A historic homecoming, a delayed debut and a marquee matchup in the Bronx have our attention this weekend. Here's what we're thinking and what we're looking for.
The big storyline of the weekend is Albert Pujols' return to St. Louis (Angels at Cardinals, Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN+; Sunday, 7 p.m., ESPN). Among hitters you've seen, does anyone match Pujols in his prime?
Eddie Matz: Aside from Barry Bonds and his trusty asterisk, the only guy who is even in the same ballpark is Miguel Cabrera. But he never controlled the strike zone the way that Pujols did. In fact, Miggy has finished with more walks than strikeouts just once in 16 seasons. That was in 2011, the same year that Pujols accomplished the feat for a 10th consecutive time. Ten!!! So yeah, Pujols was pretty much in a league of his own.
Sam Miller: I'm going to just except Barry Bonds from this premise, so that we have something to talk about. I would definitely watch a BattleBots episode between mid-'90s Frank Thomas and mid-'00s Albert Pujols: Al hit .337/.435/.640 with 295 homers and a 178 OPS+ over his best seven years; Frank hit .330/.452/.604 with 250 dingers (the strike cost him 20 or so) and a 182 OPS+ from 1991 through 1997. That might qualify as a match, and since I was a much smaller human being at the time, Frank seemed proportionately larger and scarier to me. But Al's numbers never told the whole story. He was also the best defensive first baseman in baseball, and also the best baserunning first baseman in baseball, and through age-30 only four players -- Cobb, Mantle, Hornsby and A-Rod -- had more career WAR. At a certain point, you get so high on the leaderboards that nobody exactly matches anybody; they might have comparable value, but nobody I saw could ever do precisely what Al did, in the way Al did it.
David Schoenfield: I'll throw out this guy named Mike Trout. Using Sam's seven-year criteria, Trout hit .310/.420/.579 with 235 home runs from 2012 to 2018, good for 178 OPS+. He doesn't quite have the same home run power as peak Pujols, as he has reached 40 home runs just once while Pujols reached 40 six times in an eight-span from 2003 to 2010. Trout, however, draws more walks and has played in a tough hitters' park in what has generally been a lower-scoring era than the 2000s. Oh, and he may be having his best year yet in 2019 as he's on pace for 48 home runs and posting career-bests in OBP and slugging.
The Astros are in New York for four games at Yankee Stadium in what may well be an American League Championship Series preview. If these teams were to start a best-of-seven series tomorrow, who would be your pick?
Matz: Back in March, I picked the Astros to win the World Series. In the three months since then, they haven't done anything to change my opinion of them. And last time I checked, in order for an American League team to win the World Series, first that team has to win the ALCS. So if the Stros started a best-of-seven series tomorrow -- regardless of the opponent -- I'm taking them. Of course, I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable if George Springer and Carlos Correa were, ya know, healthy.
Miller: Tomorrow? It would be the Astros. But next week, when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are both back and have both shaken off the rust? Well, still the Astros. But a month from now, with Luis Severino and Domingo German healthy and giving the Yankees' rotation much-needed depth? In that case, give me the Astros. Maybe, maybe, maybe in October -- when Dellin Betances is healthy too -- I'll give you a different answer, but it would depend on how many Astros unexpectedly retire before then. The Astros are incredible.
Schoenfield: Like Eddie, I'll stick with my preseason pick to win it all, and that's the Astros. But I can't wait to see how this Yankees lineup plays out once Judge returns -- Gleyber Torres is the projected No. 9 hitter and on pace for 36 home runs while hitting over .280 and slugging over .500. Are you kidding me? The one caveat is that the lineup is very right-handed and the Astros have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole from the right side and a whole slew of tough-to-hit righties in the bullpen. On the other hand, Verlander and Cole have been extremely vulnerable to the home run. So maybe I'll just go with the Twins.
The Braves are activating Dallas Keuchel to make his season debut against the Nationals. What kind of numbers can Atlanta expect from Keuchel the rest of the way?
Matz: In a perfect world, Keuchel gives the Braves the same kind of turbo boost that CC Sabathia gave the 2008 Brewers. Or that Verlander gave the 2017 Astros. But those were trade acquisitions involving pitchers who had actually been pitching in major league games. The last time Keuchel faced real big league hitters was nine months ago, back when baseballs occasionally stayed in the park. Even though he has been a ground ball guy historically, the veteran lefty could be in for a rude awakening. I'm forecasting 15 starts with a 4.36 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. Not exactly prototypical Keuchel numbers, but markedly better than what Atlanta has been getting from the back end of the rotation.
Miller: Considering how unconventional Keuchel's "spring training" has been, they probably can't exactly expect anything, other than a lot of ground balls. But the key thing is this: He will round out a rotation that is, on paper, already quite deep but has been, in practice, close to disastrous after the top three this season. So if they make it to the playoffs, and Mike Foltynewicz (5.53 ERA) and Kevin Gausman (6.21 ERA) still haven't figured things out, the Braves can expect not to need to rely on either one.
Schoenfield: For what it's worth, Keuchel has a 3.05 career ERA in interleague games versus 3.66 overall, so moving to the National League and facing the pitcher's spot could help. Anyway, I love this signing and I think Keuchel will be excellent. His addition is even more important when you consider that Mike Soroka and Max Fried are in their first season in a major league rotation, so their stamina down the stretch will be a potential issue. I wouldn't be surprised if he's starting Game 1 of the playoffs.
Speaking of expectations, what are you most looking forward to seeing this weekend?
Matz: At the risk of sounding redundant or too much like a total fanboy, I can't wait to see what Hyun-Jin Ryu does on Saturday against the Rockies. I mean, in a year when home runs and scoring are up by 6,000% (give or take), the Dodgers southpaw hasn't allowed a long ball since April and is on pace to become the first hurler in MLB history to finish the season with a negative ERA (give or take). Color me captivated.
Miller: Aaron Judge should be back, making baseball better. There are players whose styles I personally prefer, players who are better overall and players who are funnier and more unpredictable. But Judge is, at this point, arguably the most recognizable active baseball player, thanks to his size, his city, his frequent presence on television sets and his incredible dinger mashing. There is just a different energy when baseball's most recognizable player is on the field. You feel like you're part of an audience, watching the thing that you're supposed to be watching along with everybody else who is watching. I'm excited to see some dingers.
Schoenfield: All of the above! It will be interesting to see how A.J. Hinch and Aaron Boone manage the series. Will they have shorter-than-normal hooks for their starters and manage these games more or less like playoff games? Will they be more willing than in a typical June series to use, say, Ryan Pressly or Adam Ottavino for three games in a row or three times in four days? Braves-Nationals is a big series and I'm going deep off the board for one final watch: Jordan Yamamoto of the Marlins became the first pitcher since 1898 to throw seven-plus innings and allow three or fewer hits in his first two starts. He's slated to go Sunday against the Phillies.
PICK 'EM TIME
Nobody's been hotter this season than Cody Bellinger and virtually nobody's ever been hotter than Charlie Blackmon was last weekend. Who will have more total bases in this weekend's Rockies-Dodgers games: Blackmon or Bellinger?
Matz: From 2012 through 2018, major leaguers as a whole posted a .747 OPS. Over that same stretch, Charlie Blackmon has a .732 OPS at Dodger Stadium. In other words, Chuck Nazty is a below-average hitter at Chavez Ravine. I'll take Bellinger.
Miller: Teams are starting to lay down spike strips to slow down Bellinger, with four intentional walks this month and an overall walk rate that's about 5 percentage points higher than in April and May. Blackmon, meanwhile, has walked once in the past month. It wouldn't surprise me to see Bellinger reach base eight times in this series but lose the total base count to Blackmon, by a tally of like 7-6.
Schoenfield: Blackmon would be likely to slow down even if he were facing the pitching staff of the 1962 Mets. Instead, he's scheduled to face Walker Buehler (two straight scoreless starts and a two-hit, 11-strikeout performance in the start before that), Ryu and Kenta Maeda (3.08 ERA over his past seven starts). So I'll go with Bellinger.
With the Yankees nearing full power and the hard-hitting Astros in town, home runs could be the talk of the Bronx. Total homers for the three games this weekend: Over or under 9.5?
Matz: There's a sporting chance that Justin Verlander and J.A. Happ -- who've already combined for 37 gopher balls this season -- could allow 9.5 homers all by themselves on Sunday. Over.
Miller: These are probably the two best offenses in the AL. But they're also two of the top five pitching staffs. I'll brush aside Verlander's homer vulnerabilities this year and take the under.
Schoenfield: I'll take the under as well, if only because the Astros are still playing their B lineup and I think we'll see a lot of innings from the stellar Houston bullpen. Of course, Yordan Alvarez could hit six pop flies to right field at Yankee Stadium and end up with six home runs. Seriously, MOVE THE FENCES OUT AT THAT PARK. RIGHT FIELD IS A JOKE.
Who do you like Sunday night: Angels or Cardinals?
Matz: St. Louis has been on SNB three times this season, and has lost all three. But that was way back in the spring. As the old baseball adage goes, "The most dangerous team is the one that's lost three straight Sunday night games, especially when the game in question is the first Sunday night contest after the summer solstice." Or something like that. Sooooooo ... let's go with the Cards.
Miller: These feel like the two .500iest teams in baseball right now. I'll take the Angels for the matchup, since they've crushed righties this year. It'll be interesting to see the right-hander Miles Mikolas -- who rarely strikes anybody out -- face a lineup that strikes out less than any other team. I'm not sure which side that clash of styles favors.
Schoenfield: I want to pick the Angels because it's a rare national TV game for Mike Trout and I want to see him go 3-for-4 with two home runs, a walk, a stolen base and 57 autographs signed before the game.
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Each week, we ask our panelists to choose one hitter they think will hit the most home runs and one pitcher they think will record the most strikeouts in the coming weekend. Panelists can pick a player only once for the season. We'll keep a running tally -- and invite you to play along at home.
Home run hitters
Matz: Freddie Freeman
Miller: J.D. Martinez
Schoenfield: Pete Alonso. Nobody has picked Big Pete yet. Why do we hate the Mets?
Matz: Trevor Bauer
Miller: Chris Sale
Schoenfield: Cole Hamels