The difference between fighting for survival in the big leagues and potential greatness? In the case of Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes, just a little tweak in the way he grips a baseball.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that two seasons ago, Burnes was the worst pitcher in the majors, when he went 1-5 with an 8.82 ERA and allowed a staggering 17 home runs in 49 innings. His transformation began that offseason, when he started tinkering with a new pitch; then he broke out in 2020 and nearly won the National League ERA crown with a 2.11 mark. And now, he is the hottest pitcher on the planet.
The 26-year-old Burnes dismantled a struggling Chicago Cubs offense in a 7-0 victory on Wednesday, striking out 10 batters with no walks and two hits over six innings. His season line after three starts: 1-1, 18⅓ IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 30 SO.
“Somebody just told me the no walks, 30 strikeouts,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after the game. “That has to be pretty historic to start a season, I’m not sure, but that’s an incredible stat.”
It is historic. Only three pitchers have begun a season with more strikeouts without issuing a walk:
In 2019, the league hit .330 off Burnes. They’re hitting .067 off him in 2021 as Burnes has fanned 30 of the 62 batters he’s faced. The difference-maker: a wicked cutter that would make Mariano Rivera proud.
What’s interesting is that the pitch actually started out as a slider that Burnes tried to develop after that disastrous 2019 season.
“I had the idea in the offseason to throw two sliders,” Burnes said on a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. “It was the slider we’d seen previously in ’18 and ’19 and then a harder, tighter slider, which eventually kind of turned into this cutter. So at one point I was throwing two different sliders, one with a little more depth, one with a little bit more horizontal, and the curveball for more vertical, so I was going to come in with three breaking pitches. When we got into spring training, we realized it was going to be more of a cutter and that’s when we made a few tweaks, let’s make it an actual cutter versus a slider with some depth and I wouldn’t worry about things blending together.”
That minor tweak in grip — from slider to cutter — changed everything. In 2019, Burnes had primarily been a four-seam fastball/slider pitcher, mixing in a few curves and changeups. The problem: Batters absolutely destroyed his fastball, hitting .425 against it. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Burnes’ wOBA allowed on his fastball was the second worst of the pitch-tracking era (since 2008).
Now in ownership of this unhittable cutter, Burnes has essentially ditched the four-seamer. Against the Cubs, he threw 42 cutters out of his 81 pitches and just nine fastballs (seven of those two-seamers). Yes, it also helps when that cutter comes in at 97 mph and is part of a lethal six-pitch arsenal: cutter, curveball, slider, changeup, two-seamer, four-seamer.
It’s not all as simple as having one new pitch, of course. He throws exclusively out of the stretch now. He said he’s focused on getting the curveball and changeup to the same level as the cutter and slider. He’s pitching with supreme confidence.
“Mentally, I’ve been locked in for 18 innings,” he said.
As was the case with Rivera, the cutter apparently came pretty easy to Burnes, a natural outgrowth of his fastball.
“I’ve always been able to spin the ball really well, that’s kind of been my calling card,” Burnes had said Tuesday. “Even throwing a four-seam fastball, in the past it’s always had a little bit of cutting action to it. In ’18, we were able to get away with it. In ’19, it was one of those things where I didn’t have the command of it. I could throw it in the strike zone, but I didn’t know where it was going to be. With a few things we cleaned up, with a few ball positioning things in the hand, we were able to take it and basically it’s the cutter. When I throw it, I’m thinking through the process of throwing a four-seam fastball. For me, I think that’s why it’s become such an easy pitch. It’s something I’ve thrown my entire life.”
There’s no reason to think he can’t sustain this new level, other than he has to prove he can do it over 30 starts. The list of pitchers who can match his velocity, movement and pitch selection — that list may start and end with Jacob deGrom — is short. Burnes looks like a legitimate Cy Young contender.
Last spring, two of the most decorated gymnasts in collegiate history were leading their teams on a path to the NCAA championships. Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols and UCLA’s Kyla Ross were both having record-breaking senior seasons with their eyes set on more — until March 12.
The season was abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing an unceremonious end to the competitive careers of Nichols and Ross.
Nichols, a 2015 world champion with the U.S. team, led the Sooners to two team titles in 2017 and 2019, also winning six individual titles. Ross, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist with the national team, helped the Bruins to a 2018 national team title and earned four individual national titles. While the anticlimactic finish to their athletic careers still stings, both are back with their respective teams as student assistant coaches.
Ahead of this week’s NCAA championships (April 16-17, ESPN2 and ABC), where Oklahoma looks to win its fourth team title since 2016 and UCLA narrowly missed out on qualifying for the first time since 2006 but will have three individuals competing, ESPN revisited a conversation with the two retired gymnasts. Nichols and Ross, who have known each other since their days at the elite level, chatted about their new roles, what’s next and the legacies they believe they left as competitors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your first memories of one another?
Ross: I think it was when we had one of the championships in your hometown [in St. Paul in 2011].
Nichols: I just remember way back then, Kyla was so good and I looked up to her a lot, even though we were around the same age. Back then, I was just getting into the scene, and Kyla was getting up there, so it was really fun to watch her. I just remember her being kind of quiet, but always really sweet and nice.
Ross: Being in Maggie’s hometown, I think I really was rooting for her and wanting to see her do the best she could, and it being her first year in, I know that’s always so stressful, just getting used to everything, but just wanting to cheer her on.
What was that first day like in your new role?
Nichols: It was really exciting. I really didn’t know what to expect and how I would feel. But I think it’s such a great experience and I feel like I’m still a part of the team. I’m really enjoying the experience and I feel like I have a different perspective than the coaches, because I just did gymnastics last year and so I feel like I can give different corrections and things like that. I just love still being a part of this sport in some way.
Ross: That first practice being back with the team was so rewarding and fulfilling, especially being in quarantine for so long, it’s like you crave that sense of being able to just be near someone, even though we’re technically not even supposed to hug or touch anyone. But just being in that same room and coming in collectively, working toward a goal together, is something that I missed so much over the months we were quarantining.
What do you try to bring to the team in your new position?
Nichols: I always strive to learn every gymnast, because everyone’s different and everyone takes in corrections differently or has different attitudes, so really getting to know the girls personally and athletically.
Ross: For me, I want to take this year and gain as much experience as I can to see if I potentially want to coach in the future, so I think just observing how the other coaches are interacting with the girls is something that I’ve tried to focus on a lot. Like Maggie said, forming those connections, because knowing how that person is doing mentally and emotionally is so important to help them get through the day and be the best physically and understanding what that gymnast needs in that moment.
What has surprised you most about coaching so far?
Ross: I didn’t think this much time and energy went into writing up a workout, but now I know, it is a lot of effort just to try to organize and each day there has to be a main focus. I think just seeing all the behind-the-scenes work of how much the other coaching staff does to ensure the best experience for the girls is something.
Nichols: I think we just realize the things they do outside of the gym. They do so much busy work and [Oklahoma head coach] K.J. [Kindler] does [leotard] designs and all of that. Just so many things I couldn’t even explain. But I think we appreciate them so much more knowing all the hard work they put into our sport.
Ross: Just being able to experience the coach’s side, even just for a day, I think is something that could be really eye-opening to the gymnasts.
Nichols: Also, it’s kind of funny, but just standing there the whole time is so much different than when you’re flipping and always moving and stuff like that. The first few weeks, my body was kind of hurting standing there.
Ross: I totally agree, Maggie. My legs, my back, I was like, “Ohmy gosh. Is this retirement? This is terrible.”
Have you found activities to help replace gymnastics in your daily life?
Nichols: Something that I’ve really enjoyed is indoor cycling. It’s called CycleBar here. I’m looking into becoming, it’s called a cycle star. You’re a cycling instructor. It keeps me very active and it’s really hard so I feel accomplished after.
Ross: I’ve tried a lot of different sports because I’ve only done gymnastics since I was 3, so I never did any other sports growing up. I tried beach volleyball, tried tennis. My siblings laughed at me. I have no hand-eye coordination. I would just swing under the ball and it was so embarrassing.
But one of the sports that I’ve actually enjoyed a lot is going to the driving range and golfing. Golfing was one of the only things open in California during quarantine and my boyfriend, he enjoys being out with his friends, so he took me out a few times and I actually have found that I’m not terrible. I’m not going to say I’m good, but I’m not terrible.
Then also, I’ve tried to run sometimes, which before I could never even run a mile. No joke. Even at my top shape going to the Olympics, I couldn’t even run a mile. I think the longest I’ve ran is four miles, so I was really proud that I was able to run. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a gymnast that is.
Nichols: I’m right there with her, I can’t run either.
I actually got to golf too a little bit. My boyfriend also likes to play golf. He’s taken me out a few times too, but I’m kind of the laughingstock, I’m not good.
Ross: I think it’s very technical like gymnastics, so I think that’s what draws me in.
Nichols: Definitely. You have to have the right form in order to be able to hit the ball the right way. I think maybe that’s why we like it.
Do you think you’ll need to find something to fill that competitive void?
Nichols: I think definitely. We have that competitive blood in us just from gymnastics. With cycling, in each class they rank you from number one to last, so I’m always competing to get in the top three. I think that competitiveness will always be with us and we’ll always be trying different sports or different things in the future.
Ross: Yeah, like Maggie said, the competitiveness of gymnastics is one of the best parts. I think trying to find that outlet in hobbies or sports is something that I’m looking forward to a lot.
What has gymnastics meant to you?
Nichols: I could talk forever about gymnastics, but I think in short, gymnastics has taught me so many incredible lessons that will go into the future and help me be successful. It taught me time management, how to work hard, how to strive for something and not stop until you get there. But gymnastics has so many obstacles, struggles, whether that’s injuries or skills or competitions, there’s so many different things that teach you so many incredible lessons that I think that I can bring into the professional field. Gymnastics is such a beautiful sport and I think it’s made me the person and woman I am today.
Ross: I definitely agree, there’s so many lessons you can get out of the sport of gymnastics and for me, I think just setting a goal and doing everything you need to do to reach that goal. Also, the team aspect, I think just learning how to work together collectively and reach a goal as a team is something that’s important to bring into your future work.
What do you think is one another’s legacy in gymnastics?
Nichols: I think Kyla has so many legacies she’s leaving behind. I think Kyla was definitely an inspiration to so many gymnasts. You could always tell that she had a goal in mind and she was going to achieve it. You could tell in her gymnastics, it was near perfection, so I think that Kyla was definitely an inspiration for all the hard work and dedication that she put into the gym and you could tell that she was such a great teammate and such a positive person and someone that her teammates went to. I think that Kyla was definitely someone who left a legacy of hard work and someone who was a great person and teammate.
Ross: Aw, thank you. For Maggie, I think her legacy is bravery. Being “Athlete A,” and coming forward, I think is an inspiration to so many and to myself. I think bravery is something that’s high up there. Also, your perseverance, having so many injuries throughout your career, but always wanting to get back to the sport that you loved, I think is something that a lot of little girls can take and find inspiration in that.
One of many unique aspects of the 2021 NHL season is that teams are playing all of their regular season games against division opponents — and those divisions were realigned for this season as well. They will continue this intradivisional format through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In other words, these teams are quite familiar with one another.
The NHL uses a draft lottery to determine the order at the top of the first round, so the team that finishes in last place is not guaranteed the No. 1 selection. New for 2021, a team may move up a maximum of 10 spots if it wins the lottery, so only 11 teams are eligible for the draw for the No. 1 pick. Full details on the process can be found here.
With the 2021 NHL trade deadline in the rearview mirror, we now have a much clearer picture of what the final month of the season will look like. For this week’s power rankings, we identified the “hinge” player for every team down the stretch — as in, who could have the most outsized impact on the team in the last month?
How we rank: The ESPN hockey editorial staff submits selections ranking teams 1 to 31 — taking into account game results, injuries and upcoming schedule — and those results are tabulated in the list featured here.
Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to our Week 12 edition, published on April 7. Points percentages are through the games of April 13.
Previous ranking: 1 Points percentage: .738 Next seven days: @ STL (Apr. 14); vs. LA (Apr. 16, 18); @ STL (Apr. 20)
Colorado’s trade deadline was all about making an already dangerous team even deeper. Even though some pressure is relieved with the additions of Jonas Johansson and Devan Dubnyk, there’s still pressure for Philipp Grubauer to stay healthy and keep performing at this high level.
The Capitals sent a lot to Detroit (Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-rounder, a 2022 second-rounder) for Anthony Mantha. He has a lot of qualities teams covet — speed, size, strength, scoring touch — but will he translate all of that to production in a new environment of mostly established veterans?
Previous ranking: 6 Points percentage: .707 Next seven days: @ LA (Apr. 14); @ ANA (Apr. 16, 18); vs. SJ (Apr. 19)
Mark Stone recently went on a 10-game stretch where he had zero goals and four points (other Golden Knights forwards were struggling too). That simply won’t fly for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Stone broke out of his slump in a comeback win against the Kings on Monday.
Previous ranking: 7 Points percentage: .698 Next seven days: vs. WPG (Apr. 15); @ VAN (Apr. 17, 19)
Previous ranking: 5 Points percentage: .690 Next seven days: vs. FLA (Apr. 15, 17); vs. CAR (Apr. 19, 20)
So GM Julien BriseBrois, after suggesting it would be very difficult for the Lightning to pull off anything at the trade deadline, found a way to make it work. Tampa Bay gave up a first-round pick for David Savard, who will be expected to play a huge role. He’ll begin on the top pairing with Victor Hedman.
Previous ranking: 4 Points percentage: .707 Next seven days: vs. NSH (Apr. 15, 17); @ TB (Apr. 19, 20)
The Canes decided to largely stick with the group they have at the trade deadline. Carolina is still waiting on details about a Teuvo Teravainen return. The top-line winger (concussion) has been limited to 13 games, and could offer a huge boost.
The Islanders view their two new additions — Kyle Palmieriand Travis Zajac — as the key to finishing strong down the stretch, and getting over the playoff hump. You can’t replace captain Anders Lee with one player, but maybe you can with two.
Previous ranking: 2 Points percentage: .674 Next seven days: @ TB (Apr. 15, 17); vs. CBJ (Apr. 19, 20)
Nobody is suggesting that Brandon Montour is Aaron Ekblad. But the Panthers clearly wanted a replacement for their 25-year-old top defenseman (out through at least the regular season after leg surgery). Montour, whose career stalled a bit after 123 games in Buffalo, is tasked with filling some of the void.
Previous ranking: 8 Points percentage: .667 Next seven days: vs. PHI (Apr. 15); @ BUF (Apr. 17, 18); vs. NJ (Apr. 20)
It has been a frustrating season of injuries in Pittsburgh, mostly at center. “It’s been unfortunate that we’ve been hit with it all at the same position at different parts of the season,” coach Mike Sullivan told ESPN last week. Enter veteran Jeff Carter, who could provide an answer.
Previous ranking: 10 Points percentage: .638 Next seven days: vs. ARI (Apr. 14); vs. SJ (Apr. 16, 17); @ ARI (Apr. 19)
The Wild stood pat on Monday, but hope they’re getting their own deadline “addition” in Marcus Foligno, who returns after missing 15 games with a broken ankle. “It’s great to have him back,” GM Bill Guerin said. “It’s like making a trade.”
Previous ranking: 12 Points percentage: .631 Next seven days: @ OTT (Apr. 14); @ TOR (Apr. 15); vs. EDM (Apr. 17)
The Jets didn’t do too much at the deadline, not compared to the division-leading Maple Leafs. Winnipeg’s biggest trade at the deadline was a depth defenseman, Jordie Benn. That means the burden is still falling on goalie Connor Hellebuyck to carry the back end.
Previous ranking: 13 Points percentage: .619 Next seven days: @ VAN (Apr. 16); @ WPG (Apr. 17); vs. MTL (Apr. 19)
The Oilers opted not to add much at the deadline, other than Dmitry Kulikov as a depth defenseman. That’s fine since GM Ken Holland wants to hold on to draft picks, but it means Connor McDavidand Leon Draisaitl are once against tasked with carrying this team.
Previous ranking: 11 Points percentage: .625 Next seven days: vs. NYI (Apr. 15, 16); vs. WSH (Apr. 18); @ BUF (Apr. 20)
Bruins GM Don Sweeney made a splash by acquiring Taylor Hallto help the Bruins’ offense. Even though Hall is taking on a lesser role than in Buffalo, there’s a ton of pressure on him to produce — especially if he wants to sign an extension in Boston.
Previous ranking: 18 Points percentage: .557 Next seven days: @ CAR (Apr. 15, 17); vs. CHI (Apr. 19)
Predators GM David Poile didn’t end up trading any players at the deadline after all, thanks to his team’s recent resurgence into playoff position. Now the focus is on coach John Hynes, to see if they can exceed more expectations, which would mean less turnover this summer.
The Rangers view Vitali Kravtsov, the talented 2018 first-rounder, as their own deadline “addition.” Kravtsov is likely going to keep moving up the lineup, getting looks with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, as he continues his NHL transition.
Previous ranking: 14 Points percentage: .577 Next seven days: vs. CGY (Apr. 14, 16); vs. OTT (Apr. 17); @ EDM (Apr. 19)
Newcomer Tyler Toffoli continues to pace the team in goals, while Josh Anderson (also in his first season in Montreal) is right behind him. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has flashed brilliance this season, but needs to find a way to more consistently end up on the score sheet.
Previous ranking: 17 Points percentage: .524 Next seven days: @ PIT (Apr. 15); vs. WSH (Apr. 17); vs. NYI (Apr. 18)
The Flyers decided to re-sign Scott Laughton to a five-year extension instead of trading him. There was a lot of interest from competing teams who thought Laughton could be this year’s Blake Coleman or Barclay Goodrow, but Philly wanted Laughton around, too, as it keeps playoff hopes flickering.
Previous ranking: 22 Points percentage: .537 Next seven days: vs. COL (Apr. 14); @ ARI (Apr. 17); vs. COL (Apr. 20)
The Blues didn’t do anything at the trade deadline. That means GM Doug Armstrong viewed a trio of pending free agents — Tyler Bozak, Mike Hoffmanand Jaden Schwartz — as more valuable to the team’s playoff hopes than draft picks would be for the future.
Previous ranking: 20 Points percentage: .523 Next seven days: @ DET (Apr. 15, 17); @ NSH (Apr. 19)
Since the Blackhawks didn’t end up trading Nikita Zadorov, it appears they’d like the defenseman to be part of their future. He’ll have an interesting contract negotiation this summer. The physical blueliner is making $3.2 million in 2021, and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.
Previous ranking: 15 Points percentage: .500 Next seven days: @ MIN (Apr. 14); vs. STL (Apr. 17); vs. MIN (Apr. 19)
After some speculation and hoopla, the Coyotes didn’t end up trading Conor Garland, their second-leading point scorer. He’ll be expected to produce offense down the stretch. It’s the last year of Garland earning under $1 million; he’s due for a raise as a pending restricted free agent this summer.
Previous ranking: 21 Points percentage: .512 Next seven days: vs. CBJ (Apr. 15, 17); vs. DET (Apr. 19, 20)
Tyler Seguin has missed the entire season as he rehabs a hip surgery. He’s getting closer to a return. The center will spend two weeks with the taxi squad before he’s ready to join the lineup, GM Jim Nill said. The Stars could use scoring help as they make a late push for a playoff spot.
Previous ranking: 19 Points percentage: .488 Next seven days: vs. ANA (Apr. 14); @ MIN (Apr. 16, 17); @ VGS (Apr. 19)
The Sharks traded Devan Dubnyk in part because they wanted to give their younger goalies a chance. But also because Martin Jones has turned things around. Can Jones keep up the pace and lead San Jose, surprisingly, to the playoffs?
Previous ranking: 23 Points percentage: .473 Next seven days: vs. EDM (Apr. 16); vs. TOR (Apr. 17, 19)
The Canucks are hoping to just get back onto the ice after a COVID outbreak has kept them out of action since March 24. A lot of focus will be on Elias Pettersson, who has been injured, hasn’t had his best season production-wise, and is up for a new contract this summer.
Previous ranking: 24 Points percentage: .463 Next seven days: vs. VGS (Apr. 14); @ COL (Apr. 16, 18); vs. ANA (Apr. 20)
Another year, another emotional trade deadline for the Kings. They said goodbye to veteran Jeff Carter, a leftover from the Cup days. They were also happy to reach an agreement with Alex Iafallo on a new contract, knowing he’ll continue to play a big role going forward.
Previous ranking: 27 Points percentage: .464 Next seven days: @ MTL (Apr. 14, 16); vs. OTT (Apr. 19)
Calgary’s big trade-deadline moves were trading away goalie David Rittich to Toronto and center Sam Bennett to Florida. There’s a lot of pressure on Johnny Gaudreau down the stretch. He’s on the Flames for now, but it seems increasingly likely he could get traded this summer, signifying the end of an era for this club.
Previous ranking: 25 Points percentage: .443 Next seven days: @ DAL (Apr. 15, 17); @ FLA (Apr. 19, 20)
It hasn’t been the smoothest transition for Patrik Laine and the Blue Jackets, but the rest of the season is a chance to see if he should figure into Columbus’ long-term plans. Our hunch says yes, especially after goals like this.
There has been a ton of turnover on the Devils’ roster in the past two weeks, and New Jersey is left with a very young team; Andreas Johnsson is the oldest forward, at 26. These final weeks will be a critical period for Nico Hischier, the youngest captain in the league, as he is close to returning to the lineup.
Previous ranking: 28 Points percentage: .409 Next seven days: vs. CHI (Apr. 15, 17); @ DAL (Apr. 19, 20)
In a shocking deadline move, GM Steve Yzerman parted with one of his core players (Anthony Mantha) and got a huge return from the Capitals. Jakub Vrana is now a Red Wing, and becomes a restricted free agent this summer, so this is his time to prove he should be a core player going forward.
After signing a four-year, $25 million contract with Ottawa in the offseason, Matt Murray has struggled. The 26-year-old had a .880 save percentage through 22 appearances, which forced the Senators to replace their goaltending coach last week.
Previous ranking: 30 Points percentage: .384 Next seven days: @ SJ (Apr. 14); vs. VGS (Apr. 16, 18); @ LA (Apr. 20)
Ryan Getzlaf has been on the Ducks since 2005-06. A few teams expressed interest in Anaheim’s captain, but he and the Ducks decided it was worth it for him to stick around, even in a rebuilding year, with basically no shot at the playoffs.
Previous ranking: 31 Points percentage: .321 Next seven days: @ WSH (Apr. 15); vs. PIT (Apr. 17, 18); vs. BOS (Apr. 20)
The dust has settled after the deadline, and now all eyes are on the potential return of Jack Eichel. Interim coach Don Granato has stressed they expect him back this season; can the captain help the team finish on a high note after a rough 2021?
We can call Tuesday night the “Night of the 11 Aces,” which might refer to the time Uncle Bob won all the money at family poker night, but on this evening refers to the unusual gift of seeing 11 legitimate preseason Cy Young candidates all starting.
The marquee matchup was the American League Central showdown between the Indians‘ Shane Bieber and the White Sox‘s Lucas Giolito in Chicago, and it lived up to expectations in what will be one of the best duels we’ll see all season. Maybe the best we’ll see.
Both pitchers took a shutout into the eighth inning, Bieber went nine, and the game was scoreless heading into extra innings. Cleveland finally scratched two runs in the top of the 10th inning, and Bieber got the win when Josh Naylor caught Jake Lamb’s potential tying home run just in front of the fence in right field.
Both pitchers were in complete control throughout — and showed you don’t have to throw 98 mph to dominate in the majors. Bieber works extremely fast, which always makes his games enjoyable to watch, but it’s his combination of throwing strikes with great movement that makes him so tough. He was amazingly efficient in this game: Through eight innings he had thrown just 86 pitches, a remarkable 67 for strikes, taking advantage of the hyper-aggressive Chicago lineup.
The Sox finally made him work in the ninth inning as he threw 27 pitches, but with two on he fanned Yoan Moncada on four pitches — four curveballs — and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.
With that outing, Bieber wins Ace of the Night. Let’s do a quick review of all 11 starters:
After striking out 12 in each of his first two starts of 2021, Bieber became just the sixth pitcher since 1901 to begin a season with three straight games of 10 or more strikeouts, joining Gerrit Cole (2018), Rich Hill (2015), Randy Johnson (2000), Nolan Ryan (1973) and Sam McDowell (1970). His fastest pitch of the night was 94.3 mph, just the 37th-fastest pitch of the game against the White Sox. That’s plenty fast enough, but he does it easily, without ever overthrowing. He actually threw more curveballs (46) than fastballs (39) and does a great job of mixing his first pitch to a batter: 12 fastballs, 10 curves, 8 sliders, 1 changeup. Despite throwing so many first-pitch offspeed pitches, he still threw them for strikes — 24 of 31 batters faced. Beautiful.
Giolito picked up the hard-luck no decision against Cleveland, despite pitching into the top of the eighth (he was removed after walking the leadoff batter in the inning). His fastest pitch of the game was 94.2 mph, but he did a good job of adding and subtracting on his fastball — he’s not afraid to throw 92 at the top of the zone, trying to get the opponent to chase. His short arm action adds deception to his delivery, and he’s pitching with supreme confidence. This was his best outing of his three starts, and with 26 strikeouts in 17.2 innings, he looks like he’s also on his way to a huge strikeout season.
The most underrated pitcher in the majors? Ryu finished second in the 2019 National League Cy Young vote and third in the 2020 AL vote and has a 2.30 ERA going back to 2018 — yet I don’t think anybody predicted he will win in 2021. No, he doesn’t own the blazing fastball of Cole, but man does he know he know how to pitch. Four of his seven K’s against the Yankees on Tuesday came on pitches that were outside the strike zone. The one run he allowed was unearned, and he threw 68 of 95 pitches for strikes.
Bauer was greater than a -300 favorite on the moneyline at home against a Rockies team that struggles to score runs away from Coors Field, probably one of the surer bets of the season — and he didn’t disappoint. After taking a no-hitter into the seventh against the Rockies in his first start of the season, the only hit allowed in the first five innings was a swinging bat. He did walk the first two batters in the second, but he escaped with two strikeouts and a popout. Good outing, but the game we’re looking forward to is Sunday: Bauer against Blake Snell and the Padres (see below).
Woodruff was my favorite off-the-board Cy Young candidate entering the season, and he has done nothing to suggest he can’t finish high in the voting. He throws strikes, has a good defense behind him and will get to face the Cubs five or six times.
Woodruff’s fastball topped out at 98.4 mph in Tuesday’s game against the Cubs, and he threw 24 pitches at 97 mph or faster. Fifty-eight of his 95 pitches were fastballs, but what makes him so tough is his curveball and changeup are both plus offerings. He left with a 2-1 lead, but the Brewers’ bullpen blew it and Woodruff remains 0-0 in three starts despite a 2.12 ERA. Something to watch the next time Woodruff faces the Cubs. After Woodruff hit Willson Contreras (the Brewers have now hit him seven times going back to last season), the Cubs threw behind Woodruff. The Cubs are “protecting” their teammate, but Contreras practically leans over the plate asking to be hit. Here’s Ryan Tepera’s pitch:
Matched up against the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, Flaherty was … fine. He wasn’t efficient at all, throwing first-pitch strikes to just six of the 19 batters he faced and throwing 96 pitches, which is why he lasted just five innings. He got away falling behind hitters in this game, but that’s not a path to success. Really, Flaherty is still trying to find his form from the second half of 2019, when he had one of the best stretches in MLB history. He walked six over 10 1/3 innings in his first two starts of 2021, so while he was walk free in this game, the sharp command is not there yet.
I had this game on my big screen, and he probably deserved a little better result. Nola is fun to watch, and Mets announcer Ron Darling made a comparison I hadn’t thought of before, suggesting Nola reminds him of Dennis Eckersley, with the three-quarters arm action and flair in the delivery. Anyway, Nola was cruising into the fourth when the Mets’ Jeff McNeil started a three-run rally with one out on a half-swing infield dribbler. Kevin Pillar was jammed but hit a bloop single to center. Jonathan Villar hit a soft fly ball into right-center for a hustle double. Nola hit Tomas Nido to load the bases, and after Marcus Stroman struck out, Brandon Nimmo singled to right field, the one hard-hit ball of the inning.
I still view Nola as a sleeper Cy Young candidate (in a league without Jacob deGrom), although his park and defense works against him. Kudos to Stroman, who wasn’t one of our 11 aces but had one of the best outings of the night with six shutout innings as the Mets won 4-0 to sweep the doubleheader.
Castillo versus the red-hot Kevin Gausman of the Giants looked great on paper, but both starters surrendered two home runs and combined to allow nine runs (granted, a 19-mph wind out to center field didn’t help). Castillo had that terrible Opening Day start against the Cardinals (10 runs), but followed up with seven scoreless innings against the Pirates and now this effort, so he’s still looking for that consistency. Batters are hitting .600 against his two-seamer so far, so … maybe more four-seamers to go with his dominant changeup?
Fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2020, Fried has struggled to find the same command in 2021 and has now allowed 23 hits in 11 innings in three winless outings. He allowed two home runs in this start against Miami, as many as he allowed in 56 innings last season. Fried allowed five balls in play — four of them hits — of 100-plus mph, plus another hit at 99.7 mph and four others at 95 mph, the threshold of a hard-hit ball. His single-game high last season was four balls of 100 and just six of 95-plus. In other words, the Marlins pounded him.
Stephen Strasburg rubs his shoulder in the dugout as he struggles vs. the Cardinals.
I had this game on my iPad, and every time I glanced down, somebody on the Cardinals was rounding the bases. Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and the struggling Matt Carpenter all homered off Strasburg, who via Game Score had the second-worst start of his career. He walked five batters for the just the second time in 243 career starts and allowed three home runs for just the sixth time. The biggest concern: He averaged just 90.7 mph on his fastball, the lowest of his career by a full mph. He had pitched six scoreless innings in his first start of 2021, so maybe this was just one of those nights like he has never had before. But a lot will be made of the drop in velocity.
The 2018 Cy Young winner had pitched well in his first two starts with the Padres but pitched just 0.2 innings Tuesday against the Pirates as manager Jayce Tingler has played it safe, including removing Snell one out shy of a potential win in his first start — which Snell wasn’t too happy about. This start was a complete disaster. Snell actually retired the first two batters on eight pitches, but the next six batters reached, including two walks and a hit batter. Really, Tingler had no choice. The most pitches in an inning this season is 40, and Snell’s career high is 42. You don’t want to leave him in and see a long 10-pitch battle that has him approaching 50 pitches in one inning in a game in early April. Snell didn’t seem to agree, though:
Blake Snell was pulled after failing to make it out of the first inning: 3 hits, 3 ER, 2 walks.
All in all, I’d give our aces about a C+. We had a memorable duel between Bieber and Giolito, but three of them were terrible. Hey, maybe all these guys will line up to pitch again on Sunday and we can do this all over again.
For teams like the Heat and Celtics, who met in last season’s conference finals and entered 2020-21 with championship aspirations, avoiding the play-in round is a top priority.
Which team should be considered the favorite to break from the logjam to capture the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Which potential play-in matchup would create the most drama? Should Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the star-studded Nets be considered a lock to reach the NBA Finals?
Our NBA experts are tackling the most important questions surrounding the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
1. What are you watching most closely between now and the end of the regular season in the East?
Tim Bontemps: Who finishes with the best record in the conference. The race between Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee for the top seed in the East has massive implications. The most obvious is that whoever gets the best record gets home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs — a significant advantage for Philadelphia, which has been dominant at home for years (and now is getting fans back in the building, like many other arenas).
Bobby Marks: Whether Miami and Boston can both avoid the play-in tournament. Last year’s conference finalists are part of a group of five teams in the No. 4 to No. 8 range that are separated by only two games. If either falls out of the top six, it would be faced with an elimination scenario before the first round of the playoffs started. Although they are sitting outside of the top six, the Celtics are 7-3 in their past 10 games and had their most impressive win of the season Sunday at Denver.
Kevin Pelton: The race for the No. 1 seed. I know it’s considered gauche now to care about seeding, but the top spot in the East conveys not just home-court advantage through the conference finals but also the ability to avoid playing one of the other top three teams until then. It’s a huge edge this year that is well worth chasing for the top three teams.
André Snellings: I’m watching who gets into the playoffs at full strength. The top three teams have been battling injuries all season, and the Nets in particular have yet to see their entire team play together. But for the top three, if they make it to the playoffs in good form they should be primed to make deep runs.
Brian Windhorst: Health. This is such a grind, and the tolls of these past 10 months are showing up everywhere. Injuries shape the title race every year, but this season it feels heavier. This might come down to which team can avoid calf injuries. I’ve never seen more of them.
2. Who is the fourth-best team in the East?
Bontemps: The Heat take the honor that no one seems eager to grab. Miami has never been whole this season, but at full strength I like the Heat’s combination of skill and depth at both ends more than that of the Celtics or Hawks, the other two teams most likely to finish with the fourth seed.
Pelton: I’m going with Miami. While I don’t expect a repeat of last year’s impressive run to the NBA Finals, I think the Heat can find enough offense in the playoffs to go along with their top-10 defense. Given their combination of star talent, experience and depth, I think Miami has the best chance of reaching the conference semifinals outside the East’s top three.
Snellings: The Heat are the next strongest team in the East. They’ve been there before, are a tough-minded group and they play a defensive style of play that has proved to be strong in the playoffs. They also rank fifth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) among East teams, directly behind the top three.
Marks: This is more about a process of elimination than a reward for standing out, but the Heat rank as my fourth-best team in the East. Although they have looked more like first-round fodder for most of the season, the Heat are playoff-tested and return many of the same faces that lost in the NBA Finals last season. They also strengthened their roster at the trade deadline with the additions of Trevor Ariza, Nemanja Bjelica and Victor Oladipo (despite his most recent injury).
Windhorst: Miami. The Heat’s record is really 22-14, because that’s what they are when Jimmy Butler plays. He transforms them. He’s having a great season, and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro have been playing better lately, too. I wouldn’t put anything past them when Butler is right.
3. Who is the best player in the East?
Pelton:Joel Embiid. “Best player” is a surprisingly loaded question. For the 82-game regular season, I’d rather have Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden because of their superior durability. Come playoff time, Kevin Durant certainly could regain this title. But if I had to win one game today, Embiid would be my pick.
Snellings: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the East. He can put more pressure on opposing defenses than anyone outside of James Harden, forcing them to design their entire units to wall him off and try to keep him away from the rim. He’s also as good of a defender as can be found in the conference. Durant is the best scorer, Harden the best offensive player and Embiid the best pure center, but Giannis is the best all-around player.
Marks: The body of work this season is only 21 games, but Kevin Durant has proved that he is the best player in the Eastern Conference. In the small sample of games, the former MVP has averaged 28 points on 52.8% shooting from the field and career highs of 43.7% from 3 and a true shooting percentage of 65.7.
Windhorst: Durant is one of the greatest players of all time. Giannis is right there, of course, but Durant has two Finals MVP awards on his shelf.
Bontemps: You could have your pick of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and the answer would never be wrong, but I’ll take Embiid. He’s playing better than he ever has, is a foul-drawing machine and is the one player whom the other two teams atop the East truly don’t have an answer for. That’s enough to give him the slightest of edges over the other two.
4. What East play-in scenario do you most want to see?
Pelton: I’m already on the record here: Let’s get Chicago, Indiana, Miami and New York in there and re-create the Eastern Conference playoffs of the 1990s, albeit probably with fewer fights between the Heat and the Knicks.
Marks: A Knicks-Pacers play-in game does not compare to the days of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing, but it would be the most intriguing of the potential matchups. The two teams have played three times this season with New York winning the last two by a combined seven points.
Windhorst: It would be good for the NBA if the Knicks could make it back to the playoffs, and it would be a huge boost to their fans. Seeing them get into the field of eight and getting playoff games back at Madison Square Garden would be a welcome sight.
Bontemps: A Knicks-Bulls game would be pretty fun to see. Two of the league’s glamour franchises — both of which have fallen on hard times but have had fun seasons — playing a must-win game to get into the playoffs would be a good way for the league’s newest venture to attract attention. The drama of either Miami or Boston falling into the play-in tournament would also be interesting. So too would a Boston-Toronto rematch from last year’s playoffs, though that isn’t looking likely these days.
Snellings: I’d like to see the Wizards make it to the play-in game, as their starting backcourt could be electric in a win-or-go-home scenario. Almost like the NCAA tournament, a hot backcourt like Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal could make that type of format a lot of fun to watch.
5. Pick one to make the Finals: The Nets or the field.
Bontemps: The field, easily. And that’s not a knock on Brooklyn, which might be the favorite to make it out of the East. But if there are three teams that have a legitimate shot to make it out of the conference, and they’re all bunched together, why wouldn’t you take two chances over one? Given Brooklyn’s shaky health this season, I’ll take my chances with the field (but really Milwaukee and Philadelphia) to find a way past the star-studded Nets.
Pelton: The field. Gonzaga’s loss in the national championship game was the latest reminder that “Team X or the field?” is a dangerous proposition, albeit somewhat less so for a best-of-seven series. If you told me that the Nets would be the No. 1 seed, I would probably pick them. But if Brooklyn potentially has to beat Milwaukee in the conference semifinals and Philadelphia in the conference finals without home-court advantage for the latter series, that tips me toward the field.
Snellings: The field, because I’m not certain the Nets are the best team in the East. Arguments could be made for each of the Bucks and 76ers, individually, ahead of the Nets, and the Heat will be a challenge as well. The Nets have serious question marks in the middle, as well as on defense and on the boards, which are all difference-makers in the playoffs.
Marks: I picked Brooklyn to make the NBA Finals and I am not going to second-guess my decision now.
Windhorst: The Nets have the most talent, and I would argue they also have the biggest margin for error with those three superstars. If they don’t do it for any reason other than injuries, it would probably be a disappointment.
While the world waits for Anthony Joshua-Tyson Fury, Jose Ramirez-Josh Taylor and Teofimo Lopez-George Kambosos, the boxing spotlight will be placed on the sideshows as celebrities and former champions are making their way into the squared circle. There is little doubt that boxing purists hate what’s on tap this weekend, but the reality is that Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren will indeed capture the attention of the sports and celebrity world. Will Triller find gold with yet another music and boxing showcase?
This week may also serve as the definitive time for the Joshua-Fury finalization. Will boxing finally get the crowning of its first four-title champion this July?
And this past weekend, we watched as Joe Smith finally earned a title win and Jaron “Boots” Ennis proved that he’s ready for much tougher competition. Will either of them add more gold to their waists in 2020? Similarly, will Demetrius Andrade defeat Liam Williams this weekend and finally get an opponent that will make the world take notice?
Cameron Wolfe, Ben Baby, Michael Rothstein and Nick Parkinson separate what’s real from what’s not.
Real or Not: Jake Paul-Ben Askren will be a very successful boxing PPV
Wolfe: Real, even if half the viewers are only hate-buying the PPV to see one of them get knocked out in dramatic fashion. This new wave of influencers, legends and/or MMA fighters getting in the boxing ring together seems to always draw eyeballs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul-Askren outsells every other boxing PPV in 2021 outside out Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua and Mike Tyson exhibitions (Canelo Alvarez will be fighting on subscription-based on DAZN). Yes, that’s an indictment on the current state of boxing, but it’s also a clear challenge to make the fights that people want to see.
Paul and Askren have strong social media followings and their beef leading up to the fight is the internet promotion that will drive people to hand over their dollars. Paul is riding a boxing high after his viral knockout of Nate Robinson in November and people seeking Saturday night entertainment will pay to see if he can make an actual professional combat fighter in Askren his next victim.
Real or Not: Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua will meet in July as planned
Parkinson: Real… probably. Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, who works with Joshua, has remained positive about making the fight throughout the negotiating process this year. Hearn said over the weekend, “We are in a great place with several offers on the table. I’m quietly confident.”
But that does not stop the nagging suspicion for some that the offers on the table will not meet the financial expectations of one or both of the fighters due to restrictions on revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, delaying the fight until later this year, with both taking interim fights, has its problems and this may lead to a positive outcome this week. A fight in July would see all four major world heavyweight titles on the line for the first time: an enticing chance to make history for one of the English boxers.
Delay the fight, and possible mandatory defense obligations — especially on Joshua’s side with the WBO title in a dangerous fight against Oleksandr Usyk — come into play. And if they both take interim fights, there’s the real danger one of them will lose or suffer injury, causing further delay. Remember, Fury suffered a gruesome cut against Otto Wallin in Sept. 2019 that needed 47 stitches. The cut was so bad there was a real chance the fight would get stopped, and ruin the plan for Fury to fight Deontay Wilder in a rematch.
Considering the pluses and minuses of fighting in July, both fighters are likely to sign on the dotted line for a clash in Saudi Arabia on July 24. The Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas is another option to host the megafight, but it would be a surprise to see it take place at Wembley Stadium in London in the fighters’ native England due to doubts over whether a crowd of 100,000 can be permitted in July because of coronavirus restrictions.
Real or Not: Joe Smith Jr. can beat Artur Beterbiev in unification match
Baby: Not real. Let me start this by saying Joe Smith Jr. deserves a ton of credit. At one point against Maxim Vlasov, Smith looked like he had nothing left in the tank and he was going to let another title shot slip out of his grasp. Instead, Smith rallied in the championship rounds, landed some big power shots and did just enough to squeak out the victory.
All of that being said, however, I still don’t think he’s good enough to beat Beterbiev. Just look at Beterbiev’s resume. It’s filled with knockouts and a bunch of lackluster names. What does that tell you? Nobody is signing up to fight this guy because they know what it entails.
Do you think Canelo Alvarez wanted a piece of Beterbiev at 175 pounds? Alvarez is staying at 168 pounds, in case anyone needs the answer to that question after beating Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight belt.
Beterbiev is a pure menace in the ring. He is technically sound, has good footwork and carries swift, judicious power — all things that will be problems for Smith in a potential fight down the line. And that’s not taking anything away from Smith.
Smith earned a world championship. But Beterbiev, even at 36, seems to be a completely different type of fighter.
Real or Not: Demetrius Andrade should fight Gennadiy Golovkin next
Baby: Real. On paper, this fight makes too much sense for it not to happen. Each man fights on DAZN, so the typical boxing politics shouldn’t be an issue. Andrade is the WBO middleweight champion, while Golovkin holds the IBF belt in the 160-pound division. The winner of this matchup will be the only unified middleweight champion.
But more importantly, this is a good fight for both at each point in their respective careers. Golovkin could use a win over a young fighter to show he’s still a force in the middleweight division. Meanwhile, most of the conversation around Andrade has been about who he hasn’t faced. While the reasons for Andrade’s thin resume are debatable, it’s clear he needs to boost his profile to gain some bargaining power for some of the bigger fights around those weight classes — most notably against WBC champion Jermell Charlo.
Because Golovkin can’t get a third fight against Alvarez and Andrade might be the lowest-profile champion in a glamour division, middleweight doesn’t have nearly as much buzz as the other divisions. A Golovkin-Andrade matchup could change that and immediately give the winner a much-needed boost.
Real or Not: Jaron Ennis deserves a title fight at welterweight
Rothstein: Yes, Ennis deserves a shot at this point, but not against either Terrence Crawford or Errol Spence. Ennis’ shot should come against WBA title holder Yordenis Ugas (or, I guess, Jamal James depending how you view the different world titles within the WBA — but that’s another conversation for another day).
Ennis (27-0, 25 KO) has consistently knocked out his opponents whenever he steps into the ring, including a sixth-round knockout of Sergey Lipinets on Saturday night. He hasn’t reached a decision since 2017 (a unanimous decision against James Winchester) and only has gone the distance in two of his 28 fights. The only reason he doesn’t have a massive knockout streak going is because his Dec. 19, 2020 fight against Chris van Heerden ended in a no-decision after an accidental head butt.
But no matter, it’s time for Ennis to get his chance to fight for a championship. Ugas makes the most sense for Ennis — he’s probably the most vulnerable of the three current title holders — and the winner should set up well to take on either Spence or Crawford in a unification big-time fight either at the end of 2021 or early in 2022.
Of course, boxing is fickle and promoting and lining up the fights that should happen doesn’t always happen, but Ennis has done his part to give himself a chance to win a belt. Along with Vergil Ortiz Jr., they have a chance to become the next stars of their division since they are both only 23 years old.
The entire West Division is off on Tuesday night, but six teams currently occupying playoff spots in the other divisions will hit the ice looking to bolster their playoff chances this evening. That includes the Lightning visiting the Predators. The Lightning lead the season series 6-1, and Andrei Vasilevskiy had a 36-save shutout to lead Tampa Bay to a 3-0 victory in their most recent matchup.
Elsewhere, Hall will be with the Bruins as they take on his former team, the Sabres; because of postponements, these teams have played only twice so far this season, with the Bruins winning both. Tuesday’s game is the first of six remaining between the clubs.
As we enter the final stretch of the regular season, it’s time to check in on all the playoff races — along with the teams jockeying for position in the 2021 NHL draft lottery.
The NHL uses a draft lottery to determine the order at the top of the first round, so the team that finishes in last place is not guaranteed the No. 1 selection. New for 2021, a team may move up a maximum of 10 spots if it wins the lottery, so only 11 teams are eligible for the draw for the No. 1 pick. Full details on the process can be found here.
J.T. Realmuto sat in limbo this past offseason. A star free agent, at a premium position, he was waiting patiently for his team to show the kind of interest that would be required to bring him back on a new deal.
The winter’s new darling team, the New York Mets, was dangling an offer to go to the Big Apple and be part of a new era of winning under new owner Steve Cohen. But Dec. 11, 2020, changed everything — for Realmuto and seemingly the entire Phillies organization.
“I think it did change everything because up to that point, the signal, at least through the media, was the Phillies were going to take a step back and maybe not spend as much,” Realmuto said recently. “Once they hired Dave, it was pretty apparent they were going to try to win this year and for a period of time. He’s not the type of guy you bring in if you’re going to rebuild.”
The Phillies are no stranger to big winter splashes, having signed Bryce Harper in 2019, then hiring Joe Girardi as manager before the 2020 season — but it was the addition of Dombrowski that shifted the focus entirely to winning.
“His track record is winning and putting together good teams,” Girardi said. “Go back to Montreal, then Florida, then it continued in Detroit and Boston. He’s been doing this a long time. I felt we were serious last year, but with him, you just know.”
It’s too early to know the full impact Dombrowski will have on the organization, but the Phillies have a surprise spot atop the ultra-competitive NL East even while being tested by the schedule makers from the start.
“It’s great,” Dombrowski said in a spring interview. “That’s what the game is all about. You better be ready from Day 1. We open with the Braves and Mets for 13 straight games.”
After a controversial finish to a dramatic weekend series with the Braves, Dombrowski will face off against an old colleague in Mets president Sandy Alderson when the two teams meet Tuesday night (Phillies-Mets, 7 ET on ESPN). They haven’t really gone head-to-head as men in charge … until now.
“I had talked to him before he came to the Phillies while he was still in Nashville and working for that group,” Alderson said in a phone interview. “Based on that conversation, I was surprised he chose to jump back in. On the other hand, Dave’s a competitor and probably didn’t like being on the sidelines.”
One NL executive noted the shift in philosophy by Phillies owner John Middleton after hiring first-time general manager Matt Klentak and first-time manager Gabe Kapler in recent years. He switched directions and went with proven winners, wooing Dombrowski from an MLB expansion project in Nashville.
Dombrowski does want to clarify some of the win-now reputation that Realmuto and Harper were among those to express publicly when he was hired.
“It’s a compliment,” the 64-year-old executive said. “But I think it’s a little unfair because I pride myself in building good organizations, too.”
Dombrowski is referencing the idea that he only sees the short term, meaning his propensity to move prospects. He reeled off his years in the business when that simply wasn’t true. In 1988 and 1990, the Montreal Expos, under Dombrowski, were named organization of the year. In Detroit, Dombrowski points out, the Tigers broke in young players like Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson and Joel Zumaya.
“And in Florida, we built it up, tore it down, then built it back up again,” Dombrowski said.
Then came Boston, where the narrative was he traded prospects, spent too much and was shown the door — just 11 months after winning the World Series there.
“When I went to Boston, they had the foundation to win, but we didn’t have enough starting pitchers to win,” Dombrowski said. “If you have a chance to win, sometimes you do things right then to win and then pay the price for the future.”
It turns out, Dombrowski’s price was his own future. Fast forward to Philadelphia, where no one is going to complain if their new man in charge goes for it.
“Every player wants to play for an organization that wants to win every year,” Realmuto said. “That’s part of the problem with baseball. There are too many teams that aren’t trying to win. It makes it easier to put on your uniform every day. I know Dave wants to win.”
Harper added: “The city of Philadelphia is craving some playoffs and a World Series. We’re feeding off that as well. We’re trying to find out our identity here and what kind of team we can be.”
For starters, an identity change could come from a revamped bullpen. Historically bad in 2020 — the Phillies’ bullpen had a 7.06 ERA — it is much better so far this year, sporting a 3.73 ERA in the very early going. From newcomers, including veterans Archie Bradley and Brandon Kintzler and young flamethrower Jose Alvarado, there’s a new attitude developing in the bullpen.
“It’s slowly getting there,” Kintzler said. “We’re not there yet. We’re still searching for that identity. We want the middle innings to be locked down.”
If they needed any more motivation, they can take a glance at the preseason prognostications. PECOTA gives the Phillies a 7% chance of winning the division. FiveThirtyEight picks them for third place. And just two ESPN voters out of 27 picked them to finish this season where they are right now — in first place.
“Don’t sleep on the Phillies,” Realmuto said simply. “We have more depth than we’ve had in the past.”
They also have a new culture thanks to a longtime executive who still regrets not winning a championship for former Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. Dombrowski doesn’t want the same fate for players like Harper and Realmuto.
“Sometimes I’ll listen to a broadcast and you can’t believe the number of great players that have never won a World Series,” he said. “It’s wrong place at the wrong time for some players. Look at the Indians. So many chances to win, but it’s so hard.
“You do start thinking, it would be great for that guy to realize winning. From a pro experience, there’s no emotion that comes with it when you win a world championship.”
It’s one of the things that sold Realmuto on coming back. He eventually inked a five-year, $115 million deal to stay in Philadelphia, in part because there was no question of Dombrowski’s motives.
“We had dinner around Christmas in Oklahoma,” Realmuto recalled. “He sold us his vision. Reassuring us the Phillies were not taking a step back. So far, he’s proven that out.”
Early on in his start Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays on a clear evening in Dunedin, Florida, New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was fighting to get in a good groove. He allowed a run in the first inning on two opposite-field ground-ball singles and an infield groundout, but it was more the frustration visible on his face as he left a couple of breaking balls up in the zone that suggested the Jays better get to him when they had a chance.
Toronto got the first two runners on in the bottom of the second, a golden opportunity to stretch that early lead. Cole then found that groove exactly when he needed it. He fanned Alejandro Kirk on three pitches, getting him looking on a slider at the bottom of the zone. He struck out Josh Palacios swinging on a 98 mph heater above the top of the zone. He struck out Marcus Semien swinging on a 2-2 changeup on the outside corner. Three different pitches — slider, fastball, changeup — all in great locations.
The Blue Jays had let Cole off the hook. He jumped off the mound after striking out Semien, sprinted to the dugout and cooled himself in front of a big fan. Cole threw 43 pitches the first two innings, but found his fastball command, tightened up the slider and retired the final 15 batters he faced, settling for eight strikeouts and three hits allowed over six innings, as the Yankees won 3-1 with catcher Kyle Higashioka driving in all three runs on two home runs. He needed just 55 pitches to get through the next four innings and on his 98th and final pitch, Cole painted the black with a 99.2 mph fastball.
“I just thought we settled in, really nothing more than that,” Cole said. “Some big misfires in the first, but not a ton of bad pitches in the strike zone. In the second, a much better grouping of pitches, kind of a combination of sliders early and a solid approach.”
This is the story of the Yankees 10 games into the season: Cole looks every bit like one of the top three starting pitchers in the game. The rest of the Yankees rotation, however, remains a huge question mark. Domingo German, who started New York’s third game of the season, was already relegated to the team’s alternate site after allowing four home runs in two rough outings. Jordan Montgomery had an excellent first start and then allowed two home runs and hit two batters in a so-so second start. Corey Kluber has struggled with command and is still seeking pre-injury velocity and spin rates.
Cole has a 1.47 ERA in three starts while the other starters have combined for a 5.28 ERA. All small sample size stuff, of course, and Jameson Taillon, who has the upside of a No. 2 starter, has yet to make his second start. Still, nothing in the early going has settled the concerns of Yankees fans on how everybody lines behind Cole.
Can the Yankees meet their preseason projection of 95 wins — or more — without a solid, reliable No. 2 starter? It’s an important question because the gap between 95 wins and, say, 90 wins is obviously significant. A 95-win season makes the Yankees heavy favorites to win the AL East; drop down to 90 wins and the Rays, Blue Jays and perhaps even the Red Sox are much more likely to be breathing down their necks.
I looked at all the teams to win at least 95 wins from 2010 to 2019 — that’s 42 teams — and checked the value of their No. 1 and No. 2 starters, based strictly on Baseball-Reference WAR and not on games started or innings pitched (looking for quality over quantity). There are two results to consider here: The difference in WAR between the top two starters and the combined WAR of the top two starters.
Let’s start with the latter. The 42 teams averaged 8.6 WAR from their top two starters – I was a little surprised it wasn’t higher. A 2-WAR pitcher is about a league average starter, so we’re looking at, on average, four to five wins above average between the top two starters for our 95-win teams. The top five and bottom five totals on this list:
1. 2011 Phillies (102 wins): 17.3 WAR (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) 2. 2019 Astros (107 wins): 14.1 WAR (Justin Verlander and Cole) 3. 2010 Phillies (97 wins): 14.0 WAR (Halladay and Lee) 4. 2017 Nationals (97 wins): 13.7 WAR (Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez) 5. 2017 Indians (102 wins): 13.1 WAR (Kluber and Carlos Carrasco)
The Yankees can just look at their recent past to realize you can win not only 95 games but 103 without a top-flight 1-2 combo. In 2019, Paxton went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA in 29 starts (2.6 WAR) and German went 18-4, but with a 4.03 ERA in 24 starts (2.2 WAR). Thanks to a dominant bullpen and offense that slugged 306 home runs and led the AL with 943 runs, the Yankees won the AL East.
The average gap between the No. 1 and 2 starters for our 95-win teams was 1.6 WAR. Cole was worth 6.7 WAR his final season with the Astros in 2019, so he reasonably projects as a 6-win pitcher in 2021. There is likewise a reasonable belief that the No. 2 starter for the Yankees will not be a 4-win pitcher, so if Taillon or whoever ends up as their No. 2 is a league-average pitcher, that’s a potential 4-WAR difference from Cole. The top five biggest differences from our teams in the study:
1. 2011 Tigers (95 wins): 6.1 WAR (Verlander and Doug Fister) 2. 2015 Cubs (97 wins): 5.5 WAR (Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester) 3. 2011 Yankees (97 wins): 3.5 WAR (CC Sabathia and Freddy Garcia) 4. 2010 Rays (96 wins): 3.1 WAR (David Price and Matt Garza) 5. 2010 Phillies (97 wins): 3.0 WAR (Halladay and Lee)
Is there anything to conclude from this? It’s true that the drop from Cole to the Yankees’ No. 2 starter could be rather exceptional for a 95-win team … which suggests, if nobody steps up behind Cole, the Yankees are likely to win fewer than 95 games. On the other hand, Cole plus a league-average No. 2 is historically good enough to front a 95-win team.
Maybe the best answer is this: It’s the rotation depth that will be the ultimate arbiter of how many games the Yankees win (assuming a high-powered offense, which we should note has yet to kick into gear). As he showed on Monday, Gerrit Cole will be great if he stays healthy. We still have a lot to learn about Kluber and company though.