Welcome to my new column here at Diamond Digest, Mile High Musings! My goal here is simple; analyze the main storylines from baseball this week and some other happenings around the sport. With what’s happening in our nation’s capital, I couldn’t think of a better time to launch the new column and see what’s going on with Juan Soto. On the docket for this week:
- Holliday season for the Orioles and other draft highlights
- A star-studded home run derby
- Mid-Summer Classic
- A new kind of Soto shuffle?
- The beatdown of Boston
- Player Spotlight
- and finally, the 2018 Oakland Athletics’ draft class
It’s the Holliday season and some other draft notes
The Baltimore Orioles, picking in the top five for the fourth year in a row, decided to select Jackson Holliday, a shortstop out of Stillwater High School (OK) who had a .685(!) batting average, 17 home runs, and 79 RBI during his senior season. Holliday was the first prep player that Mike Elias and crew selected in the first round of the draft during their tenure with the Orioles, after choosing Adley Rutschman (Oregon State) first overall in 2019, Heston Kjerstad (Arkansas) second overall in 2020, and Colton Cowser (Sam Houston State) fifth overall last year, and the first infielder selected by this front office as well. The draft philosophy, at least for this year, changed for Baltimore, and their hope is that Jackson Holliday joins the big league squad when the Orioles are in the middle of their newly opening contention window. Also worth noting for Holliday is that he is the son of former All-Star and 2007 NL batting champion Matt Holliday, who may be most famous for “touching home” to clinch a playoff spot for the Colorado Rockies in 2007. Jackson has been around big leaguers his whole life, and now he will get his chance to prove he belongs with an emerging Baltimore Orioles squad.
Arizona chose Druw Jones with the next pick, and if you were wondering if that spelling looked familiar, yes, he is the son of former All-Star Andruw Jones and has a similar profile of power, speed, and defense. The high upside of Jones will no doubt provide a boost to an already stacked Diamondbacks farm system that features top-end talent such as Corbin Carroll. Texas chose Kumar Rocker third a year after the Mets were spooked by his medical reports, and now will join his former college teammate Jack Leiter in the Rangers’ minor league system, making the dream of the Vandy Boys pitching on a big league staff together alive and well.
One final note on the draft was that the Nationals drafted my favorite prospect Elijah Greene at pick 5, someone who offers a high power-speed ceiling with potential 30-30 seasons in his future. This may be a steal for the Nationals.
One of my favorite events on the baseball calendar has always been the Home Run Derby, and my favorite baseball memories include watching it for the first time in 2011 and attending it in Colorado last year. Julio Rodriguez broke out and hit a casual 81 home runs at notorious pitcher’s park Dodger Stadium, and somehow managed to lose. For the second time in four years, the derby winner wasn’t the person who hit the most home runs, with Juan Soto squeaking out a victory over a tired Rodriguez in the final round. The rest of the field (including a meditating Pete Alonso) could not keep up. Alonso could not win a third crown this year, but hopefully next year we will see him try again along with many other stars in Seattle.
Another interesting feature of the derby was seeing one of the greatest hitters ever just get to have some fun at the yard with Albert Pujols competing in his final Home Run Derby. The bat speed isn’t what it was at his peak with the Cardinals, but his excitement for the event was awesome to see, and it was great to see such an amazing power hitter in a home run contest just one more time for old times sake.
The actual All-Star Game was less exciting than the derby, with a low final score of 3-2, and the damage for both leagues being done in two of the 18 frames that were played. One of the cool features that FOX had for the fans was micing up some of the players on the field. Listening to Alek Manoah while he was striking out the side in the second inning was insightful in understanding how he has been an ace for the Toronto Blue Jays. After Manoah exited the game, the battery of Nestor Cortes and Jose Trevino took the field. While I wasn’t someone who thought that Trevino should be an All-Star, listening to him talk during the game was inspiring as he recounted his journey to this game. These moments, these stories are what draw people into baseball and that is how you can grow the game.
A Different Kind of Soto Shuffle?
We all have seen the Soto shuffle, where he takes a ball and celebrates a more favorable count. Soon he might be shuffling teams, with news breaking that last week that Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension with the Washington Nationals. With the worst record in the majors, a barren farm system, and an ownership change looming, the Nats are in a bit of a pickle.
I understand Soto being concerned about his long-term future given these issues, and his agent Scott Boras historically prefers for his clients to hit the market. Soto is not long for Washington, unfortunately, and that’s what makes the situation dicier.
My personal belief is that there isn’t a trade package that exists where the Nationals get a fair return for Soto. He’s a generational talent with comps to Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters ever, at the age of 23. There are two ways the Soto saga can end: the Miguel Cabrera way or the Bryce Harper way. If they take the Miguel Cabrera way, you trade Soto this offseason for a futures-laden return and hope that one of those prospects hits while watching Soto wear another uniform. If the Nats take the Bryce Harper route, we see Soto suit up for them until he reaches free agency, and a homegrown megastar is gone for nothing. Both routes are unenviable, and no matter what the Nationals choose to do, they are at a loss.
Friday Night (Boston) Smackdown
Both the Blue Jays and Red Sox returned from the All-Star break Friday night at Fenway Park, and it was ugly for the Sox. Facing a 6-run deficit in the third inning, Raimel Tapia hit a fly ball to centerfielder Jarren Duran, who lost it in the lights and failed to run after it, causing left fielder Alex Verdugo to get the ball and send it home. Tapia scored an inside-the-park grand slam, and to make it even worse for Boston, if Duran caught the ball, the inning would have ended.
A random thought from that game: Entering the bottom of the ninth inning, Boston was facing a 28-5 deficit. In order for Boston to win that game, they would have needed to send between 24 and 29 batters to the plate. They had 34 plate appearances in the game so far, meaning that in order to win Boston would need to go through the order at least three times in one inning, and not get three outs. If Boston made this improbable comeback, between 41% and 46% of Boston’s plate appearances would have come in that ninth inning alone. Not even Tom Brady could make that comeback.
Player Spotlight: Gavin Lux
It’s easy to lose track of players in a star-studded Dodgers lineup. In their Opening Day lineup, they boasted seven(!) former All-Stars, three former MVPs, and a few potential Hall of Famers. Batting ninth that day was Gavin Lux, who had a single and two walks in a victory against the Rockies. From that point on he’s been having a breakout season of sorts, posting a wRC+ of 126. The way he has done this is fascinating, to say the least.
Among the 57 qualified hitters who have a wRC+ above 125, Lux has the 53rd highest ISO+ (adjusted ISO), ahead of only Jeff McNeil, Luis Arraez, Yandy Diaz, and Andrew Benintendi. Instead of selling for power, Lux has focused on contact, with a BABIP of .348, good for 17th in the majors. He is also walking more than 11% of the time (32% above league average) and striking out around 17% of the time (21% below league average). Combine those attributes together and you have a young player who has zigged while everyone else has zagged while still being incredibly successful. Lux’s season is proof that in the era of three true outcomes (BB, K, HR), contact can still be king.
Kyler Murray, Outfielder, from the University of Oklahoma
In 2018, while the Athletics’ big league club was heading towards a playoff appearance, the front office drafted a two-sport star in Kyler Murray ninth overall. Murray did sign a contract with Oakland but went back to school for his redshirt junior season to quarterback the Sooners. After a fantastic season, Murray won the Heisman trophy and chose to play football instead of baseball when the Arizona Cardinals drafted him first overall in 2019. Last week, Murray signed a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension with Arizona, giving him a $46.1 million AAV. This year’s Oakland Athletics have a payroll of around $48 million total. I think it is safe to say that Murray made the right choice for himself.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and MLB.com, all before play on 7/23/2022
Image courtesy of MLB.com