Five Things I Liked (and Didn’t Like) This Week

Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

This won’t surprise you if you’re an NBA fan, but I love reading Zach Lowe’s 10 Things column every week. Lowe is a basketball writer for ESPN, and his column is packed with data-driven anecdotes that wouldn’t quite fill a column on their own but are interesting nonetheless. Somehow, it had never quite occurred to me to use that format in baseball, but it feels like a perfect fit.

It had never occurred to me, that is, until I tried to write about the first observation that you’ll see in this piece. I couldn’t turn it into an entire article, but I kept trying because I really wanted to write about it. There just wasn’t enough meat on the bone, but I didn’t want to leave it there. Then I started noticing other little things I wanted to highlight, and a lightbulb went off.

My plan is to start writing up five things that have caught my interest every Friday. There’s a lot of baseball in the world, which means a lot of interesting but bite-sized stories, ones that wouldn’t work on their own but are nonetheless too good to ignore. Without further ado, let’s get to liking (and, occasionally, not liking) things.

1. Oneil Cruz is So Dang Strong
I think that people fundamentally misunderstand the proposition that Oneil Cruz presents. He’s a so-so defensive shortstop with swing-and-miss issues and power, and all of us have mental heuristics for that kind of player. Think Paul DeJong, perhaps, or maybe a toned-down Javier Báez. Heck, think Josh Rojas masquerading at short. We already know how that kind of production plays; with good enough defense, à la Dansby Swanson, you can be an elite player, but the bar is high. And that’s if Cruz cuts down on his strikeouts. There are real reasons for concern here.

But Cruz isn’t just a shortstop with power and contact issues. His power is not like other people’s power. If he can strike out 26% of the time – even 30% of the time, really – he’ll be an outstanding hitter. This isn’t Willy Adames power, it’s Aaron Judge’s body swapped into a shortstop power. Cruz’s bat speed, generated by arms the length of most people’s legs, means that he doesn’t need to make perfect contact to do damage.

Want an example? Watch him hitting a double that not many other players in baseball could even conceive of:

That’s not the way you’d prefer to make contact with a breaking ball. He hit it low and late, and didn’t exactly square it up. It still exploded off his bat at 100 mph and ripped past Masataka Yoshida to the wall for extra bases.

It’s not hard to picture a hard-hit line drive the other way, but this isn’t that picture. You’re probably thinking of Freddie Freeman doing what he does best and spraying a line drive into the gap. This pitch is hit with the same exit velocity and at the same angle, but it’s a purposeful swing designed to go the other way rather than what almost looked like a slap hit:

Cruz is getting to Freeman-like power while falling off the ball. That’s what he does when he’s slightly off. Imagine what might happen when he gets into one. Or don’t imagine. You can just look at the leaderboards; he’s right up there with Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as the most powerful player in baseball. If his recent improvements in plate discipline are real, Cruz is going to be one of the biggest stories of the season, pun intended. You’ve never seen a shortstop like this. He’s going to shatter hard-hit records and put up ludicrous production on contact. So long as he can make contact, this should be a great year for Cruz.

Bonus neat thing: there’s a new sign above the center field scoreboard at Fenway that lights up with balls and strikes in a way I haven’t really seen before. Great advertising for Mass Mutual and a neat sign, and I learned about it during Cruz’s at-bat:

2. Tim Locastro’s Dangling Limbs
Tim Locastro is a man of specific talents. He’s one of the most efficient basestealers in history, with a career 89% success rate. He boasts blazing speed, which makes him a useful defensive replacement. Both of those skills involve substituting him into the game when he can make the biggest impact, but he has a backup skill when he appears at the plate: he gets hit by a ludicrous number of pitches.

So far this year, Locastro has four plate appearances. He’s been hit by a pitch three times. That rate is obviously unsustainable, but make no mistake: Locastro is doing it on purpose. Players try to bend the rules and take HBPs without truly attempting to get out of the way all the time. He’s simply taken that up several notches, to the point where it feels exploitative. This is not a genuine attempt to get out of the way of a pitch:

If you watch closely, he’s actually leaning towards that pitch, rather than merely failing to get out of the way. Standing away from the plate might give pitchers a false sense of room off the inside corner, but if you throw something inside at all to Locastro, he’ll be hunting for it with his elbow.

Want another example? Here’s his first HBP of the season, from the day before the one above. This time, he nearly made it to the strike zone with that protruding elbow pad:

The last pitch was at least in a place where batters sometimes get hit. This one was practically over the plate. That pitch was only 10.2 inches to the righty batter’s box side of dead center. The plate extends 8.75 inches, and the ball is 2.8 inches in diameter. In other words, a pitch 10.15 inches inside would dot the inside corner. Exactly one HBP all of last year came on a pitch closer to the plate (by Locastro’s teammate and fellow HBP-hunter Mark Canha, in case you’re curious). I love watching Jacob Stallings throw his hand up in the air dismissively. What were the Marlins supposed to do there other than complain?

Locastro was working hard to get hit in this at-bat. He almost leaned into a strike on 0-2, and I think the proximity to his elbow kept that pitch from being called a strike:

He was nowhere near trying to get out of the way of these. The Mets broadcast captured a great slow motion shot of how he moves most of his body out of the way to sell it while diving his elbow into harm’s way:

Locastro is a fun player. His basestealing prowess is worth coming out to the park to see. But this hit by pitch farce ruins the fun. Sorry, Bailey: Locastro can’t be my favorite weird player if he keeps doing this.

3. A Beautiful Infield Deke
Let’s go back to that Pirates-Red Sox game and give the Red Sox some plaudits as well. The Pirates scored a ton of runs that day, but the Sox showed off some fancy fielding that gets lost in the box score. With Canaan Smith-Njigba on first base and one out in the fifth inning, Jack Suwinski flied out to right field. Uneventful – except that Smith-Njigba got thrown out by about 90 feet for a double play:

What happened? The Red Sox infield pulled off a marvelous deke, is what happened. Enrique Hernández was manning shortstop and saw Smith-Njigba take off for second on a steal attempt. He was already headed for second to cover the bag, and when Suwinski put the ball in the air, he saw an opportunity:

That only works against a runner who’s stealing and therefore doesn’t have time to peek back at the plate to see what’s happening, and it only works if you sell it right away. You can see a more normal infield reaction from second baseman Christian Arroyo. He starts to back up for the fly ball, then realizes that Hernández is running a play and that he should participate. Then he points up, though I’m not exactly sure why; an instinctive reaction, but the outfielders knew where that one was already. The natural reaction is to do something like Arroyo, in other words, which would have tipped Smith-Njigba off.

This play mostly won’t work, but it was a perfect fake at a perfect time. Smith-Njigba badly wanted to beat that double play turn, and he had a great jump, so he went into second base head-first when he saw the pivot man setting up. If he’d gotten a worse jump, he likely would have pulled up short and saved himself an out. The combination of a heads up play from Hernández and just the right jump at just the wrong time resulted in the easiest outfield assist Alex Verdugo will ever record:

4. Dylan Cease’s Masterful, Disasterful Command
Dylan Cease’s slider might be the best single pitch in baseball. It gets great results whether you’re looking for chase rate, whiff rate, or production on contact. That’s impressive on its own, and it gets more impressive when you consider that he throws it nearly half the time. Batters come to the plate knowing they’ll face that slider early and often. They can sit on it if they’d like; he’s hardly going to get through an at-bat without using it. But even knowing that, they come up empty, because the pitch is just that good.

The movement and velocity are excellent on their own. Stuff+ rated it as the fourth-best slider in baseball by pure stuff last year; PitchingBot had it second, behind only Shohei Ohtani’s. It’s even more devastating than that, though, because Cease can manipulate it all over the plate. He’s also great at repeating his delivery, perhaps because he spends so much time thinking about the slider that he writes poems about it.

That doesn’t always work out in Cease’s favor. Feast your eyes on this impressive accomplishment in pitch repetition that did him no good at all. On his first pitch to LaMonte Wade Jr., Cease put his slider in a great spot, starting it over the plate only for it to dart out of the zone at the last minute. Wade was bluffing a bunt and managed to pull back, however:

Great pitch, bad result, but that happens all the time with sliders. Some of the best ones are located off the plate, and hitters never chase 100% of the time. On 1-0, Cease went back to the well:

That location was, again, pristine. It’s as close to being a strike as you can get without being a strike the whole way, which is basically what you’re looking for with a slider. At least, it’s what you’re looking for if the batter might chase. Wade looked like he had made up his mind to take before the pitch was even thrown.

On 2-0, you guessed it, Cease threw a slider. Yet again, he put it in a great chase location, starting it over the plate and running it to the exact same down-and-in spot:

Again, Wade didn’t take the bait. Cease had the ball on a string in this at-bat. He threw the same slider three times in a row, the kind of slider that catapulted him to a career year in 2022 and shows no signs of slowing down. Hey, that’s baseball. Sometimes you do your job really well and it hurts you.

But don’t feel too bad for Cease. This repeating-sliders trick works out for him plenty of times. Earlier in this game, he threw David Villar four straight sliders starting from 0-2, with the fourth resulting in a swinging strikeout. Even better, he pulled off the same trick against Jake Meyers on Opening Day, with Meyers executing Wade’s stand-still-and-pray tactic. It worked out better for Cease that time:

5. Jacob deGrom Rises to the Occasion
Wednesday’s matchup between Jacob deGrom and Grayson Rodriguez was delightful in many ways. Pitchers as hyped as Rodriguez don’t debut very often, because not many pitchers are as hyped as Rodriguez. Doing it against one of the best pitchers of the 21st century kicked the intrigue up a notch. Both hurlers performed well, and we even got a vintage finish from deGrom.

After throwing four perfect innings, deGrom stumbled in the fifth, allowing two runs (one earned) to make the score 2-2. Adam Frazier, hardly a fearsome presence at the plate, delivered the game-tying RBI. After looking mortal in his first start, deGrom looked to be in danger of breaking down again. Even worse, Adley Rutschman led off the next inning by working a walk, with none of the four balls particularly close to the zone.

That brought Anthony Santander to the plate, and then deGrom went to work. He pulled out a rare curveball to start, and Santander swung at it like a man who has been seeing 99 mph fastballs and 92 mph sliders all day:

After a yanked pitch to bring the count to 1-1, deGrom started bearing down on the bottom of the zone:

After missing again to bring the count to 2-2, he went back down again, but Santander was up to the challenge:

This was a heck of an at-bat by Santander, and he managed to work the count to 3-2 after taking a fastball just off the plate inside. Fine; it was time for deGrom’s bread and butter, the high cheese. This is just a perfect pitch:

Great location, classic rising movement, and you can see why Santander swung at what could have been ball four. How often do you face 99 mph with that much movement, placed so precisely? There’s a reason deGrom has made a living off of his fastball/slider combination. The Rutschman caught stealing was merely icing on the cake.

From there, it was time to step on the accelerator and take things home, and Ryan Mountcastle had the misfortune of standing in his way. It didn’t take long:

When deGrom is at his best, he doesn’t need to dig deep to stay in control. For most of this game, that’s exactly what was happening; he simply lorded over Baltimore hitters for four innings. When his back is against the wall, though, is when I like watching deGrom the most. He rose to the occasion, the same way he always seemed to in New York, and provided a must-see capper to a delightful pitching duel.

That’s all I’ve got for this week, but I’m planning on plenty more of these to follow. There are so many delightful moments happening all the time that I spend a lot of evenings breathlessly talking about the nuances of the game to anyone around me who will listen. Hopefully, those minutiae will translate well in this space.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

I love Zach Lowe’s 10 Things column too and am excited to read this.

1 year ago
Reply to  iamlee13

This is an amazing feature. Ben, please keep writing this.