The baseball calendar turning to June represents about the one-third point in the Major League Baseball regular season, but in many ways it also represents a breaking point as well. For ball clubs in contention, it begins an evaluation period of what the gap looks like between current rosters and World Series Champion level type of rosters. Meanwhile, teams in the bottom third of the league begin having more honest conversations than they’d had with themselves in April/May - "do we actually still have a shot this year?"
Answering these questions requires a multi-faceted understanding of where a team currently stands, both within the regular season standings and well beyond. Some teams will absolutely look to sell off assets in the name of cutting costs/creating future value and already know it (here's looking at you, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Tigers, etc). In those front offices, the decisions are obviously easier because the questions they have to answer are simpler - what can the Rockies get for Trevor Story? Can the Pirates get back value in a Richard Rodriguez trade that would compliment Ke’Bryan Hayes in 2023? These decisions are also somewhat simple for MLB’s top dogs, as the teams needing starting pitching help to get over the top will all be calling the Washington Nationals about Max Scherzer.
At 23-29, those Nationals actually now represent one of baseball’s more complicated situations - two years removed from a World Series Championship, fans understandably are reluctant to part with franchise staples who have led them to the highest points they’ve ever known. Similar decisions faced the San Francisco Giants as they exited their championship era of the early 2010's - in the case of San Francisco, upper management elected to keep butts in seats by retaining players past their prime, and the Giants paid the price in the win column for it, with four consecutive losing seasons entering 2021.
The Nationals are also MLB’s oldest team on average in 2021. While this isn’t by definition a huge issue, it becomes problematic when coupled with the league’s worst farm system, boasting only one prospect (#99) in the league’s top 100. This makes a lot more sense in a division that boasts young, playoff-focused teams like the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets to ship veterans to contenders in exchange for younger talent - between Max Scherzer, Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Starlin Castro, and others, the Nats have plenty to offer, and by trading several of these pieces they’d give themselves a much better opportunity to compete within Trea Turner’s prime and before Juan Soto eats up half their payroll.
With big decisions facing a litany of teams it’ll certainly be fascinating to see which direction each club goes as the July 31st trade deadline approaches. In the meantime, however, we have money to make.
And there are two plays for this weekend that I believe will help us do so.
Last Week: 2-0
Saturday, June 5
Chicago Cubs (Kohl Stewart) @ San Francisco Giants (Kevin Gausman)
Don’t look now, but Kevin Gausman just might be the best pitcher in baseball not named Jacob deGrom.
Gausman has tossed 17 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to May 14th and has allowed more than a single run in only 1 of his 11 starts this season. Having watched Gausman struggle early in his career in Baltimore, it was easy to forget that he was the best college pitcher in the country at LSU and was drafted fourth overall for a reason. This isn’t the first young Baltimore Orioles pitcher to figure it out elsewhere, either - Jake Arrieta, Zack Britton, and others have struggled to gain traction at the big league level early in their careers as Orioles as well. Gausman always projected to be an above-average Major League pitcher, and despite having never seen any real sustained success, he entered this season with a career DRA- according to Baseball Prospectus of 93 (still 7% better than the "average" MLB pitcher).
This season, Gausman's dropped that number to an astounding 70 by creating a 93rd-percentile chase rate and throwing his fastball 12% more often than he had in seasons past. Opponents’ BABIP against has dropped off a cliff this season to .223 too - and while normally this would be reason for regression concerns, batters’ xBA (expected batting average) against him has dropped to an even lower .214.
Saturday sees Gausman take on the Chicago Cubs, who like the Giants are seeing a resurgence of their own this season and back into playoff contention. Chicago hasn’t exactly crushed righties this season - ranking 26th in hard hit percentage, 14th in wRC+, and batting .235 as a team against right handed pitching - while the Giants, on the other hand, have surprised the league by hitting well above-average against righties (7th in hard hit percentage) and enter the weekend having won 6 of their previous 8 games, including taking 3 of 4 on the road against the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
They’ll take on Kohl Stewart, a young right-hander who pitched well in his season debut against the San Diego Padres. While I don’t intend to take anything away from a guy who pitched impressively against a very good lineup, I am betting he’ll be overvalued in his following start despite an ugly career DRA- of 130.
With one fewer day of rest than Gausman and only 64 pitches in his previous outing as well, it’s safe to say Kohl Stewart likely won’t pitch deep into the game, either. I’ll take the red hot Giants to grab control early and beat the run line against Chicago on Saturday. Anything -110 or better give us great value in this spot.
The Pick: Giants -1.5 (-110 or better)
Sunday, June 6
Cincinnati Reds (Wade Miley) @ St. Louis Cardinals (John Gant)
I don’t have any real reason to dislike John Gant personally, and I hope he’s enjoyed the success he’s experienced so far this season (4-3, 1.60 ERA). He’s allowed 3 total earned runs over his last 5 starts, the last two of which came on the road against excellent offenses in the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox - a very impressive run indeed. Unlike Kevin Gausman, however, the regression monster is due to arrive soon for our dear friend John. And if all I showed you was Gant’s Baseball Savant page, you’d think he was one of MLB’s worst starters. By percentile, here are his ranks in a few categories Baseball Savant measures:
Average Exit Velocity: 23rd percentile
xwOBA: 19th percentile
xERA: 19th percentile
xBA: 18th percentile
K%: 12th percentile
BB%: 8th percentile
Whiff%: 30th percentile
Chase Rate: 5th percentile
Gant walks a ton of hitters, rarely strikes anyone out, doesn’t fool hitters into chasing any pitches out of the zone and rarely produces swings that miss. He’s allowing 1.5 baserunners per inning, and the expected batting averages against him and his expected earned run average are both through the roof. Gant also pitches right-handed, which doesn’t bode well for him at all with the Cincinnati Reds coming to town this weekend. The Reds against right-handed pitching rank 6th in hard hit percentage, 6th in wRC+, and 2nd in MLB in batting average. I truly hope John has enjoyed this stretch, because itt may be the only such stretch of his career. It’s scheduled to end any moment now, and my belief is that it ends on Sunday afternooon.
Gant will be opposed by the Cincinnati Reds' Wade Miley, who stunned us all with his no-hitter back on May 7th but has since reminded us why we were stunned in the first placed by allowing 23 hits and 6 walks over 13.2 innings since then. Miley doesn’t throw particularly hard, relying on movement and location to continue to be effective in these late stages of his career. Like Gant, though, he’s also in for a potential rude awakening on Sunday. Led by right-handed sluggers Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals are an elite offensive unit against lefties (3rd in wRC+). I expect that the first 5 innings total will come in a lot lower than it should in this spot given recent results and the mainstream notoriety for these two pitchers, and it’s a perfect spot to fade them on a hot and humid Sunday game in St. Louis.
The Pick: First 5 innings OVER 4.5 or better