While postseason baseball won’t settle the debate of whether the clutch gene exists, SI’s Albert Chen says in this week’s issue that there’s no denying that October has brought out some familiar heroes. Chen writes that “few things in sports are more alluring than the idea of a clutch gene—the notion that some athletes are wired differently, with an innate ability to perform their best when the pressure is the greatest.” (PAGE 32)
This October has already produced a highlight reel of clutch moments, from the Marlon Byrd home run in the NL wild-card game, to David Ortiz’s two homers in the Red Sox’ ALDS Game 2 win, to Stephen Vogt’s walk-off single for the A’s in Game 2 of their ALDS against the Tigers, to the stellar outings by rookie pitchers (the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha).
In the playoffs David Ortiz has a .538 OBP and 1.282 OPS in 52 career late-and-close plate appearances. And Carlos Beltran’s two home runs in the NLDS have brought his career postseason total to 16. Miguel Cabrera hit .348 with a 1.078 OPS this season, but those numbers jumped to .397 and 1.311 with runners in scoring position. “Miguel is a great hitter all the time, no matter the situation,” says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. “But with men in scoring position you just see the intensity. Can you measure this? Maybe not. But if you watch him on a daily basis, you see it.” (PAGE 33)
Sabermetricians largely view clutch hitters as a myth. “Clutch hits exist, clutch hitters do not,” James Click, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and now the head of the Rays’ analytics department, wrote in 2005. “There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that some hitters consistently perform better in situations defined as ‘clutch’ as compared to normal situations. Good hitters are good clutch hitters; bad hitters are bad clutch hitters.” However, in a 2006 study Nate Silver said “clutch hitting ability exists more than previous research would indicate.” (PAGE 33)
Bill James, the godfather of baseball statistics, has even questioned the arguments against clutch hitting. James recently wrote that the discussion in the sabermetric community “has been fouled up for a long time,” and that he no longer had faith in the data that had backed up the arguments against clutch hitting. (PAGE 34) Chen clarifies that this was James saying that clutch hitting could exist.
Chen finds that “much of what think of as clutch hitting could be considered smart situational hitting.” The 2013 Cardinals hit .330 in 1,621 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, good for the highest in baseball history. The team worked on improving their approach at the plate in spring training. “Their approach is impressive,” says Dombrowski. “You’d see them all the time getting the big hit, and where do they get most of their hits? The opposite field.” (PAGE 34)
The debate won’t end this October, but Chen says “little about baseball at this time of year is fair. A hit, you’re a hero. An out, and you’re the goat. That’s the beauty and the cruelty of October.” (PAGE 34)
This week’s SI MLB Second Half Preview features a 5-minute guide that offers revised standings and playoff predictions, players most likely to be traded, and more. See below for a snapshot of SI’s revised look at the season.
The Reforecast: Joe Lemire Predicts How They Will Finish
x – Division Winner
y – Wild-card winner
American League National League
Wild-Card Playoff Wild-Card Playoff
A’s over Red Sox Nationals over Pirates
Division Series Division Series
Rays over A’s Cardinals over Nationals
Rangers over Tigers Braves over Diamondbacks
Championship Series Championship Series
Rangers over Rays Cardinals over Braves
Cardinals over Rangers in 6
Deals to Be Done: With just two until the trade deadline, SI says to keep an eye on these six names:
• Chase Utley, Phillies
• Alex Rios, White Sox
• Aramis Ramirez, Brewers
• Carlos Quentin, Padres
• Raul Ibanez, Mariners
• Bud Norris, Astros
What We Meant To Say….In SI’s baseball preview issue (April 1), staff writers Ben Reiter (AL) and Albert Chen (NL) made predictions for key awards and superlatives. They make amended picks in this week’s issue:
AL Preseason pick: Mike Trout, Angels
AL Midseason pick: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
NL Preseason pick: Bryce Harper, Nationals
NL Midseason pick: Harper
AL Preseason pick: Justin Verlander, Tigers
AL Midseason pick: Yu Darvish, Rangers
NL Preseason pick: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
NL Midseason pick: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Rookie of the Year
AL Preseason pick: Jurickson Profar, Rangers
AL Midseason pick: Will Myers, Rays
NL Preseason pick: Adam Eaton, Diamondbacks
NL Midseason pick: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
AL Preseason pick: Yoenis Cespedes, A’s
AL Midseason pick: Chris Davis, Orioles
NL Preseason pick: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
NL Midseason pick: Goldschmidt
AL Preseason pick: Alex Cobb, Rays
AL Midseason pick: Max Scherzer, Tigers
NL Preseason pick: Kris Medlen, Braves
NL Midseason pick: Matt Harvey, Mets
Hall of Fame second baseman Robert Alomar and longtime umpire John Hirschbeck will forever be remembered for the spitting incident on September 27, 1996 that horrified baseball and the country. However, in SI’s Where Are They Now? issue, staff writer Albert Chen (@albertcchen ) finds that the men at the center of one of baseball’s ugliest moments have used what happened as the basis for one of sports’ unlikeliest friendships.
Chen takes us back to the notorious incident that took place in the first inning of the Blue Jays vs. Orioles game on September 22, 1996. It is something that both Alomar and Hirschbeck, no matter how much they want to, will never forget. On a 3-2 count, Alomar watched a fastball pass on the outside of the plate. When Hirschbeck called it a strike, the two got into an argument and Hirschbeck ejected Alomar. An angered Alomar came back out from the dugout and spit on Hirschbeck. “All over my face… in my eyes, everywhere,” Hirschbeck recalls (PAGE 89).
Even now, 17 years later, Alomar cringes when he thinks about it. He went from being a humble baseball hero – who broke into the big leagues at 20 – to one of the most hated players in the game. But Alomar isn’t the only one with regrets that evening. “I’m known for having a big strike zone,” says Hirschbeck, “but when I looked back at replays, I thought, ‘Oh, s—, that was way too far outside.’ I say all the time ‘Why didn’t I just say ball four? We could have avoided all this.’” (PAGE 89)
After the incident, Hirschbeck learned that Alomar brought his late son into the picture, telling reporters after the game that Hirschbeck had become bitter since his death. That is what caused Hirschbeck to storm into the visitors’ clubhouse the next day and yell ‘I’ll kill you!’ at Alomar. Chen says that “of everything that happened back then—the botched call, the ugly words exchanged—this is what John Hirschbeck most regrets.” (PAGE 89) Hirschbeck knows this only added to fuel to the fire. Had he refrained, Alomar would have stuck with his plan to hold a press conference where he would read a carefully crafted apology statement.
The next spring, the moment the country was waiting for finally came: Alomar jogged out onto the field to shake Hirschbeck’s hand. It brought closure to everyone except the two who needed it most. “It was staged. Phony. Nothing in my heart changed in that moment,” says Hirschbeck. Alomar agrees, “It wasn’t the way I wanted to do it.” (PAGE 88)
Alomar paid for his actions for many years. Despite efforts to redeem himself through apologies and charitable donations, he still received boos almost every time he took the field and it seemed that the umpires’ strike zones grew when he stepped up to bat. “I felt like the world was against me… I paid my price, for many years, mostly because I would never be able to move on until John really forgave me,” Alomar says now. (PAGE 90) Hirschbeck dealt with similar issues, especially in Baltimore. Every time he travelled to the city, he used a different name to check into hotels.
Then, one day in 1999, something in Hirschbeck changed. He was standing on the field next to Alomar, who was now playing for the Cleveland Indians, and asked him how he was doing. Hirschbeck now recalls, “The floodgates were opened. [It was] just a regular conversation.” (PAGE 92) They talked about little things, including their families. The next day, Alomar met with the Hirschbeck family in the tunnel before the game. “It was like he was making up with the whole family. And it was time to move on,” says Hirschbeck. (PAGE 92)
Chen finds that the two do not talk regularly and they have not seen each other in years, but they reach out to each other when it’s important. Three years ago when Hirschbeck was diagnosed with cancer, Alomar called to show his support, and when Alomar was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, Hirschbeck called to congratulate him (and told writers that he was the best second baseman he ever saw). “There’s no bitterness, there’s no anger. The best part of the closure is that Robbie and I, we have a friendship,” says Hirschbeck. (PAGE 92)
Now at peace, both men are ready for the next chapters in their lives. Hirschbeck, who returned to umpiring this spring for his 31st season after missing last season while undergoing chemotherapy, thinks that this may be his final season. And Alomar, who lives in Toronto with his wife Kim, has an itch to get back in the game as a coach. “I think I have a lot to give,” he says. “This is the game I’ve loved since I can remember—it gave me everything. It’s time to give back.” (PAGE 93)
With the 2013 MLB Draft just a week away, the conversation is heating up on the top ranked players, most of who typically hail from the all too familiar states of California, Texas and Florida. However, another southern state – Georgia – has become a hot bed for baseball talent on a grand scale, says Albert Chen in this week’s Sports Illustrated. The Peach State is home to players such as reigning National League MVP Buster Posey, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, the No. 2 overall pick of last year’s draft Byron Buxton and two of this year’s top draft prospects, fiery slugger Clint Frazier and tall left-handed swinger Austin Meadows.
“This territory now is as aggressively scouted as Florida, Texas and California,” says Atlanta Braves team president John Schuerholz, , of Georgia’s growing relevance in baseball breeding. “Those were always the hotbed states. And then this talent source awakened and continues to grow and expand. It started in the immediate Atlanta area, and now it’s all throughout the state.” (PAGES 50-51)
Hot prospects Meadows and Frazier live only 10 miles from one another and are former travel teammates. While Georgia is known for its traveling powerhouse amateur program East Cobb Baseball, a surge in new traveling programs allowed the two to stay close to home while contributing to the rising power of Team Elite.
“Before I was drafted, I’d already seen the country and played against the best of the best in the country,” says Jason Heyward, a Georgia native and East Cobb alum who has been Atlanta’s starting rightfielder since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2010. “Without those experiences, there’s no way I’d be where I am right now.” (PAGE 52)
While mock drafts have both Meadows and Frazier going at varying numbers, they consistently remain in the top 10. Frazier’s explosive homerun numbers, 14 in the 2013 regular season and only nine short of a Georgia state record, and Meadows enormous potential, he stands at 6’3” and 212 pounds and batted .535 and had 17 steals this spring, has scouts licking their chops.
When Frazier was in the seventh grade he would sometimes take batting practice with the local high school team, “He’d be parking balls over the fence. Everyone would stop what they were doing and watch him hit,” says Jeff Segars, Frazier’s high school coach. (PAGE 53)
“He’s one of those rare guys where the sound of the ball off the bat is different,” explains Jed Hixson, Meadows’ coach, of the developing star. “His power will come. And it will be big.” (PAGE 53)
Chen notes that over the last three years, Georgia high schools have had nearly as many first-round draft picks (16) as Texas (18), a state with more than double their population. Chen finds that Georgia is turning out prospects at a rate unforeseen by a state of its size before. Over the last three years Georgia high schools have had nearly as many first-round draft picks (16) as Texas (18), a state with more than double their population.
“I think scouts are wise to spend a lot of time here,” says Schuerholz. “I just wish they wouldn’t.” Says an NL Executive on scouting in Georgia, “The G.M.’s of teams that don’t are committing malpractice.” (PAGE 51).
The Manny Machado story is about a young talent coinciding with a franchise’s return to glory. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Albert Chen says that while last season was the year of Trout and Harper, Machado proved to be another member from the 2012 rookie class that left his mark.
Machado, 20, got the call to the Baltimore Orioles last August. He was on a team bus, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, when his Double A manager, Gary Kendall, told him he was headed to the majors. Shortly thereafter, his phone rang. “Welcome to the Show, bro…battle for D.C./Baltimore supremacy: It’s on,” said Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper (PAGE 45).
Machado didn’t set the world on fire like Trout and Harper, but he did have an early impact. Only three other third basemen who were 20 or younger since the Dead Ball era had a higher slugging percentage than Machado’s .445. Despite having played just two games at third base in the minors, he was called on to play the hot corner for a team in the middle of its first pennant race in well over a decade. “We took a leap of faith [calling him up], and what this young man has done for us? Huge,” says Baltimore G.M. Dan Duquette, whose team reached the postseason for the first time since 1997 (PAGE 46).
Machado is the youngest player in baseball history with a multi-homer game that early in his career. He also scored the winning run in the game that clinched a postseason berth for the Orioles and homered in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees. “Manny Machado’s career is about to get real loud, real soon,” says Harper (PAGE 45).
Chen notes that sometimes teams need to take that leap of faith when grappling with the difficult decision of when to call up a prized prospect. In 2012, the average age of position players was 28.5, the lowest since 1993. As baseball’s best talent gets younger, teams are facing tougher choices over when to fast-track prodigies. “If we want to win, he needs to be up,” says Baltimore’s minor league infield coordinator Bobby Dickerson (PAGE 48).
Machado says his work ethic comes from his mother Rosa Nunez, a single mother who worked long hours at an export company to provide for him and his sister. “We’d have practice at 3:15, and he was out there before everyone else at 1:30 doing his work. Later at night he’d hit at the cages, and then go to the park and take more ground balls,” says Lazaro Fundora, Machado’s high school coach (PAGE 49).
Machado has arrived in the big leagues because the Orioles had faith. “I’m thankful every day that I got a chance,” says Machado (PAGE 49).