Covering baseball in 2020 means not being sure about much of anything. The Marlins and Phillies have essentially disappeared because of a coronavirus outbreak, and it’s now routine for players to be “assigned to the alternate training site.” It’s all very dystopian.
In talking to people around the game, a common refrain is to enjoy the games while you can because they may not last. With that, here are some of the most intriguing people in pandemic baseball:
Matt Blake — There are a lot of eyes on the 35-year-old Yankees pitching coach, who took the job never having been a field coach or having played professionally.
Blake, who played at Holy Cross, has impressed GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone with his approach and work ethic.
Shane Bieber — The Indians righthander struck out 27 in his first two starts, tying a record set in 1954 by Karl Spooner of the Dodgers. Sandy Leon caught Bieber against the Twins on Thursday and felt confident calling any of his four pitches in any count.
“That’s when you know a pitcher is special,” Leon said.
Tony Clark — How much influence does the MLB Players Association executive director have on his constituents? The outbreak among the Miami players was reportedly triggered by a night on the town by some players in Atlanta. Protocol violations are evident just watching games on television.
If MLB is going to get through the season, the players have to commit to following the rules.
James Click and Dusty Baker — The new GM and manager of the Astros have a big job, changing the approach of an organization that valued winning over morality. Picking up Baker’s option for 2021 was a good step.
But does it matter? Owner Jim Crane told USA Today his team “took the bullet” for baseball’s sign-stealing issues. He also defended former assistant GM Brandon Taubman as a “good, genuine decent person.”
Taubman was fired after he cursed a group of female reporters following the ALCS last season and boasted about how happy he was Houston acquired Roberto Osuna, who had been accused of striking his girlfriend.
Ultimately, any organization takes its cues from the top. That’s where the issue is for the Astros.
Patrick Mahomes — The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback purchased a percentage of the Royals and that’s a seat at the table, even though John Sherman has controlling interest in the team.
MLB has come around to fully supporting the cause of racial justice in the United States. But real action happens when ownership groups become more diverse.
Rob Manfred — The commissioner has had a terrible five months. MLB failed to come to an agreement with the Players Association on dividing up the money in a shortened season, leaving both sides looking selfish and indifferent to the world around them.
MLB’s 113-page plan to start the season showed cracks as soon as the games started. It’s still unclear what triggers games being postponed and what is acceptable to play.
Manfred may soon be faced with deciding whether to end the season.
Alyssa Nakken — The first woman to coach in the majors, Nakken has fit in well with the Giants and opened the door for others to follow. The traditional model of coaches being ex-players is giving way to coaches who embrace technology and different teaching methods.
Shohei Ohtani — He has not pitched well since returning from Tommy John surgery, lacking command in the summer camp games, then giving up five runs and failing to get an out in his start against Oakland last week.
Ohtani faces the Astros on Sunday. He’s pitching on a once-a-week schedule to replicate what he did in Japan.
The good news is that Ohtani had seven RBIs in a three-game series against Seattle.
Nate Pearson — The 23-year-old Toronto righthander made his debut on Wednesday and threw five shutout innings, dueling with Max Scherzer. Pearson showed a 96 mile-per-hour fastball and a slider with well-above-average movement.
“My stuff plays here and I belong here,” he said after the game, and there was not much doubting that.
David Ross — The new manager of the Cubs has settled into the job better than even his biggest supporters in the organization expected, instilling a sense of purpose the group needed.
His biggest problem will be finding a closer if Craig Kimbrel can’t get straightened out. His poor performance dates back to the 2018 postseason.
Giancarlo Stanton — Injuries limited him to 18 games last season, but Stanton came out of the box hot for the Yankees. His presence changes a lineup that isn’t so hard to pitch to when he’s not there.
“You have to be aware of him,” a scout said. “I don’t think the Yankees have seen the real Stanton yet.”
Fernando Tatis Jr. — The 21-year-old Padres shortstop isn’t a national name yet, but it’s coming. He’s one of the most exciting players in the game.
Christian Vazquez — The 23 home runs last season weren’t a fluke. He connected on four more in his first five games.
Vazquez is signed for $6.2 million next season, and the team has a $7 million option for 2022. That’s great value for a front-line catcher and allows the Sox to devote their resources to other positions.
Mike Yastrzemski — It was a nice story that the long-time Orioles farmhand made his major league debut with Giants last season at the age of 28 and played well. But with the way he has hit this season, Yastrzemski could be a cornerstone player in San Francisco.
“Fundamentally, he’s top-notch,” a scout said. “The power he has shown in the National League is legitimate.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Ron Roenicke embraces analytics
Ron Roenicke, who turns 64 this month, is the fourth-oldest manager in the majors. He came up in baseball when the manager made out the lineup with only the advice of his coaches.
But as manager of the Red Sox, Roenicke is working for a data-driven boss in Chaim Bloom and gets input from a staff of a dozen or so analysts.
He welcomes it.
“When I talk about getting numbers, we want as much information as we can get,” Roenicke said “If I have all this information on the matchups and what they’ve done historically, it helps me make a decision.”
Roenicke said he does not have a lineup sent down to him. But at a time when teams are investing heavily in analytics and sports science, any manager who pushes aside the reports that land on his desk won’t be managing for very long.
“Getting the information that we want and ask for, they’ve done a great job of that,” Roenicke said. “This is information I wished I had when I managed years ago and I wished I had when I first started coaching.
“The more information we get, the better off we are. I’m not being told what to do, which is nice.
“I love some of the new stuff I’m getting which we haven’t had in the past. All this makes my job easier.”
That said, can’t say I’m convinced about J.D. Martinez hitting second.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
⋅ Mitch Moreland’s home run against Baltimore last Saturday was a special one for him. It came on the same day his son, Crue, turned 8.
“He about made me break down that morning,” Moreland said. “The only thing he wanted was for me to come home for the day. That was really tough. The next best thing I could give him was hitting a home run for him and letting him know I did it for him.
“He was fired up about it when I talked to him after. He was all smiles with no front teeth.”
In a normal season, Moreland’s family would be in Boston for part of the summer. But with the pandemic, the family stayed in Alabama.
⋅ Alex Verdugo is a physically gifted player. He has power, speed, and a strong arm, all the tools you want to see. At 24, his future is bright.
But he does need some coaching. After watching Verdugo in the intrasquad games and the first week of the season, his first instinct is to be aggressive and that gets him in some trouble.
One example came in the Baltimore series when he made a strong throw to third base, but it was late and allowed the trail runner to move up to second.
Verdugo nearly got thrown out going first to third with the Sox down five runs in another game. He also got caught stealing against the Mets on Thursday on a ball in the dirt when he got a late jump.
“He’ll get himself in some trouble but it comes with the right intention,” a scout said. “Sometimes the right play is to hold back. They need to work with him. It’ll come in time.”
⋅ John McNamara, who died Tuesday at the age of 88, gave me quite an introduction to covering a major league game for the first time.
In 1986, the editors at The Standard-Times in New Bedford sent me off to cover a Sox game at Fenway as a reward for working there during high school and college. It was a big thrill.
The Sox lost a close game, and afterward the writers gathered outside to go into McNamara’s office.
Larry Whiteside of the Globe asked me what I thought about a particular situation late in the game, when McNamara could have used a pinch hitter but didn’t.
“Somebody should ask him about it,” Larry said. “Why don’t you do it?”
I should have realized I was being set up. But I waited for a lull in the questions and asked McNamara about it.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
“I’m from the New Bedford paper,” I said.
“Get out of my office,” McNamara said.
When I read Whiteside’s story the next day, it turned out McNamara did answer the question.
On the plus side, I did interview Dwight Evans and he didn’t throw me out of the clubhouse.
Lou Schwechheimer left a legacy
Minor league baseball is a transitory business, employees jumping from team to team to seek better opportunities and get a step closer to working in the major leagues.
But Lou Schwechheimer joined the Pawtucket Red Sox as a 21-year-old intern in 1979 and didn’t leave until 2015. He had been the team’s GM for nearly 30 years at that point.
Schwechheimer, who died of complications from COVID-19 on Wednesday at the age of 62, watched others come and go but stayed true to the PawSox.
“Lou was a people person. He made everybody feel welcome,” Pawtucket senior vice president Bill Wanless said. “Whether it was our players, fans, or sponsors, he did everything he could and that rubbed off on everybody.”
There is uncommon loyalty in Pawtucket’s front office. Vice chairman Mike Tamburro has been with the team since 1977 and Wanless since 1985.
Schwechheimer, a native of Newburyport, left Pawtucket after a failed attempt to purchase the team following the death of owner Ben Mondor. He instead formed an ownership group that purchased the Single A Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Triple A New Orleans Baby Cakes. That team then moved to Wichita, Kan.
Schwechheimer spearheaded construction of a stadium in Wichita that was to open this season.
“He was proud of that stadium and what they were doing in Wichita,” Wanless said. “What I will remember is how many people Lou hired over the years, giving them their first chance in baseball. A lot of them now work for the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots. That’s his legacy, everybody who he influenced in a positive way.”
Wichita State coach Eric Wedge, the former Red Sox catcher, played parts of four seasons in Pawtucket and knew Schwechheimer well.
“I told everybody he was going to make the city better and he did,” Wedge said. “He was somebody who made a difference in people’s lives.”
The Astros had an elaborate cheating system and beat the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. Manager A.J. Hinch was fired, but the players were granted immunity by MLB and evaded punishment. If Clayton Kershaw or Kenley Jansen wants to drill one of the Astros in the back, have at it. But Joe Kelly feeling a need to throw near the heads of Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa on Tuesday night makes no sense. Kelly played for the 2017 Red Sox, who were fined for using a Fitbit to relay stolen signals. Kelly also played for the 2018 Red Sox, who were punished for using video to steal signals and, by the way, beat the Dodgers in the World Series. He should not have taken it on himself to exact revenge. The Astros are an unlikable bunch, but that was somebody else’s job. Kelly deserved his eight-game suspension . . . Max Scherzer joined Zack Greinke, David Price, and CC Sabathia as pitchers who struck out both Vladimir Guerrero and Vladdy Jr. The Mets are scheduled to play the Blue Jays in September, so Rick Porcello could join that group . . . Without fans, baseballs that land in the stands stay there until somebody wanders over to pick them up. But when Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman homered against the Twins at Target Field on Tuesday, the ball was quickly retrieved. Edman’s older brother, John, is a data engineer in baseball operations for the Twins. He got the home run ball to pass along to his brother . . . Things can move fast when sports and politics mix. About an hour before Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the first pitch for the Nationals before their season opener, President Trump told reporters that he would be throwing out the first pitch before the Red Sox-Yankees game Aug. 15. That was news to the Yankees. Three days later, Trump posted on Twitter that he would be busy on the 15th . . . Former Boston Braves righthander Bert Thiel died Friday. He was 94. Thiel, who was the topic of this column in April, appeared in four games in 1952. Del Crandall, 90, is now the only living member of the Braves . . . Happy birthday to Tim Wakefield, who is 54 and probably could still get a few outs with his knuckleball. He pitched for the Red Sox from 1995–2011 and stands third in team history with 186 wins. He also is second in appearances (590), first in innings (3,006), second in strikeouts (2,046), and first in starts (430). Tom Burgmeier is 77. The reliable lefty reliever was with the Sox from 1978–82. He also played three innings in the outfield during his 17-year career. Roger LaFrancois, the pride of Jewett City, Conn., is 64. He was 4 for 10 in eight games for the Sox in 1982. LaFrancois went on to coach for more than 25 years with the Braves, Cardinals, Expos, Giants, Mets, and White Sox.