Red Pinstripes: The season's over, but we're not done

The postseason gets underway and some awards picks

The regular season is over, but it feels like the baseball content is just getting started. That applies to Red Pinstripes, too. Over the next month, I’ll look back at the season that was and break down what went wrong for the Phillies and what their offseason has to look like. 

That’s not everything though. The playoffs are also happening and there’s no shortage of storylines, teams, and players to follow. 

So with all that on tap, what’s in today’s newsletter. Let’s get the postseason started on a positive note and look at what went right for the Phillies this year. Then I’ll make my picks for the major awards. Finally, a preview of the two Wild Card games this week. 

What went right for the Phillies?

After another disappointing season, I think it’s important to first look at what went right. I hate negativity and it’s important to focus on the positives. So here are some of the Phillies’ positives:

  • They had a winning record. It was just one game over .500, but for the first time since the 2011 season, the Phillies had a winning record. It’s not much. But after a decade of futility, I’m willing to give the slightest of credit for a step in the right direction.

  • Bryce Harper: Spoiler alert for the next section: Bryce Harper was the best player in the National League this year. After a couple of good but not spectacular seasons in red pinstripes, Harper had an explosive season this year, the second-best of his career. (He’s never topping his 2015 MVP season) 

    Here’s what’s scary: Harper’s .308/.427/.612 batting line probably would have been even better if it wasn’t for an injury early in the season. You remember April, right? That’s when Harper started the season on an MVP pace. But in a game in St. Louise, Genesis Cabrera managed to hit harper in both the face and the wrist with a fastball. After that, Harper was clearly hurt and played poorly until the Phillies put him on the IL in mid-May. Take out that stretch, and Harper’s final line looks even better.

  • Zack Wheeler. The Phillies signing of Zack Wheeler doesn’t get enough credit. They were considered the losers of the 2019-20 free agent pitcher derby when they signed Wheeler instead of Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. Well, now it looks like a steal because Wheeler has been nearly as good as Cole while Strasburg has been non-existent. This year, Wheeler put all of his tremendous potential together. Over 213 innings, he pitched to a 2.78 ERA with 247 strikeouts and just 46 walks. He threw three complete games and two shutouts. 

  • Ranger Suarez. Where did this guy come from? I thought he would be a dependable arm out of the Phillies bullpen this year, but he proved to be so much more. As a reliever, he gained the team’s confidence until he was suddenly the lights out closer in July. He threw 40.1 innings with a 1.12 ERA. 

    What he did as a starter, just about no one saw coming. The theory was that Suarez worked better out of the bullpen because he could throw harder. If you made him a starter, he’d either lose velocity or lose command. Either would hurt a guy without a wipeout breaking ball.

    Instead, here’s what Suarez did: he threw 65.2 innings of 1.51 ERA baseball. And when the team needed him most, when they needed to beat the Pirates and save the bullpen at the same time, Suarez threw a complete-game shutout on just 98 pitches. If the Phillies had made the playoffs this year, Suarez would have been the season’s savior.

  • Hector Neris: Yes, he lost the closer job in June. But Hector was a dominant reliever for the Phillies down the stretch this year. He was the fireman willing to pitch in any situation and for however long the team needed him to pitch. And, to top off his season, he set the record Sunday for the most strikeouts all-time by a Phillies reliever. Hector is a free agent after this season, but I hope the Phillies can keep him around. 

  • Jean Segura: He faltered down the stretch (.322 average in the first half, .262 average in the second half), but this was the Jean Segura we’ve been waiting to see. He was a solid all-around player. And when his bat was slowing down in September, Jean made up for it with spectacular defense at second base. It’s a shame his season was wasted because this was the type of performance from a secondary player that gets remembered on a playoff team.

  • Rhys Hoskins The emotional leader of the Phillies, you have to imagine this season turns out differently if Hoskins doesn’t hurt his groin. He was finally putting together a great power season. At this point, we can only hope that Rhys comes back healthy and ready to protect Harper again next season.

Who’s getting the hardware?

AL MVP: Shohei Ohtani

Yes, his numbers are worse than what Vlad Jr. did offensively. But Vladito wasn’t also one of the 30-best pitchers in the American League. What Ohtani did this season was unfathomable before he actually did it and he needs to be rewarded for one of the all-time great seasons in baseball history.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper

He was the best player this year. Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. were great, too. But Tatis faded down the stretch and it hurt his team. And Soto just didn’t have the pressure all year that Harper had on him. Don’t count out either of those players for multiple MVPs in their own future.

AL Cy Young: Robbie Ray?

I really can’t believe I’m writing that. Robbie Ray was a mediocre pitcher for the first five years of his career. But somehow, he was the dominant starter that the Blue Jays needed and the most dominant pitcher in the American League this year. So congratulations Robbie Ray.

NL Cy Young: Corbin Burnes

Wheeler did his best, but he couldn’t match Burnes, who had an even better breakout season this year. I think the key comes down to August and September in this race. While Wheeler was still very good down the stretch, Burnes was great. He could be a big reason the Brewers go deeper in the postseason than anyone expects this year. 

AL Rookie of the Year: Randy Arozarena

He might not have matched the lofty expectations his 2020 postseason performance created, but Arozarena was the year’s best rookie. There weren’t a lot of great rookies in the league this year, but the only one that really could have beat Arozarena was his own teammate, Wander Franco. But the Rays waited until midway through the season to call up Franco, so the award goes to Randy. And to show you how young these Rays are, I think my third-place vote would go to Rays starter Shane McClanahan. What a team.

NL Rookie of the Year: Trevor Rogers

This was a much closer battle, with Rogers just barely edging out the Reds Jonathan India in my book. And while India was a great do-it-all player for the Reds who helped set the table for a prolific offense, I thought Rogers was one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. If Rogers hadn’t missed a month of the season, I think he’d be the runaway favorite for this award. 

The Wild Card games

AL Wild Card Game

New York Yankees (92-70) at Boston Red Sox (92-70)
Tuesday, 8:08 PM, ESPN
Gerrit Cole (16-8, 3.23 ERA, 243K) at Nathan Eovaldi (11-9, 3.75 ERA, 195K)

If this game was held in July, you’d probably pick the Red Sox, hands down. They were the better team at the time and they were dominating the Yankees. I always thought the Yankees were a better team than they were at the time and the Red Sox were much worse.

And that’s how it played out down the stretch. The Yankees have beat the Red Sox in six straight games, including a 3-game sweep in Fenway last month. I think these Yankees now have the Red Sox number. But they’ll have to win with a suddenly inconsistent Gerrit Cole. 

Pick: Yankees

NL Wild Card Game

St. Louis Cardinals (90-72) at Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56)
Wednesday, 8:10 PM, TBS
Adam Wainwright (17-7, 3.05 ERA, 174K) at Max Scherzer (15-4, 2.46 ERA, 236K)

It’s the second-best team in baseball hosting the hottest team in baseball. In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate test of that old baseball theory of whether it’s better to be great all year or hot down the stretch. Here’s the problem with that theory: while the Dodgers have 106 wins, they had to fight and claw for every game down the stretch as they tried to overtake the Giants in the NL West. Meanwhile, because they were so hot, the Cardinal clinched their playoff berth a week ago. Maybe they’re the more rested team in this game.

Here’s the other major storyline: two ageless vets and big-game playoff pitchers dueling in a win-or-go-home game. Wainwright, 40, doesn’t have a ton of velocity, but he still carries one of the nastiest curveballs in all of baseball. And Scherzer continues to be one of the five best pitchers in baseball at age 37. These two are going to give it everything they have Wednesday and it will be fun to watch.

Here’s the ugly part of the game: the Dodgers lost first baseman Max Muncy to a really ugly elbow injury as part of a collision at first on Sunday, the final game of the year. He’ll be out for a while so we’ll have to see how this offense performs without him.

Pick: Dodgers

Enjoy the playoffs!