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I can’t — and won’t — quit Yu Chang

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Whatever mental imbalance has led to this, these damn former prospects are in my heart for good

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It takes a certain level of psychosis to continue to write every week about the same team. Obviously, we’re all fans of Cleveland here, but it can be a bit of a strain to maintain that … enthusiasm, I guess, without falling into a hole of bitterness. It becomes important to fixate on certain players, certain things, certain weird foibles that make up the grand tapestry that is Cleveland baseball. Watching the game is one thing — but we need to crush content here, you know?

Perhaps that’s the reason that, for some reason or other, there’s nothing I can do to avoid writing about a career .205 hitter that’s only even gotten 300 plate appearances in the majors. In case you couldn’t guess, that’s Yu Chang. Whatever it is, each week it passes through my brain to find something to talk about. It’s not easy either — Chang’s numbers from his 203 plate appearances this year aren’t good or anything, and this is his longest stretch of consistent play in the majors so far. There’s no reason to get excited about a .659 OPS from a mostly-first baseman, even in the deadball era. And yet, here we are, talking about him again.

Maybe it’s some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe it’s that old bastard, Hope, rearing its ugly head. Whatever it is, every couple days I find myself checking Chang’s stats again to see if there’s some kind of positive trend, some blip that suggests he’s starting to put it together. Those segments of a week, or 15 or 30 days, they’re like crack to me when they start to look good, and utterly ignored as too small a sample when he’s in a small slump. Why him? Who the hell knows. Either way, the fact remains that since July 1, he’s putting up an .840 OPS in 93 plate appearances, and if you normalized the counting stats over that span to 162 games we’re talking about a 30 home run season. This is something that’s just hard to look away from.

The caveat being, and it glares so brilliantly, it’s 93 plate appearances. Who cares about a run over basically a month and change of baseball, that’s also been stretched over two and a half? Some stats start to settle around the 70 PA mark, but they’re things like walk or strikeout rate. And I’m not all that enthused by Chang’s four walks over that stretch. Being able to draw a walk is where you generate offense when you’re in a slump, so when a guy is walking four or so percent of the time, you want some incredible level of power. Even then, it’s a hard sell. To consider a player that never walks and hits 30 homers a regular you count on. That’s basically Salvador Perez with worse contact rates.

It’s not only Chang, it’s the massive, tape measure home runs from Bradley Zimmer that we’ve gotten to see now and again this year. It leads to entirely too much of that “ooh, what if he could do that consistently’’ kind of thought, even in the midst of a rebuild. These are the prospects that we know though, the ones who four or five years ago we were hoping would turn into the stars of the future, that mythical pipeline of forever greatness. Chang is a neat case of someone who just dug up a bunch of power in the minors, blasting 23 homers in 2017 after not being considered more than a gap hitter in previous seasons, and climbing the prospect rankings. We’ve seen that kind of outburst turn into a quality player in the bigs, and we’ve also seen that be a total ruse that leads to betrayal and sadness.

On top of that Stockholm Syndrome, that dash of hope, of seeing these players time and again and wanting them to be good because we want it, maybe it’s a bit of just desperation. Which is, in a sense, the dark reflection of hope. Like, I don’t want Cleveand to cut bait on Zimmer or Chang and have them go elsewhere only to turn into what Jesus Aguilar or Yandy Diaz are now. Not to say either of them are superstars per se. Cleveland doesn’t seem like the kind of team to commit the kind of crime the White Sox did in trading Fernando Tatis Jr. for James Shields. Obvious talent usually finds its way to the big club.

It’s just that Diaz and Aguilar are the kind of players that are the quiet backbone of a title contender, as long as there are some actual stars on the team. Diaz is a perfect member of a wonderful Rays team, and Aguilar, well, he’s trapped in Miami. So seeing Chang post a few months of quality if intermittent play is unnerving in a way because what if it’s real? What if this is who he is, but because this is a rebuilding year and they’re kind of throwing at-bats at whoever is there and waiting for the blue-chippers to get their seasoning at Akron and Columbus, the front office isn’t going to notice? Come next spring training this is all going to fall in the trash and they’ll reassess based on whatever advanced metrics and peripherals they value, and chase what they think is the sure thing.

It takes time to develop, that’s the toughest part of all this. None of us have any damn patience these days. That’s why we’re going to see the Orioles trade away Cedric Mullins this offseason, because they don’t want to pay him soon and have his career arc be out of sync with whatever is supposed to be their contention window. Which, as a fan, sounds utterly absurd. He’s 26, and prior to this year was about as bad as Chang has been in his career. Shoot, he posted a -9 OPS+ in 2019 over 74 plate appearances. So what’s real, what he’s doing now, over 100 or so games, or that little twinkle of a stretch? And if that’s what it takes, just some consistency, then what do we do with Chang?

All we want here is talented players that can stick around for a while so we can get used to them, to actually appreciate the many little wrinkles of their game. Whether it’s something wrong with Cleveland’s development program for position players, or our own impatience, or just simply an explicit illustration of how hard baseball actually is, this is just a hard stretch. It would be so cool for Yu Chang — who also happens to be one of Bobby Bradley’s best friends — to figure it out and get real good. It would be so cool for Cleveland to just start printing hitters like it does pitchers. Maybe that’s for later. I’m just a sucker for a good run of hitting.