The Monday 9: MLB vaccinations are stalling out, Dodgers and Padres are not

·13-min read

Welcome to The Monday 9, our weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Leading off: MLB vaccinations are stalling out

Every Friday, MLB and the players union put out a joint press release about the state of COVID-19 in baseball. Along with testing results, it now includes the vaccination status for teams across the league.

On May 14, 12 clubs had reached the 85 percent threshold of fully vaccinated players and immediate support staff, and another four teams had at least 85 percent of their Tier 1 personnel vaccinated, but were still in the two-week waiting period after their final shot. On May 21, those numbers were 14 and two. In other words: although some teams had moved from the waiting period to officially fully vaccinated, no new teams had cleared the 85 percent threshold.

(I’m fairly certain that this breakdown would not capture teams who are in between doses of a two-shot vaccine, but as you’ll see in a minute, there hasn’t been much movement there, either.)

The leaguewide numbers indicated a few new shots in arms, but overall a similar picture. On May 14, 83.9 percent of Tier 1 individuals — players, coaches and other clubhouse personnel — had received at least one shot. A week later, it was up just half a percent to 84.4 percent.

The first time MLB announced vaccine numbers was April 30. At the time, “more than” 81 percent of that Tier 1 group was either fully or partially vaccinated. So less than 4 percent of the baseball population has come around on vaccines over the past month.

The Chicago Cubs have not reached the 85 percent vaccinated mark and recently GM Jed Hoyer said that while he hopes they can still get there, his “level of optimism is waning, candidly.”

His sense of resignation is illustrative. Sixteen are one side of the threshold, 14 are on the other and with rates slowing to a near standstill, it might not be a matter of time. MLB could get stuck with a near-even split of teams on either side of the protocol divide.

Although, those protocols could still evolve — in response to developing scientific understanding of the vaccines and in an effort to further incentivize people who are unmoved by the opportunity to protect themselves and anyone around them while giving their team a comfort/competitive advantage at work. Union board member, and rep for the sub-85 percent Nationals, Max Scherzer suggested that vaccinated players who test positive but are asymptomatic should still be eligible to play. His comments came shortly after the largely asymptomatic spate of breakthrough cases among vaccinated members of the Yankees, which experts said are to be expected, but also prove the vaccines are working by keeping people who test positive from getting sick.

Scherzer tied the opportunity to stay on the field to potentially persuading holdouts: “The vaccinated players should reap the benefits for doing this. This is what we want. We want our players to be vaccinated."

Baseball is actually ahead of the country at large, where just about 50 percent of people have received at least one shot — although MLB teams certainly have an access edge over at least some segments of the non-professional athlete population — and the general population’s rate of new vaccinations has also plummeted. States have recently started turning down hundreds of thousands of available doses to keep pace with the drop in demand.

That’s concerning because the pandemic didn’t run its course, it was directly combated by vaccines. We’re not yet at herd immunity, and we might not get there. It’s not clear what it will look like to live and play baseball safely in a country unnecessarily stalled somewhere between the worst of the pandemic and eradicating COVID-19 entirely, but we’re on pace to find out. — Hannah Keyser

No. 2: So about the Dodgers and Padres

Even a week ago, the narrative around the vaunted NL West was still not about the offseason darlings and preseason favorites. The San Francisco Giants — defying all odds and most people’s logic — had grabbed hold of the top spot and held on for what felt like an uncomfortably long time.

Now, though, the San Diego Padres have won nine straight and the Los Angeles Dodgers have won seven straight after bludgeoning the upstart Giants into third place over the weekend. Heading into Monday, with the Memorial Day checkpoint a week away, the two talented rival combatants possess baseball’s two best records and two best run differentials — with the Padres holding the division edge by a game.

In the words of the late, great NFL coach Dennis Green: They are who we thought they were. — Zach Crizer

Tampa Bay Rays' Willy Adames leads off from third base against the Baltimore Orioles during the second inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Willy Adames became the latest Ray to be traded away. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

No. 3: The Rays Way points toward the exit

The Tampa Bay Rays traded shortstop Willy Adames to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday. The deal briefly whipped the baseball world into a frenzy over the possibility that No. 1 prospect Wander Franco was about to take over in Tampa — not the case — but as the dust settled it joined a long line of Rays trades that ensure the franchise never develops a face you can get too familiar with.

Adames joined the Rays organization as a prospect in the David Price trade, took over the starting shortstop job in 2018 and had his best year in 2020 as they galloped to a pennant. He is seemingly beloved not just in his own clubhouse, but around the game.

All of which, as you know, failed to matter. The Rays pulled the trigger and shipped him out for two fungible relief arms and an open roster spot where they will plug in a younger, cheaper player — Taylor Walls, for now, ready to graduate from their prodigious minor-league system. Then, like they have done time and time and time again, the front office leaders got on a call with reporters and called it “difficult” to part with the human who had come up and succeeded with them.

I do not doubt the sincerity of their feelings about Adames, but the messaging gets less believable as it is repeated. And boy has it been repeated.

Here’s then-Rays GM Andrew Friedman, progenitor of the Rays way, after trading James Shields in 2012.

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And the team president after moving Ben Zobrist.

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And current GM Erik Neander after jettisoning his first face of the franchise.

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Again after a perplexing move to cut bait on Corey Dickerson. Sometimes, they even trot it out for very tall, but unheralded journeymen.

And finally, for Adames.

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This is not to say it won’t work out for the Rays or that it won’t make their team — currently on a 10-game winning streak that has floated them into a tie atop the AL East — more formidable now and in the near future. It’s to say that the moves are what they are: calculated. An unending Tetris game to keep the maximum amount of talent in stock on a limited roster and an even more limited budget. They have moved into a sort of post-loyalty, post-jersey-buying mode of operating where they promise wins in return for never expecting today’s hero will be around to hear tomorrow's ovation.

Whether or not you can appreciate that depends on, well, how difficult the departures are for you to swallow. — Zach Crizer

No. 4: Judge’s court is back in session

Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who's hot and who's not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition.

Don't look now, but Aaron Judge could be on the verge of having the best season of his career since his MVP-level 2017.

The hulking Yankees slugger has heated up when the team has needed him most. Judge is currently on a five-game hitting streak, but it's his season total as a whole that's worth examining. Judge is slashing .307/.401/.575 with a .976 OPS. He has 12 homers, 25 RBIs, and has scored 23 runs. Extrapolate those numbers to a full season, and you get a lot of smiling fantasy managers.

Most surprisingly though, this excellent start to the season isn't exactly being fueled by incredible batted-ball luck. His BABIP is just 14 points higher than his career mark.

The key here is that Judge has only been striking at a rate of 26 percent — the lowest rate of his career. Compound that with his walks — Judge is my favorite kind of slugger because while he strikes out, he will happily take a walk, too — and we just might get the best batting average season of his career in 2021. — Mo Castillo

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) winds up during the first inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Sunday, May 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Jacob deGrom wiped out a low-level minor league team on a rehab start — to their utter delight. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

No. 5: If you think Jacob deGrom dominates the big leagues ...

Major league batters are hitting .128 against Jacob deGrom this year. Having emerged from an incredible maturation process as the definitive best pitcher in a season dominated by historically unhittable arms, the Mets ace is doing his part to give the game an identity crisis about the total lack of offense. But last week he also did major leaguers a solid by demonstrating how their 17 total hits off him are actually pretty impressive.

“Jacob deGrom is throwing 102 MPH... Someone send help,” tweeted the Low-A Palm Beach Cardinals on Thursday evening. The plea quickly amassed over 37,000 likes. It was the third consecutive game in which the Cardinals’ lowest-level affiliate had faced a proven major league pitcher rehabbing for the St. Lucie Mets. First came Seth Lugo — though just for a single inning — then Noah Syndergaard — though not throwing at max effort — and by the time the team of teens and recent teens heard they were due to face a two-time Cy Young winner, they thought it must be some kind of joke.

It was not. deGrom threw three (scoreless, duh, do we even need to say so?) innings, and touched 102 mph. He faced 10 batters. Eight struck out. One grounded out. One reached on an error. The Palm Beach Cardinals hit .000 against deGrom because of course they did.

“He’s 100 percent the best pitcher on the planet,” 19-year-old Masyn Winn, the Cardinals shortstop, told FOX Sports.

“One of the most fun outings of my life,” tweeted opposing pitcher John Beller.

But the star of the PB Cardinals’ night was whomever is behind their main social handle, which reveled in the team’s abject helplessness against a very healthy looking deGrom (and even got in a dig at the rest of the major league Mets while they were at it). It was a heartwarming testament to just how awe-inspiring 102 seems up close, even if it’s coming at the expense of your best efforts. And, a chance to marvel at deGrom’s ability to flatten the distance between Low A and the Show.

I think we forget sometimes that your local big league lineup isn’t made up of just the best baseball players around — they’re the best of the best. The guys who graduated out of a minor league system that waylays thousands of dudes who would be the best player you know if you knew them.

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They’re four professional levels up from the baby red birds, but when it comes to facing Jacob deGrom, I’m sure they’d agree that sometimes all you can do is shrug. — Hannah Keyser

No. 6: Whose mind did Shohei Ohtani blow this week?

It’s hard to keep up with everything two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani is doing in 2021, so we are rounding up his unprecedented exploits every week. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition.

J.J. Watt — another star athlete of the freakish variety — tweeted exactly what the point of this whole column is:

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My thoughts exactly, J.J.

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And then there's Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman — who's having a pretty good season in his own right — echoing what many of us are thinking any time there's an Angels game being played. — Mo Castillo

No. 7: We need to talk about Jesse Winker

I don’t want to jinx him, but, we need to talk about one hitter’s rise up the leaderboards.

The best non-Mike Trout hitters of 2021 so far, by wRC+ — a FanGraphs metric that adjusts for park — have been glorious but unsurprising breakout slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and … Jesse Winker. The oft-injured, 27-year-old Reds outfielder blasted three home runs Friday against Milwaukee and leads all qualified hitters in slugging percentage.

He’s always been among the leaders in on-base percentage — again, when healthy — but now he’s only three homers away from tying his career high. He’s also only about 200 plate appearances shy of matching his career high in playing time. Let’s hope he can stay on the field and fully test whether this power surge is for real. — Zach Crizer

No. 8: Have you ever seen a major leaguer in the wild?

Renowned and occasionally infamous umpire Joe West is making history this week. On Monday, he will tie the all-time mark for games umpired at 5,376, and on Tuesday he will presumably break it. Across 43 years and 51 ballparks, he has been a fixture in a way that is difficult to imagine. But then again, everyone who steps foot on major league grass even once is reaching territory that defies contextualization.

Just this past week, the major leagues minted the 20,000th member of that hallowed club. Mariners backup catcher José Godoy was that 20,000th player — as obsessively tracked by Cespedes Family BBQ — and underscores just how tiny the pinnacle of the baseball profession is.

If every major leaguer were somehow still alive, they wouldn’t quite sell out Madison Square Garden. Even if Cowboy Joe West was playing a concert. — Zach Crizer

No. 9: No-hitter threat assessment

The no-hitters will not stop. This week, Tigers late-bloomer Spencer Turnbull silenced the Mariners and the Yankees’ Corey Kluber shut down the Rangers. Will there be another this week? Well, I’m not ready to bet against it so here are two games to watch for what would be a modern day record-tying seventh no-no.

  • Kevin Gausman vs. the Diamondbacks on Tuesday: The Giants’ pitching got rocked against the Dodgers, but Gausman enters with a 1.66 ERA and a splitter that is totally befuddling opposing hitters.

  • Shane Bieber vs. the Tigers on Thursday: Yes, Detroit just threw one of Its own, but Bieber against a struggling lineup is a recipe for dominance. — Zach Crizer

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