The All-Star break is right around the corner (already?), but first we've got one more weekend of games as teams try to end the first half on an up note. Here's what we'll have our eyes on:
The Rockies and Diamondbacks, two National League wild-card contenders, tangle this weekend in Arizona, with Zack Greinke starting for the D-backs on Friday. Greinke (9-3, 2.90 ERA, 0.94 WHIP) is having another great season. How close is he to being a Hall of Famer?
Eddie Matz: According to Baseball-Reference, four of the 10 pitchers whom Greinke is most similar to based on his age and career production are Hall of Famers (Mike Mussina, Jim Bunning, Roy Halladay, John Smoltz). Of the three active hurlers on that list (Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels), at least one is going to Cooperstown. Not exactly an open-and-shut case. But check this out: Greinke currently sits at 64.5 WAR for his career. If he can pitch another few years without a huge drop-off -- a very reasonable "if" for a cerebral guy who eschews velo in favor of craftiness -- he should be able to reach the low 80s in WAR, which would put him on the all-time top-25 list for pitchers. With the exception of Roger Clemens, every single hurler in that top 25 is a Hall of Famer. All of which is to say, Greinke is firmly within shouting distance.
Sam Miller: Hall of Fame voting is not a mere WAR-leaderboard sort, by any means. But it's probably moving closer to that, especially with Cy Young and MVP voting (which provide a lot of the raw nutrients that build a Hall of Fame "feel") moving closer and closer to WAR sorts. As Eddie notes, Greinke's WAR at Baseball-Reference is up to Hall of Fame standards, and he is still adding to it. But here's the tricky thing: We can't say for sure how WAR will be calculated in 10 years; what philosophical choices WAR's guardians will make; how Statcast data will change the way we credit pitchers with different outcomes; how we determine the value of durability in a world of deep bullpens and short outings; and all that. As it is, Greinke is still shy of HOF standards by FanGraphs WAR and Baseball Prospectus' WARP. I think he'll make it in, but I'm just not confident enough in what the future of baseball analysis will look like to say whether the next big WAR adjustments will bump Greinke up to a no-doubter or down to that tier currently occupied by Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, Tim Hudson and others.
David Schoenfield: Is Greinke a lock at this exact moment in time? Probably not. But it is interesting how favorably he already compares to Roy Halladay, who just got elected on his first ballot:
Greinke: 196-121, 3.37 ERA, 2,788.1 IP, 124 ERA+, 64.5 WAR
Halladay: 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 2,749.1 IP, 131 ERA+, 65.4 WAR
Halladay has the better adjusted ERA, but the fact that he made it with just 203 career wins shows that voters are finally adjusting to the idea that the Hall of Fame is as much about peak value as longevity. Greinke hasn't quite had that extended run of dominance that Halladay had; Greinke is more like Mike Mussina in that he is consistently very good and very durable. Greinke, however, did have two of the best seasons of the past 25 years -- his Cy Young season in 2009 with a 2.16 ERA (10.4 WAR) and his 1.66 ERA in 2015 (8.2 WAR) -- and that will help him in the voting, as compared to Mussina, who took six ballots to get voted in.
The battle of the Windy City is renewed, with the Cubs' Jon Lester facing Lucas Giolito and the White Sox on Saturday in an intriguing matchup. Let's fast-forward three years to July 4, 2022: Which team is better: the Cubs or the White Sox?
Matz: By 2022, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber will have hit free agency (unless they miraculously all sign extensions). Ditto for Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. In related news, the Cubs' farm system is hurtin' for certain: ESPN's Keith Law ranked it next to last, and MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects list features one lonely Baby Bear. Yes, the Cubs made a splash this week by signing a trio of highly touted international prospects, but none of those 16-year-olds is likely to pay dividends by July 4, 2022. Meanwhile, the White Sox have four top-100 prospects, including a pair of hurlers who should complement Giolito quite nicely for the next half-decade. Did I mention Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez? Or that the South Siders have almost no money on the books for 2022? (Or 2021 or 2020, for that matter.) Advantage: them.
Miller: I have occasionally looked at what happens to the best and worst farm systems in baseball, and in one article I found that the future win totals of good farm teams and bad farm teams diverge most in Year 4. That is, if all you know about two teams is that one has a great farm system and one has a terrible one, then four years later you would expect the former to win about nine more games than the latter. Those labels accurately describe the White Sox (loaded farm) and the Cubs (depleted) before this season. So a simple answer is that in 2022 -- four years later -- the White Sox have a big edge.
But the Cubs will still have Theo Epstein running things -- at least through September 2021, they will -- and given how unpredictable ballplayers are, I might take the certainty of a great front office over the uncertainty of a bunch of ballplayers. I'll unconfidently take the Cubs for this exercise.
Schoenfield: Look, I get that the White Sox have a ton of potential, but they still have a long way to go. As of now, their one "proven" pitcher in the rotation is Giolito, and he has been good for only two months. Reynaldo Lopez has a 6.12 ERA, and Carlos Rodon, Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning all are out until 2020 after Tommy John surgeries. Dylan Cease just made his major league debut, but he had a 4.48 ERA in Triple-A. So their rotation is young, injured and unproven. The lineup also is young and unproven. The White Sox 14th in the American League in runs, and they don't get on base enough, a longstanding franchise problem. Maybe this is Moncada's breakout season, maybe Jimenez will be a 40-homer monster, maybe Luis Robert will be a star.
I do like the financial flexibility that the White Sox have, but their pursuit of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper suggests ownership isn't exactly willing to go the extra mile to win in free agency. The state of the Cubs' farm system certainly raises concern about replacing what will be a very old rotation by 2022 (if those guys are still here). The other advantage the White Sox might have: The Tigers and Royals might still be rebuilding in 2022, and the Indians might have torn things down by then. I think it's close, and the Cubs' ability to carry a larger payroll will help. Cubs by a coin flip.
Baseball on the Fourth of July weekend stirs thoughts of the classic ballpark food: hot dogs. Do you have a favorite culinary treat from one of America's ballparks?
Matz: I do love me some criss-cut fries with Old Bay seasoning (a Camden Yards jawn). But I'm also a sucker for the soft ice cream that comes in the souvenir batting helmet (an any-stadium-in-the-country jawn), partly for the ice cream itself (swirl, of course), but more so for the overpriced souvenir mini-helmet that holds it. At Casa Matz, that's how my boys and I count the number of stadiums we've knocked off the list.
Miller: I have one great passion in my life, and it's avoiding paying ballpark prices for food. I haven't spent a dollar in a ballpark since I was a child, spending my parents' dollars. My favorite ballpark food is cashews from the supermarket bulk bin.
Schoenfield: I'm serious about this statement: The most important development in baseball over the past 20 years has been the improvement in ballpark food. Baseball attendance is down, but I'm convinced it would be down even more if the only offerings were still flavorless gray hot dogs that stick to the buns, stale pretzels and peanuts. (Not that there's anything wrong with peanuts!) Going to a ballgame gives you the perfect excuse to eat whatever you damn well please and not worry about the calories. I can't say I have any specific favorites. I was at T-Mobile Park in Seattle earlier this year, and the crab fries were tasty. That was a new one beyond some of the old favorites (Bull's BBQ at Citizens Bank Park, Shake Shack at Citi Field, steak tips outside of Fenway, sausages in Milwaukee). What, you still prefer hot dogs and Cracker Jack? That's fine, too. Nothing wrong with old-school.
If you've still got room, what else do you plan to digest during this weekend's action on the diamond?
Matz: Well, I'll be at Nats Park this weekend. In terms of media dining, it's no Yankee Stadium (the gold standard), but it does have a decent spread with self-serve, buffet functionality that allows for easy access to seconds. Or thirds, depending on your level of gluttony.
Miller: Aaron Nola starts were such a letdown for the first few months of this season, but he finally has found his full repertoire: Over his past three starts, he has an ERA of 0.39, has upped his strike rate from 63% to 67, and has 28 strikeouts to five walks. After finishing third in the Cy Young voting last year, it's surely a disappointment that he'll be watching the All-Star Game from home. But on Sunday, he has a chance to head into the break with a roar.
Schoenfield: I'll be heading to Cleveland, so I'm all about the Futures Game. The game is fun, and batting practice is even better as the kids try to one-up everyone else. Last year, Pete Alonso launched mammoth blast after mammoth blast -- a preview of things to come in the majors. This year's must-watch player is easy: Rays infielder Wander Franco, the new No. 1 prospect in the game. On the MLB slate, I'll be checking out Brendan McKay starting Friday for the Rays against the Yankees. He was supposed to be in the Futures Game, but after taking a perfect game into the sixth inning in his major league debut, I don't think he'll be back in the minors.
PICK 'EM TIME
Two of the Home Run Derby competitors square off in Pittsburgh this weekend. Who will have more total bases: the Brewers' Christian Yelich or the Pirates' Josh Bell?
Matz: Yelich has a .606 career slugging percentage against Pittsburgh's three projected starters. That's pretty darned stout. Meanwhile, Bell is slugging .194 against Milwaukee's trio. I'll trust the data and take Yelly over Belly.
Miller: A question like this sends each of us in search of colorful, small-sample splits that will support one player's case over the other's -- for example, Yelich is a career .344/.416/.615 hitter in PNC Park, his best road venue. But the simplest answer is that right now Yelich is the superior hitter, and he would be the pick in any park, against any pitcher, regardless of any hot or cold streaks, over any player in baseball except Mike Trout and maybe Cody Bellinger. So I'll take Yelich!
Schoenfield: Bell had that three-homer outing the other night, but even including that performance, he has slowed down a bit of late, hitting .237/.328/.526 in 29 games from May 30 to July 2. Meanwhile, Yelich has hit 57 home runs over a calendar year. I'll go with Yelich.
The Rays are looking to make up some ground in the AL East when they host the Yankees. Home runs for the Bombers on Friday through Sunday: over or under 4.5?
Matz: Now that their home run streak is over, the Yankees will regress to the mean -- until Saturday, when Gary Sanchez (four home runs in 15 at-bats vs. Blake Snell) goes yard three times all by his lonesome. Dame el over, por favor.
Miller: The Rays must have a basement full of 2015 baseballs that they're using when they're on defense, as they've allowed the fewest dingers in baseball this year by a mile. In fact, if they somehow allowed 29 home runs this weekend, they'd still have the lowest HR/9 IP rate in the majors. The Yankees' loaded lineup might well score a lot of runs, but they'll probably have to play some small ball (doubles off the wall).
Schoenfield: The Rays have Brendan McKay, Snell and Charlie Morton lined up to start. Snell had a terrible June, but his most recent start was a good one (12 K's against the Yankees). He allowed three home runs on Opening Day, but he hasn't had a multihomer game since. All-Star Morton has been stingy with the home runs. I'll take the under.
Focusing in on two series between high-scoring playoff contenders, which series will have more total runs: Rangers-Twins or Rockies-Diamondbacks?
Matz: Trick question. It's going to be a tie, with both series featuring exactly 34 runs scored. But as everyone knows, in baseball, the tie goes to the runner. Since the (road) runner is commonly seen in desert areas of the Southwest, Arizona (and its lucky opponent, Colorado) wins the tiebreaker.
Miller: Easy answer: The Rockies are on the road.
Schoenfield: The Rockies-Diamondbacks series is not in Coors Field, so the easy answer here is indeed Rangers-Twins. The Rockies are second in road ERA in the NL and last in road OPS, so they tend to play low-scoring games on the road.
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Each week, we ask our panelists to choose one hitter they think will hit the most home runs and one pitcher they think will record the most strikeouts in the coming weekend. Panelists can pick a player only once for the season. We'll keep a running tally -- and invite you to play along at home.
Home run hitters
Matz: Mike Moustakas
Miller: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Schoenfield: Joey Gallo
Matz: Shane Bieber
Miller: Aaron Nola
Schoenfield: Clayton Kershaw