton's second trip to the plate of the night, when Carlos froze the sluggingest slugger in all the land on a perfect fastball away. Stanton had hit a home run his first time up that felt rather distinctly Pujols/Lidge, and unfortunately on this occasion the Cardinal played Lidge. Martinez came after Stanton with some of the best stuff he threw all night, though, and put the colossus down with a truly perfect 1-2 fastball. Outside corner, 95 mph, tailing back toward the plate just enough to shave off a half-ball's worth of black. Stanton stood not a chance; not in the face of such a fearless, precise assault that came with no regard for the previous at-bat's result.
Speaking of that home run, maybe the moment was really the instant Stanton hit that hanging slider, and Carlos straightened up, looking away, aware he had just been the victim of the baseball equivalent of posterisation, and he was going to be featured in every highlight package of the night in baseball, and probably the week and maybe the month as well. In that moment, Carlos knew, as did we all, that we were going to see that particular home run replayed more than a few times, simply due to its awful majesty. And in the face of that, he maintained. He retired the next hitter. It took him a bit longer to reach that moment when he decided to get stingy in a big way, but that first inning, with its breathless, sudden Giancarlo Happening, didn't get away from Carlos. The bleeding never really got started, much less needed to be stanched.
But really, trying to come up with one moment for Martinez's performance last night feels reductive, and so we should not do it. It was a continuum, really; a pitcher without his best stuff, with iffier command than we've seen from him recently, who gritted through to find his groove, complete seven innings, and post a 9:1 strikeout to walk ratio, which is pretty much as good as we've seen from the Tsunamy this season.
The other Important Moment of the night came when Jason Heyward parked a ball in the second deck of the stadium. Actually, 'parked' might not be quite right, since the ball did carom off the upper deck stairs back onto the field; perhaps 'temporarily relocated at extremely high velocity' would be more apropos of the reality of the situation.
It felt like an Important Moment for Heyward for a couple reasons. One, it got the Cards on the board, which is obviously a big deal all on its own. Two, it extended a personal hitting streak for the big right fielder to six games. Three, it continued a recent trend of Heyward not just hitting, but driving the baseball, which we saw precious little of earlier in the season, when he looked lost and our dreams of contract extensions felt as ill-considered as those Shelby Miller for Cy Young articles. And four, this particular home run came on a pitch that Jason Heyward in 2015 has had very little luck in dealing with.
Specifically, the fastball Heyward hit over the right-field fence was up. Not way up, mind you, but up all the same. And pitches up even a little bit have been the bane of the J-Hey Kid this season. He's hit low pitches just fine, but anything from basically mid-thigh up has chewed Heyward up this year. His heat maps are stark enough that I've been sitting here for the past five minutes trying to come up with a good joke about the Mason-Dixon line, but neither the Confederacy, which was blue and grey rather than blue and red, nor modern liberal/conservative lines of demarcation, which are not so clearly and conveniently North-South oriented, really work. So, I'm giving up on the joke, sadly. Just not going to happen.
Sure, a giant strong man like Jason Heyward hitting a slightly-above-belt-high fastball may not seem like a huge deal, but consider this: Heyward has, in 2015, had 30 plate appearances end on pitches in the upper two-fifths of the heat map. In those 30 appearances, he has two hits. It's one thing for a player to be a low-ball hitter or a high-ball hitter, but Jason Heyward has essentially been completely helpless on anything belt-level and above. So seeing him drive a fastball that was even moderately up deep into the Miami night was perhaps more encouraging than it would be for most players under most circumstances.
And so, in celebration of these two players and their moments-slash-performances last night (and really, while the moment was the thing for Heyward, the outcome of the game is likely quite a bit different if not for his two highlight-reel catches in right last night, so it isn't as if he only had the one meaningful contribution), let's take a look at some numbers for each, all nicely divided up in ways that probably make them look much better than they actually are, shall we?
I'm sure we all recall just how bad Jason Heyward began the year, right? His April line was the stuff of trade-target nightmares: a .217 batting average, a .611 OPS, a 17:5 K:BB ratio. And really, those numbers don't entirely do justice to the optics of Heyward's early performance; he looked downright lost at times in a way that raw numbers don't fully capture. By the time the first month of the season came to a close, it felt perfectly legitimate to wonder if the naysayers were right, Jason Heyward was somehow washed up at 25 and the Cardinals had bought a pig in a poke and were going to have to hope Jordan Walden became the most valuable reliever in the history of baseball to keep the trade from looking like an abject disaster.
May was better for the J-Hey Kid; markedly so, in fact. In the month of May, Heyward hit .284/.340/.443, which could be partially be ascribed to an uptick in his BABIP; .324 for May versus just .250 for April, but in reality that higher BABIP seemed reflective of a player hitting the ball with more authority, rather than a simple fluctuation. It's dangerous to read change in performance into numbers that might only represent random variation, of course, but having watched nearly every plate appearance Jason Heyward has taken in 2015, I feel completely confident in saying that by mid-May, we were no longer watching a player who looked lost at the plate. He didn't always look great, but there were far fewer of those at-bats, and those games, where it looked as if Heyward was going to the plate with absolutely no plan whatsoever.
June, of course, has been the breakout month; the point where we all look at that tall drink of water manning right field and say, oh, yeah, right. That's the guy I was expecting to see.
In 19 games covering 69 plate appearances in June, Heyward has hit .348/.362/.545. He's hit a home run every 23 trips to the plate, which would be right around a 25 homer pace for a full season's worth of plate appearances. In other words, if you look at the OBP and slugging numbers, the Jason Heyward of June has basically been everything the Cardinals could have hoped he would be this season.
The strange thing, of course, is how he's gotten to that .362 on-base mark; i.e. the fact he has walked only twice in June is a singularly odd happenstance, considering the kind of hitter Heyward has been for his career to this point. For a player with a lifetime walk rate of nearly 11%, both the two-walks-in-nearly-a-month thing and the 5.5% overall walk rate for the season are extremely unusual. It's not problem per se, of course; when you're hitting nearly .350 and just killing the ball in general it's probably okay to be aggressive. But I somehow doubt Heyward is going to carry a .377 BABIP (his June mark), for the rest of the season, so at some point in time if he's going to be an on-base force the way we're all hoping, he's going to need to rediscover some of that selectiveness which served him so well earlier in his career.
Overall, since the first of May, Heyward is putting up an .836 OPS with six home runs, seven stolen bases (against just one CS), all the while playing his trademark brand of ridiculous defense. April was the cruelest month for the Cardinals' newest acquisition and hopeful future cornerstone, but since then he's been every bit as good as advertised, and the next time some commentator or analyst refers to the Heyward acquisition as 'disappointing' or a misstep, feel free to scream at your radio, television, or other audio device. And if it's someone saying it to your face, go ahead and just smack them. Tell them Aaron said it was alright.
As for El Gallo, there was no month-long lament. From the very beginning of the season, Carlo has done his part to justify the faith so many of us had in him, and to reward the front office's decision not to bolster the rotation with an offseason move and keep him in his previous relief role, which you'll still find a fair number of people clinging to as his best future fit. (I won't name names, in an attempt to protect the innocent. Wait, no, not the innocent. The stupid. Yes, that's what I meant.)
In April, the Tsunamy came ashore, crashing onto the shores of the National League with the force of a terrible, played-out metaphor, to the tune of a 1.73 ERA and .602 OPS against. Both of which look amazing, of course, but a closer inspection reveals a bit of a dark cloud: while allowing that .602 OPS against, driven largely by a .185 opponents' batting average, Carlos was benefiting from an unsustainably low .203 batting average on balls in play. One might be inclined to argue he was simply limiting hard contact unusually well, but the 26% line drive rate he was allowing at the same time would suggest otherwise. In 26 April innings, he struck out 24 and walked ten, which is okay, but nothing special in this current era.
Then came early May, and the two starts which brought out the doubters in full force. In two consecutive starts, Carlos allowed seven runs, at least seven hits, and four walks. His line drive rate in those two starts was 45%. He allowed opponents an OPS of 1.150, which for reference is just slightly worse than what Bryce Harper is doing this season. Martinez's ERA ballooned from 1.73 at the end of April to 4.89 just two starts into May. Needless to say, it all felt a bit alarming.
Since then, though, Carlos has not only gotten back on track, he's arguably been significantly better than he was to begin the season. Over his last eight starts, the man we call El Gallo has thrown 52 innings, and all but a few of them have been brilliant. His strikeout rate has been much better than it was in April -- 28% from May 15th until now, versus 23.5% in April. He walked just under 10% of the batters he faced in April; in this eight-start run he's shaved that down to 8.4%. (Which is still a little higher than you'd like to see, but this is still a player learning to fully harness his arsenal.) Best of all, he's cut his line drive rate from 25% to 19%, all the while seeing his BABIP rise from .202 to a much more normal .292. All of which means the 1.55 ERA Carlos has posted since the middle of May is much more likely to be sustainable than the 1.73 he posted in April. I'm not saying that 1.55 actually is sustainable, mind you; I'm just saying it's more sustainable than what he was doing earlier in the season.
So what does it all mean? It means Carlos Martinez is on his way to being one of the best pitchers in baseball. And it means Jason Heyward is fucking awesome. But you probably didn't need me to cut up a bunch of numbers to tell you that, did you?
I have one last thing today, and it's not much like this other stuff. I'm sure by now you've all seen the horrible tragedy of what happened to Darryl Hamilton, the longtime former big leaguer and MLB Network analyst who was killed last week in an apparent murder-suicide. It's a senseless tragedy that took the life of two people and left a thirteen-month-old child without either of his parents.
First, let me say this: we don't know if this was an ongoing situation, if there was a pattern of violent behaviour. The woman in question had a previous arson conviction on her record, related to burning down the house she shared with her former husband, so it would at least seem likely there was some instability there. Still, to speculate on violence or anything else would be pointless, really. What I want to say, though, is this: domestic violence goes both ways. When we think of domestic violence, in nearly every case we picture a woman hiding a black eye behind big Jackie O sunglasses, claiming she fell down the stairs or walked into a door. But it isn't always that direction. There are men every day who suffer emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their wives. There are same-sex couples in the same situation, male and female alike. And it's never okay. I'm normally someone who believes in minding one's own business as much as possible, to a degree very few other people I've met in life are. But if you know someone in a situation where there is the threat or the reality of abuse and violence or just an unstable, dangerous personality, whether it's a woman or a man, straight or gay, whatever the case may be, please do something. Sometimes people need help, and there's really nowhere they think they can go to get it. And sometimes you end up with a thirteen month old orphan and a story on the news. If you can help someone, do it.
Second, I can't tell you I had a long history of being a fan of Darryl Hamilton, either the player or the media personality. However, there was one particular piece of broadcasting Hamilton did of which I was a definite fan. At last year's Perfect Game All-American Classic, Hamilton shared the booth with Daron Sutton on play by play and David Rawnsley, who generally serves as Perfect Game's point man on most broadcasts. I watch the game every year, perhaps unsurprisingly given my proclivity for all things draft-related. It was the first time I think I'd ever really taken notice of Hamilton on a broadcast, though, and he did an outstanding job with it. He was witty, he talked trash about several of the young players' fathers he had played against in the big leagues over the course of his career (he put both Roger Clemens and Terry Shumpert on blast, for example), and he did basically exactly what you would hope a booth analyst would do.
I don't know what kind of reputation Hamilton had as a broadcaster in general; I just never paid that much attention. He seemed well-liked, though, and the stories about him paint him as a remarkably warm personality. That came through in the PG broadcast, certainly, and I really enjoyed at least this one example of the man's work.