The latest Weekend Read dives into Tom Verducci's quarter-season notebook and unearths the story behind an epic Kawhi Leonard snapshot.
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The first quarter of the season has shown us where baseball is—and where it's headed: An epic MVP race in the making (who you got: Belli or Yeli?), an unprecedented collection of young talent (hello, Pete Alonso) and another signature season in the making by baseball's best player (see: Trout, Mike). Here's a brief rundown of what we've seen unfold so far this season. — By Tom Verducci
Belli and Yelli: A Cut Above the Rest in the NL
In a blow to Central Casting, the two most dynamic sluggers in the game are lean, long-levered lefthanders who are not supposed to be playing this role.
Cody Bellinger (6'4", 203) hit one home run during his senior year at Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz. "And it bounced off the top of the fence," he says.
He hit four home runs in his first two pro seasons. But under the tutelage of Dodgers minor league coaches, he underwent a major swing change in Class A in 2015 to generate more lift. It worked immediately. He smashed 30 home runs that year and debuted two years later in the bigs with 39. After a downturn last year that found him on the bench for three of the five World Series games, Bellinger and hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brown dived into video study to get his groove back. "We didn't look at anything from last year," Bellinger says. "It was all from 2017."
Bellinger, 23, returned to his 2017 setup—bat held flat rather than upright—and created a quicker path to the baseball. The results have been beastly. After hitting .206 on inside strikes last year, Bellinger is smashing .400 on those pitches this year. He leads the majors in hits, runs, RBIs and OBP.
The major league home run lead belongs to Christian Yelich (6'3", 195), whose 15 homers by the first week in May topped by two his output from his first two years. As Yelich, 27, filled out, became more aggressive and was traded before last season out of spacious Marlins Park to cozy Miller Park, his slugging soared. Beginning on July 21, 2018, Yelich crushed 41 homers in 97 games.
The guy is wearing out pitchers and Bernie Brewer, the mustachioed mascot who descends a corkscrew slide whenever a Brewer hits a homer at Miller Park. Of the first 20 fly balls Yelich hit at home this year, 14 of them left the yard.
An unparalleled collection of young stars is moving the game into a new era:
The players’ association has been concerned the past two offseasons about teams' lack of enthusiasm for veteran free agents. But this season continues to affirm why clubs are trusting young players more: They simply are better. We are looking at an unprecedented era in the history of baseball when it comes to production from young players. tOPS+ measures the adjusted OPS of an individual hitter or group of hitters relative to all others. A number greater than 100 indicates that a hitter performed better than the league.
Players 25 and under have posted a tOPS+ of 101 this year. This could be the first time in the game's history that U25 players were at 100 or better for four consecutive seasons.
In just the past two seasons, rookies such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Gleyber Torres, Shohei Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Víctor Robles and Nick Senzel have made an instant impact on the big leagues. This year, the six position players with the highest WAR are between 23 and 27 years old. Because of their youth and because half of them have signed extensions, none will be free agents for at least three years.
How baseball's best player is better than ever:
In six of his first seven full seasons, Mike Trout either won the MVP award or was the runner-up. The one time he didn't? He finished fourth. Believe it: The definitive top player in the game is, at 27, having the best season of his career. Thanks to a career-low rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone (16%), Trout has a league-leading 38 walks. At this rate, Trout is headed for 36 homers and 154 walks with 113 K's. Only three hitters have ever hit those thresholds: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Trout has struck out on a pitch outside the strike zone only three times this year, something he did 56 times last season.
• From towering playmakers to micro-sized lineup’s, Nellie’s fingerprints are all over the NBA playoffs. (By Chris Ballard)
• This week's cover story: Is this the Warriors’ last stand? Inside Golden State's basketball sunset. (By Rob Mahoney)
• Throwback: Listen to the second episode of our podcast series on the first-ever Women's World Cup. (By Grant Wahl)
• NBA Mock Draft: With the lottery in the books, we finally have the official order for June's NBA draft. (By Jeremy Woo)
• In his quarter-season report, Tom Verducci reveals the extreme and troubling direction baseball is heading. (By Tom Verducci)
• Texas Tech is the Alabama football of the collegiate meat judging world: “Their level of dominance is seldom seen in any athletic competition.” (By Mike Piellucci)
Photo of the Week: Kawhi's Stand-Still Moment
Kawhi Leonard's last-second dagger against the Sixers wasn't just the biggest basket a Raptor has ever made. It was also a new level of drama for the NBA: the first buzzer beater to end a Game 7. Hear below from Mark Blinch, one of many photographers who captured a snapshot of history that evening:
They inbound the ball, and it just all went really, really, really slow for me. Sometimes as a photographer you just know when a shot's not going in, but then it took this really odd bounce. It was the loudest I've ever heard our arena, ever. I chose to stay a little bit looser, so I could see more in the frame and show a little bit more of an atmosphere. When you're at a higher angle, it's a little bit easier to see everything than it would be on the floor. You just kind of point the lens at him and keep clicking as each moment happens. But when it hit the rim I had to tell myself to keep shooting. I'm glad I did. I'm not sure why he knelt down like that—I think maybe he couldn't see. The thing I like is you can see how everybody is looking at what's going on. What a Kawhi way to win.
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Michael Shapiro.
• Dell and Sonya Curry face a difficult decision in the Western Conference finals. The New York Times’ Marc Stein details their dual loyalties as Steph and Seth square off on the hardwood.
• The Jets remain one of the most dysfunctional franchises in sports, ESPN’s Rich Cimini explains.
• The Ringer’s Riley McAtee dives into the unexpected (an unnecessary) evil turn from Daenerys Targaryen in 'Game of Thrones’' penultimate episode.
• New Yorkers don’t appear to be excited about Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s run for President, according to Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller.
• The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner takes us on Jon Horst’s journey from trailer park superintendent to general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.
• There’s no need to Tiger-proof golf courses in 2019. The rest of the sport has caught up to Woods on the tee, writes FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine.
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.