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MLB looks worse each day as virus bears down on plans to restart sports

MLB looks worse each day as virus bears down on plans to restart sports

This was going to be upbeat, even fun by now.

After the midweek news of that face-to-face meeting between the baseball commissioner and union leader — and (gasp!) even some “framework” for a financial agreement — we figured to be well on our way to making fun of what pitchers will do with all their gently used bats and what kind of ads will wind up on players’ uniforms under the new agreement.

A blue check mark and bird on the front and a “YuTube” patch across the back of baseball’s social media king, Yu Darvish? 

MORE: Why Cubs, National League are about to permanently add designated hitter

Or how about a For Sale By Owner logo adorning the caps and shoulder patches of Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Jose Quintana and every other short-timer or big-contract Cub?

Yeah, haha.

But there’s nothing funny about what we know about the plans of any sport’s return to play as we conclude the latest, biggest week in decades for Major League Baseball (talk about funny).

NBC Sports Philadelphia reported Friday that five players and three staff members working out at the Phillies’ spring facility in Clearwater, Fla., have tested positive for COVID-19, so far, and the Phillies have shut down that complex as they await the results of other members of the team who have been tested.

The Blue Jays and Giants also reportedly had players or staffers showing symptoms. And by the end of the day MLB had shut down all spring facilities in Florida and Arizona, including In Mesa, where Cubs players who lived in the area were allowed to work.

Additionally, reports Friday from the NHL revealed that at least three Tampa Bay Lightning players and Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews have tested positive, with the Lightning closing its Florida practice facility.

Cubs officials at multiple levels of the organization, by the way, have not responded to requests regarding how many, if any, known cases of COVID-19 they have among their players and staff.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highest-profile infectious disease official in the country, said this week the NFL might not be able to pull off a season without a “bubble” this fall because of the risks of a second wave of the virus.

A bubble for 3,200 players, staff and other essential employees? What about the bubbles represented by huddles and the pileups involved with most tackles?

The “bubble” concept for MLB also reportedly is back in play, although where and how that might work is anything but clear, considering the bubble sites previously proposed — Arizona, and/or Florida, and/or Texas — all are now hot spots for the virus.

The president has called the coronavirus “the invisible enemy” of his warrior presidency. What’s clear is that it has become a silent enemy undermining every best-laid plan of every sports league in a nation that can’t agree state to state on whether it’s more important to heed the science and wear masks or to exercise our tough-guy American freedom to resist such shackles.

It’s been especially silent in the reports and public conversations associated with Major League Baseball — which is now poised to have its ugly fight over money during this pandemic reach even new lows amid this latest imposition of real-world news during labor squabbles. 

There was a point reached this week when it never looked more certain that all major league sports might be playing again this summer.

MORE: MLB, union, Cubs have a few more questions to answer before agreement

And then with one hard, cold dose of reality it looks suddenly like it has never been more impossible to make that happen.

Earlier in the week, when MLB sent a letter to the union saying several MLB players and staff had tested positive, which could delay the season, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo tweeted in response: “Good timing.”

In fact, the timing of all the bad sports news on this side of the Pacific Ocean aligned with the restart on the other side of the Pacific of the Japanese major leagues — which just opened a 120-game season in stadiums without fans.

In this country?

By the end of the day Friday, the union issued a statement saying: “MLB has informed the Association that it will not respond to our last proposal and will not play more than 60 games.”

The union, which is now deliberating its next step, had proposed 70 in response to MLB’s last proposal on Wednesday. Also included in that union counterproposal was an increased share of the revenue from expanded playoffs this year and next year — a provision one high-ranking official on owners side of the table said was a bigger problem for owners than the difference in the number of games.

These are historic times, no doubt — perhaps like nothing this country ever has faced, between the still spreading pandemic (120,000 deaths), record job losses and nationwide social unrest. 

Not only is there nothing funny about any of it, but it looks like we’re running out of fun and games even in our fun and games.

And when it comes to baseball? All sides look more petty and out of touch with each day that passes as they haggle over money — none more than the billionaires running the league with the greatest ability to weather the financial storm long-term and to rule the day short-term from the public-relations high ground.

It may not ultimately matter if this still-raging first wave of the virus renders the second wave moot and sports remain on hold until next year.

But what’s certain if this status quo holds is that when the history of this moment is written, baseball will be the one American major league sport on the wrong side of it.

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Why Chicago Cubs starters Jon Lester, Alec Mills are two of MLB's best pitchers

Why Chicago Cubs starters Jon Lester, Alec Mills are two of MLB's best pitchers

Usually when GMs, managers and fans get ready for a baseball season, any consistent production from the Nos. 4 and 5 starters is a luxury. In the Cubs’ case, it’s been an embarrassment of riches through two turns of the rotation.

Through 10 games, the Cubs are 8-2, good for the best win percentage in the National League. One huge reason for that has been the team’s incredible starting pitching. Kyle Hendricks set the tone early when he pitched a complete game shutout in the very first game of the season. Now, the Cubs’ starters lead MLB in ERA (1.95), batting average against (.156) and WHIP (0.780). They’ve done all that while also throwing 60 innings, second only to the Indians who have thrown 70 innings.

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At first glance you’d probably think, yeah, that makes sense with Hendricks starting the season the way he did, and Darvish getting back on track with six innings of two-hit ball in his second start. But surprisingly the only two clunkers came in Hendricks and Darvish starts. In fact, the analytics say Jon Lester and Alec Mills, the Cubs’ last two guys in the rotation have been two of the most impressive starters in MLB.

Let’s start by looking at the ERAs of all starters who have at least 8 IP, since the name of the game is keeping runs off the board. If 8 IP seems like an arbitrary cutoff… well, it is. But it seems like a fair number to assess quality pitchers who have made two starts in this shortened season with short leashes on pitchers. Among those pitchers, Lester and Mills each rank in the top-10 with ERAs of 0.82 and 1.38, respectively, according to FanGraphs.

So how are they doing it? Neither is a power pitcher who relies on strikeouts. In fact, Lester’s four punchouts place him tied for fourth-fewest in our split of SPs who have thrown more than 8 IP. Mills’ seven strikeouts (tied for 10th-fewest) aren’t much better. These guys succeed by keeping guys off the base paths, and not allowing hard-hit balls.

Looking at batting average against, Lester and Mills move into MLB’s top-five, according to our FanGraphs split, with each pitcher holding batters under .120. Since we’ve already established that neither guy is a power pitcher, when we filter further to just show BAA on balls put in play it should come as no surprise that Lester and Mills rise to No. 1 and No. 2 in all of baseball with .118 and .139 marks, respectively.

Great defense, like Javy Baez’s tag in Monday’s game, certainly helps the pitchers’ stats. But the starters also make things easier on the defense by inducing poor contact, regardless of whether the ball is hit on the ground or the air. According to FanGraphs, Mills ranks second in MLB by inducing soft contact on 33.3% of all balls put into play. In addition, he’s 11th in MLB with a 54.3 ground ball percentage. Lester ranks ninth by getting hitters to make soft contact 26.5% of the time, although he’s 11th in the league in getting batters to hit fly balls 47.1% of the time.

In the end the result is the same, with Mills and Lester combining to only allow four extra base hits in 24 IP. So although they aren’t typical “dominant” pitchers that teams like to make their aces, Mills and Lester have been two of the most effective starters in the game.


RELATED: How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

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Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong among Cardinals to test positive for COVID-19

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USA TODAY

Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong among Cardinals to test positive for COVID-19

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong are of the seven St. Louis players and six staff members who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week.

Six of those players gave St. Louis permission to disclose their names. In addition to Molina and DeJong, the club announced Tuesday pitchers Junior Fernández and Kodi Whitley, first baseman Rangel Ravelo and shortstop Edmundo Sosa tested positive.

The Cardinals released statements from Molina and DeJong:

"I am saddened to have tested positive for COVID-19, even after adhering to safety guidelines that were put in place," Molina said. "I will do everything within my power to return as soon as possible for Cardinals fans, the city of St. Louis and my teammates. As I recover, I request that you please respect my privacy and family in my absence from the team."

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"I am disappointed to share that I have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, even though I followed team protocols," DeJong said. "I will approach my healing as I do all other things in my life — with education, commitment, and persistence. I look forward to re-joining the team soon and ask that you respect my privacy at this time."

The Cardinals' reportedly have no new positive tests on Tuesday. The tentative plan is for them to resume play against the Cubs this weekend.

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