MLB

MLB trends: Max Scherzer trying to avoid dubious history; Reds find their shortstop; Lewis Brinson breaks out

The All-Star break and the trade deadline are in the rearview mirror and the we’ve hit the dog days of summer. We’re in crunch time now and the postseason races are really starting to heat up.

Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at an emerging shortstop in the NL Central, a future Hall of Famer struggling at the plate, and a former top prospect coming into his own. Last week we broke down three West Coast hitters poised to make an impact down the stretch.      

Farmer standing out at short

At 65-56, the Reds are only 1 1/2 games behind the Padres for the second NL wild card spot despite a bullpen that let a few too many winnable games get away earlier this season. Cincinnati also didn’t address the shortstop position over the winter — watching Willy Adames go to the NL Central rival Brewers couldn’t have been easy to swallow — and that looked like a grave mistake.

Eugenio Suárez opened the season as the starting shortstop, but he was a disaster defensively, so Kyle Farmer took over. Although he came out through the minors as a catcher, Farmer played the infield in college and also at times in the minors. Shortstop was not a completely new position — Farmer played 15 games at short last year — but still, the Reds put a catcher at short!

And you know what? It’s going wonderfully. Farmer is on a two-month heater at the plate (.307/.363/.490 with seven homers in his last 56 games), and he’s played shortstop very well. He rates as an above-average defender according to Defensive Runs Saved (plus-2), Ultimate Zone Rating (plus-2.2), and Outs Above Average (plus-7). Here are a few of Farmer’s standout defensive plays:

“These are the sort of things that you think about when you’re 10 and 15 years old in bed and dream about,” Joey Votto recently told reporters, including Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, about Farmer’s play at short. “Kyle Farmer came into spring training anticipating playing shortstop, lost his job, got his job back, and now he’s playing fantastic on both sides of the ball.”

Not too long ago the Reds had a shortstop crisis. Suárez was in over his head at the position and the team lacked alternatives. Farmer got the job almost by default, really, and he’s run with it. The 31-year-old is playing splendid defense and is in the middle of the best offensive stretch of his career. 

Farmer is playing through a sports hernia — “It hurts like crap, honestly. But I’m just taking it day by day,” he recently told reporters, including MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon — and will get more days off going forward. That’s just something he and the team will have to manage. Farmer has become an important player at a premium position for a team very much in the postseason race.

“I would be more shocked if I was doing really well at catcher,” Farmer told Nightengale. “But I have a lot of confidence at shortstop to where I expect to do this. I expect to make the routine play, make some good plays, and defensively do well.”

Scherzer trying to avoid dubious history

Three starts into his Dodgers career, Max Scherzer has allowed four runs in 16 1/3 innings while striking out 23 and walking three (one of those three starts was cut short by rain after 3 1/3 innings). In other words, he’s been the same ol’ Scherzer. The Dodgers traded for an ace and an ace they have received.

Scherzer is 0 for 6 at the plate with four strikeouts as a Dodger, and while the team certainly didn’t acquire him for his bat, Scherzer is having a somewhat historic season offensively. Between the Nationals and Dodgers, he is 0 for 41 with 17 strikeouts, two sacrifice bunts, and one sacrifice fly in 2021. That is 44 trips to the plate and zero times on base. Here are the most plate appearances in a season with a .000 on-base percentage:

  1. Wei-Yin Chen, 2016 Marlins: 49
  2. Max Scherzer, 2021 Nationals and Dodgers: 44
  3. Jason Bergmann, 2008 Nationals: 42
  4. Vicente Palacios, 1994 Cardinals: 36
  5. Hal Finney, 1936 Pirates: 35

Only 12 players in history have batted at least 30 times in a season without reaching base at least once, and, predictably, 11 of the 12 are pitchers. The lone exception: Finney. He was a light-hitting backup catcher with Pittsburgh from 1931-36, and was a career .203/.233/.260 hitter in 242 big-league plate appearances.

Anyway, Scherzer is five plate appearances away from tying Chen’s record, so figure two more starts. According to Statcast’s hit probability, which is based on exit velocity and launch angle, this routine ground ball against Joe Musgrove on July 18 is the closest Scherzer has come to a hit this season. It had a hit probability of 35.7 percent.

Expected batting average and all that is fun, though that is not a very satisfying “the closest Scherzer has come to a hit” play, is it? Scherzer has put 27 balls in play this season and, after watching them all, I’ve concluded the closest he’s come to a hit is this weak ground ball against Diamondbacks righty Riley Smith on May 14th.

Smith fell off to the first base side of the mound as a right-handed pitcher and Scherzer hit a weak little grounder toward third base. Smith made a great play to barehand the ball and fire to first for the out. Scherzer was out by maybe a step, and that is the closest he’s come to a base hit according to the eye test. His last hit remains a single against Adam Wainwright on Sept. 18, 2019.

Truth be told, the closest Scherzer has come to reaching base this season was not a hit. He should have drawn a walk in his debut with the Dodgers, but home plate umpire Mark Carlson called Jake Odorizzi’s 3-1 pitch a strike even though it was off the plate. Scherzer then swung at the 3-2 pitch, which was also likely ball four, to strike out.

Scherzer has seen 15 pitches in three-ball counts this year and the 3-1 pitch by Odorizzi is the only one called a strike when it was pretty clearly a ball. The other 14 were either swung at or taken in the zone for a strike. Upon review, the weak grounder against Smith and the bad call on the 3-1 pitch against Odorizzi are the closest Scherzer has come to reaching base this season.

Pitchers aren’t expected to generate offense and Scherzer more than makes up for the .000 on-base percentage when he’s on the mound. He is a competitor though, and I’m certain he’d like to help his team more than he has offensively. If nothing else, Scherzer doesn’t want to sit atop the “most plate appearances without reaching base” leaderboard. The universal DH is expected to become permanent next season. If Scherzer doesn’t reach base this year, he might sit atop that leaderboard forever. 

Brinson’s power beginning to emerge

Three-and-a-half years ago the Marlins sent Christian Yelich to the Brewers and the trade immediately blew up in their face. Yelich was named MVP his first year with Milwaukee and MVP runner-up his second year. The four players Miami received in the trade (Lewis Brinson, Isan Díaz, Monte Harrison, Jordan Yamamoto) have combined for minus-3.8 WAR with the Marlins. Ouch.

Brinson, now 27, was the headliner in the trade. Baseball America ranked him the No. 18 prospect in the game immediately after the deal in 2018, though he has yet to live up to the hype. In parts of four seasons with the Marlins, Brinson is a .207/.254/.336 hitter in nearly 1,000 plate appearances, and he’s lost to center field job multiple times, most notably to Starling Marte.

Poor performance landed Brinson back in Triple-A this May and a finger injury sidelined him in July. He rejoined the big-league team shortly before Marte was traded to the Athletics, and, over the last few weeks, Brinson looks like a new player. He is hitting .299/.356/.567 with four home runs in 19 games since the Marte trade. It’s a small sample. It’s also by far Brinson’s best stretch in the big leagues.

“Everything was all about getting hits and results and getting to the next level, especially in the minor leagues, but now it’s about going up there and enjoying myself,” Brinson told reporters, including MLB.com’s Christina De Nicola, following a recent two-homer game. “I know I’m ready, I know I’m prepared, I know I did all the work. Now just go out there and play, have a good time with your teammates, try to win every ballgame you can, and whatever happens is supposed to happen. Try not to worry about that, try not to look at my average, try not to look at my numbers and just go out there and play. If you look at your average and you start looking at your numbers, you’re playing for that instead of just playing the game, so I just tried to go out there and just play.”

Two things stand out about Brinson’s recent hot streak. First, he’s making way more contact. From 2017-20, he struck out in 29.4 percent of his plate appearances, which is quite high. To make that work, you need to put up big power numbers like Joey Gallo or Aaron Judge, and Brinson wasn’t doing that. In his last 19 games though, Brinson has a 20.5 percent strikeout rate, which is below the league average (23.5 percent). Even in a tiny sample, that’s encouraging. Make contact and good things will happen.

And second, Brinson is holding his own against breaking balls. In the past pitchers could just throw something with spin at him, particularly down in the zone, and get either a swing and a miss or a weak contact. Brinson was not competitive against breaking balls in the past. Now he’s at least giving himself a fighting chance. Some numbers against breaking balls:

2017-20

.122

.194

44.9%

Last 19 games

.183

.333

32.3%

MLB average

.210

.358

34.6%

“I’ve been blessed to be in this industry long enough to know that you don’t know when it’s going to click,” Marlins bench coach James Rowson told De Nicola. “You look at the player and you look at their work ethic, you look how they get after it. There’s a lot of things you have to measure: How guys deal with failure, how they’re able to be persistent and come back. This game is a tough game, and you’re judged very early for short sample sizes of work … [Brinson has] been resilient through it all, he’s never quit on himself. He’s never quit on his ability.”

Brinson has long been a tinkerer and he reportedly made a few swing changes earlier this season, though with a player with his history, it’s difficult to read anything in it. Perhaps the latest adjustments have clicked and Brinson is finally starting to tap into his offensive potential. Development is not linear, some players need more time to figure things out than others, and Brinson is the type of toolsy player who deserves patience. His upside is immense, and for at least a few weeks this year, we’re seeing why the Marlins took him as the headliner in the Yelich trade.

“He believes in himself and keeps working,” Rowson told De Nicola. “He’s in a great spot right now, but his confidence is building. It’s a never-ending battle, but there’s nothing like once you get to that hump that you know you can do it at this level, and you have the confidence to know you can succeed. I think he’s at that point.”



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