Sports | August 18, 2020 9:43 am

Josh Hader's Dominance and the Race for .400: Buying or Selling MLB's Top Week 4 Storylines

Hader had fives saves and had not surrendered a hit entering play on Monday

Buying or Selling MLB's Top Week 4 Storylines
Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the 9th inning for a save. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
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For every Major League Baseball team that isn’t the previously COVID-19-riddled Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals, more than a third of the season is now in the books, as odd as that seems. The coronavirus is still an issue and will continue to be, but most of the news out of MLB in the past week had to do with actual baseball, a welcome change.

Below, you’ll find some of the top storylines to emerge around the league as MLB pushed through its fourth full week of play, and whether we’re buying or selling ’em.

Buy: Josh Hader Is MLB’s Most Valuable Closer

He does not lead the league in saves this season (Zack Britton of the Yankees leads MLB with eight, followed by Liam Hendriks of the A’s with seven), but Milwaukee Brewers closer Josh Hader has been the most dominant closer to date this season.

On Sunday, Hader came on to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning and did not allow a baserunner while striking out one batter to earn the save, his fifth of the season. Hader, who has thrown 6.1 scoreless frames with 10 strikeouts in 2020, battled through a 13-pitch at-bat with Nico Hoerner in the outing.

Thanks to Hoerner’s fly out, the Cubs are now a collective 1-for-37 with 19 strikeouts against Hader dating back to the last out of Game 163 in 2018 and the last 29 Chicago batters to face him have gone hitless.

So far in 2020, Hader is treating every team like the Cubs. The 26-year-old, who finished third in MLB in saves last season with 37 behind Roberto Osuna of the Astros (38) and Kirby Yates of the Padres (41), had given up four walks on the season entering playing on Monday, but had yet to surrender a hit.

In Hader, manager Craig Counsell has a valuable weapon he can deploy at will — not just in the ninth inning. Of Hader’s 37 saves in 2019, a major-league-leading nine came in appearances of two or more innings. And in the 14 games where the lanky left-hander appeared for two or more innings, the Brewers went 13-1.

While Counsell may use him differently due to the scheduling oddities of this season, having Hader to call on for multiple innings in a pinch is a luxury most managers wish they had, and makes the flamethrower the most valuable closer in baseball.

Sell: Roel Ramirez Will Stick in MLB

Called up to the big leagues by the Cardinals following a COVID-19 outbreak that put St. Louis’ season on hold for almost three weeks, 25-year-old reliever Roel Ramirez may have had the worst pitching debut in MLB history on Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.

With St. Louis leading 1-0 in the fifth inning, the right-hander took the mound and got his outing started with a strikeout. Unfortunately, it was the only out the 25-year-old recorded on the day as things fell apart in a hurry. Following a pair of singles, a failed steal attempt and a walk, Yoán Moncada went deep with a three-run homer to right to put the White Sox ahead 3-1.

That lead quickly ballooned to 6-1 as Yasmani Grandal, José Abreu and Eloy Jiménez all followed with home runs of their own, tying the big league record for consecutive homers and chasing Ramirez from the game.

Thanks to that disastrous outing, Ramirez now owns the dubious distinction of being the only pitcher in MLB history to allow four straight home runs in his major league debut.

Thanks to that start, one has to think Ramirez, who split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, will not finish the season in the majors.

Buy: The Yankees/Red Sox Rivalry Is on Pause

On Friday night in New York, Gerrit Cole — who has not lost a game since May of 2019 other than World Series opener last year when he was pitching for the Houston Astros — took the mound for the Yankees against the Red Sox.

To counter Cole (4-0) in his first appearance in the storied “rivalry” between the AL East division mates, the Red Sox elected to use Colten Brewer (0-1) as an opener, a pitcher who had recorded as many strikeouts (four) as he had surrendered runs in his previous four appearances.

True to form, Brewer gave up two runs and struck out two Yankees in 2 2/3 innings before being replaced in a game New York won easily, 10-3. If you start a punching bag like Brewer against an ace like Cole, you deserve to lose. And the Red Sox did. Then they did again on Saturday. And again in a Sunday Night Baseball snoozer that ESPN would have been wise to flex out of.

Entering play on Monday, New York had beaten Boston seven times in a row and was 12-1 at home against the Red Sox since the start of last season.

In fact, since the Red Sox knocked off the Yankees in the 2018 playoffs on their way to winning the World Series, Boston has dropped 20 out of 25 games to New York and has looked embarrassing while doing so. (See Brewer, Colten.) That’s not a rivalry. That’s a beatdown.

With the worst record in the American League, the Red Sox (6-16) have started 11 different pitchers in just 22 games this season and will be sellers at the trade deadline while their alleged rivals, the Yankees, will be buyers.

“This isn’t what any of us want,” Boston chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told The Boston Globe on Sunday. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Until that work gets done and done well, quit calling it a rivalry.

Sell: Hitting .400 in 2020 Is a Real Milestone

As of this writing Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon (.446), Nationals outfielder Juan Soto (.425), Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu (.411), Giants outfielder Donovan Solano (.403) and Orioles shortstop Jose Igelesias (.400) all have a batting average of .400 or above with at least 40 at-bats.

While the odds that guys like Igelesias (a career .276 hitter) or Solano (also .276) will finish above .400 are slim, it certainly seems within the realm of possibility that Blackmon, Soto or LeMahieu may be able to due to the 2020 season being shortened to 60 games.

After all, three players did it over a 60-game stretch at some point in the last decade, according to ESPN: Jose Altuve in 2017, Joey Votto in 2016 and Andrew McCutchen in 2012.

While finishing over .400 in 2020 would certainly be impressive, it wouldn’t come close to equaling Ted Williams collecting six hits in eight trips to the plate for the Boston Red Sox during a double-header on the last day of the year in 1941 to push his average .406 on the season.

Williams appeared in 143 games that year, more than double the number of games that are on the schedule in this year’s shortened season. The excellence at the plate he was able to sustain came over the course of a marathon. This year, it only needs to be maintained for a sprint.

“I don’t think .400 is a realistic mark for today’s game,” Blackmon said last week. “The pitching is too good. The stuff is too good. There’s more specialization. I don’t think it’s something that will happen.”

Even if it does, it will pale in comparison to what Williams did in ’41.

Note: All statistics, standings and streaks are current as of the afternoon of 8/10/2020.)