What We Learned This Week In MLB: Mookie Betts Remains Unique, The Cody Bellinger Revival

Every Thursday, Jordan Shusterman from each MLB division checks in on one thing we learned from the past week’s action.

least: shine are average; trade deadline tracking team

The Rays finally have some company atop the AL East for the first time all season after a defeat by Texas at Globe Life Field combined with Baltimore’s Wednesday win over the Dodgers. Well, a big four-game series with the Orioles starts on Thursday. Since beginning the season 29–7, Tampa Bay has gone 31–32.

I didn’t expect him to maintain his 130-win pace, but I didn’t think his true talent was even around .500, although this large sample suggests the latter is indeed the case. I was sold on the Rays at the top of the AL postseason picture and a legitimate force in the game’s toughest division, but now we’re starting to see some pullbacks as the offense has cooled off historically hot starts and the pitching staff has been thinned by injuries.

As the roster stands, he’s still capable of winning this division, but as a team as the trade deadline approaches my focus is on the Rays, who should use their strong farm system as a means to carve out impressive contributors from the acquirer core class. The fact that the Yankees and Blue Jays have struggled to such an extent compared to expectations is an opportunity that doesn’t come along every season, and the Rays should take advantage of it later.

They’ll have to avoid an expensive, huge upset on a Joe Ryan-style loan for Nelson Cruz, but I’d still like to see them go aggressive over the next few weeks and try to make the most of what is one of the most complete Rays teams ever. seen over the years.

AL Central: Edward Julian feeds the Twins Crime

Thanks to a surprisingly superior and deservedly excellent pitching staff, the Twins are competing with Cleveland in the AL Central race. The attack, on the other hand, was the opposite of inspirational, with big names like Joey Gallo and Carlos Correa performing only briskly and Byron Buxton putting in an absolutely dismal performance as the full-time DH. With the stars disappointing, Minnesota has turned to some talented but less proven batters to keep the attack going. Trevor Larnach started well before sinking badly and being demoted, while Alex Kirilloff has started well in recent weeks.

However, the only batter who has really turned it on recently is 24-year-old Québécois superhero Edouard Julien, a first-batting second baseman whose strength and OBP skills have earned him legitimate prospect status since the Twins picked him up in the 18th round in 2019.

Julian received his first major league call-up a few weeks into the season, but then bounced back and forth between Minnesota and Triple-A a few times before pausing in mid-June. Since being recalled on June 10, Julian’s 191 WRC+ ranks fifth in MLB, providing a much-needed jolt to a Twins offense desperate for any semblance of spark or intimidation. He still does a lot, but Julian otherwise does more than enough damage to earn the top spot in Minnesota’s lineup in the near future.

AL West: alex space a good story, but also important

The Rangers cruised to a win over fellow AL powerhouse Tampa Bay on Wednesday in a game that featured one of the crowning moments of the season: the MLB debut of 25-year-old right-hander Alex Spies. Spies, a 2016 Georgia high school second-round pick, always hit hard but struggled to maintain command or stay healthy early in his professional career. After posting an 11.15 ERA in 15 appearances in 2021, Spies decided to step away as a player and spend 2022 coaching kids of all ages closer to home in North Carolina.

Almost exactly a year earlier, Spies had been named head coach of the Combine Academy, which featured two of the best prep players in all of North Carolina: outfielder Justin Best and right-hander Chase Meyer. But before the season begins in the spring of 2023, Spies decided to give his playing career another chance by rejoining the Rangers. He quickly made a strong impression in spring training. He dominated Double-A and Triple-A before receiving the much-anticipated call up to the major leagues early in the week.

While Spiez’s story is already remarkable enough to celebrate, what happens next is perhaps even more fascinating. The Rangers have one of baseball’s best lineups, which could be good enough to overcome the uneven run prevention of a shaky pitching staff. But this team’s final tally in October could depend on how well they can hold on to the lead late in the games.

They’ve already made their first big trade of the summer by landing left winger Aroldis Chapman, and so far he’s been phenomenal. But it still lags far behind Chapman and fellow veteran southpaw Will Smith. Perhaps Spice — whose stuff (three-digit speed, a promising slider and cutter) certainly fits the role of a late-innings weapon — could become much more than just a fun story. His 1.00 ERA over 36 innings with 59 strikeouts in the minors for the call suggests that may very well be the case. He is definitely a name to keep an eye on.

NL East: coda senga deserves a lot more attention

I was quite optimistic about Kodai Senga’s ability to transition from NPB to MLB, believing that his potent arsenal headlined by the signature “Ghost Fork” would knock out even the best hitters in the world in his first season. Forkballs (and similar splitters) are very uncommon in today’s game, but pitchers who can master them, as Senga has been doing for years, or hit recent MLB examples like Kevin Gausman and Tony Gonsolin, have a great advantage. Attacking hitters with such unknown supply. Plus, even a Senga optimist like me wasn’t quite sure how successful it would be, much less excel.

San Diego Padres, New York Mets Emboldened In Two Most Disappointing Seasons In MLB History

Well, a 12% pass rate (second highest among qualified starters) suggests concerns about Senga’s command were justified, but a 30% pass rate (sixth highest) is higher than any of his last three seasons in NPB. As expected, his fork ball was dynamite, but it’s his 90 MPH cutter that ranks as one of the game’s most effective throws, which really elevates Senga’s arsenal to one of the deepest in the game – especially when the summer average is a brisk 95.9 MPH. This boy is really nice.

It’s hard to take credit for him when he’s been just a positive footnote in the Mets’ extremely disappointing campaign, but I’ll be happy if the 30-year-old right-hander is a key part of carrying the team forward, as if I were a Mets fan, regardless of how this nightmare season ends.

NL Central: cody bellinger stomp with left hand

Even if you haven’t followed the Cubs that closely, chances are you’re at least vaguely aware that former NL MVP Cody Bellinger is having quite a recovery season in 2023 after disappointing performances over the past two years. Signed to a 1-year, $17.5 million deal with a mutual $25 million option for 2024 after Los Angeles went non-tender, Bellinger was everything Chicago could have hoped for and more. He may not be an outright MVP Bellinger, but he has been a very good hitter — his .888 OPS ranks eighth among NL-ranked players — and a skilled defenseman in both center field and first base.

There is one element of his return to form that I particularly focus on: his handling of left-handed batsmen. Left-on-left has traditionally been an uphill battle even for some of the best left-handers in the game, but Bellinger has made it look surprisingly easy in 2023. Here’s how he has fared against southpaw batsmen over the years:

  • 2017: .903 OPS in 173 PA
  • 2018: .681 OPS in 210 PA
  • 2019: .982 OPS in 228 PA
  • 2020: .666 OPS in 83 PA
  • 2021: .383 OPS in 96 PA
  • 2022: .583 OPS in 160 PA
  • 2023: 1,066 OPS in 89 PA

That 1,066 OPS score is not only his career best and in line with his early career peak — it’s also the best of any left-hander in MLB this season with at least 70 against left-handers, which puts him behind the likes of Freddy Freeman, Jordan Alvarez and Shohei Ohtani.

This is a remarkable development. There was certainly a version of this season where Bellinger rediscovered his power stroke against right-handed batters and became an attractive trading target at the deadline as a platoon bat. Instead, he puts up fiery performances against all opposing pitchers and could suddenly become one of the best available rental bats of any kind in the coming weeks, assuming the Cubs go into sell mode soon.

NL West: mookie bates he is the most useful person ever

Allow me to take a moment to appreciate the current season of Marcus Lynn Bates, Mister. MLB itself. Aside from the expectedly disappointing Home Run Derby performance, Bates has launched balls at an astonishing rate and is comfortably on pace for the first 40-homer season of his career with a boatload of shots. It’s the best record he’s seen since his MVP campaign in 2018, and he does it as he evolves into the best possible version of a super-utility guy.

After bouncing between his own right field, second base and – most incredibly – shortstop in the first half, Bates started every game at base as struggling prospect Miguel Vargas was optioned to the minors. The kind of flexibility that Betts now suddenly offers can’t possibly be overstated when you consider how the Dodgers have continued to propel the NL West despite numerous shortcomings up and down the roster.

“The last thing I really want is to be a Hall of Famer” – Mookie Betts

Defensive versatility is a valuable asset in itself at the big league level. But to be able to mix with a player who is one of the best hitters in the world? This is extremely rare and a huge boon for a Dodgers team that is nowhere near as deep as it has been in recent years.

Recent examples of multi-position players are the obvious headliner Ben Zobrist, who also rakes. Ketel Marte faced a similar split between second base and center field during his breakout campaign in 2019, but has since returned to being a full-time infielder. Bates’ teammate Chris Taylor has long been known for his versatility, but he has never been much of a hitter. Suffice it to say: This isn’t your standard amazing Mookie Bates season. This is something very, very different – and we should value it accordingly.

Jordan is one half of Shusterman @cespedesbbq and baseball writer for Fox Sports. He has exclusively covered baseball his entire adult life. MLB. com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan who lives in the Eastern time zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first roll. You can follow him on Twitter. @j_shusterman_.

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