Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) As the Regular Season Wrapped Up

J.P. Crawford
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The end of the regular season is always bittersweet for me. On one hand, playoff baseball is one of my favorite times of year. Taking the leisurely pace of the game and injecting it with win-or-go-home drama makes for great viewing. Who could forget last year’s rally goose, or Bryce Harper’s monster NLCS-deciding homer? Who could forget the Astros winning one for Dusty?

But there’s no more regular-season baseball to watch, and that’s also something I love. No-drama afternoons, sixth innings where your team is down five and the announcers are looking for something to talk about — that’s the regular rhythm of my summer, and it’ll be weird to move on without it. So to ease the transition from one style of baseball to another, I gathered a few whimsical things and a few high-drama things and combined them into one, well, Five Things.

1. Duck!
Catchers making interesting throws, whether wayward or sublime, are a frequent feature in this column. A lot of fun and wacky baseball plays start when baserunners get hopped up on sugar and try to take liberties on the stolen base front. Sometimes that leads to awesome caught stealings, and sometimes it leads to balls bouncing into center field or off of someone’s leg, but a catcher throwing to a base after receiving a pitch almost always means something exciting is happening.

What about a catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher, though? That’s less exciting. I was watching a Nationals game earlier this year where the catcher short-hopped his pitcher during between-innings warmups, and I can’t really think of any other time one of those throws has stuck with me. The last one I can remember vividly is that time Russell Martin threw the ball off of Shin-Soo Choo’s bat in the 2015 playoffs.

That strange ricochet was part of one of the most memorable playoff games of the 21st century. It ended with a bat flip so epic that the teams brawled about it the next year. The off-the-bat throw was wild, and even then I’m not sure I would’ve remembered it if it weren’t part of such a great game.

Let me back up for a minute; that was the last one I could remember, until Willson Contreras did something funnier and less consequential. The Cardinals were already down and out for the season, and the Phillies were ahead 4–2 in the top of the fourth. Then — well, I’ll just show you:

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, throw directly into the helmet. Now that I saw it, I feel like it should happen more often. Contreras has an extremely low arm slot when he throws the ball back to the mound; lots of catchers do, in fact. Bryson Stott wasn’t leaning over particularly far; his feet were still clearly in the batter’s box, and he wasn’t leaning over the plate when he got clonked:

If I were Stott, I would have been beside myself. Sports are dangerous enough without somebody launching a ball into your noggin from point-blank range. Sure, it wasn’t a full speed throw, but that doesn’t somehow stop it from being painful. It’s almost all of the downside of getting hit by a pitch with none of the upside.

Stott didn’t seem to mind it, or at least he thought the whole situation was pretty funny:

That’s a magnanimous response. It’s even more impressive because his first instinct wasn’t anger, or even surprise. He just looked annoyed:

Ultimately, this was a low-stakes moment in a low-stakes game. The ball delivered a glancing blow. Stott was unharmed; he took a walk a few pitches later, so the result wasn’t all that dissimilar from a hit by pitch. No one is going to remember this play in a year. But it made me giggle when I saw it when reviewing all these Apple TV+ games, and giggling when watching baseball is one of my favorite parts of the regular-season game, so it’s a perfect fit for this list.

2. Randy Cheats Death
It’s no secret that I love watching Randy Arozarena run the bases. He’s chaos incarnate when he sets his mind to it. He’s fast and has great instincts. He’s always looking to take an extra base or put pressure on defenders to make good throws. In 2022, that led to a ton of outs on the basepaths. He was worth four runs below average per UBR, our non-steals baserunning stat, which is pretty awful for a guy with his speed. He was just too aggressive, essentially.

This year, he’s up to +2.5 in that same statistic. Has he done it by curbing his aggression? Uh, not exactly. He’s taking extra bases at a 46% clip, not particularly dissimilar from last year’s 49% mark. He’s simply made a lot fewer mistakes; he got thrown out 13 times excluding stolen base attempts last year, and he’s only gotten nabbed four times this year. The difference? He’s just been better.

Let’s put it this way: Arozarena can make an adventure out of anything. Here he is hitting a single a few weeks ago:

I know what you’re thinking: I must have grabbed the wrong clip. There’s no chance for any interesting baserunning here. The timing doesn’t work. Aaron Hicks got to that ball right away, and you can tell from the throw that there isn’t going to be a play at second. That’s a garden variety cutoff throw, conceding third base to keep the runner from advancing behind. But Arozarena still managed to make things exciting:

There’s just so much to love here. Imagine how many steps he would have been out by if he’d tried for second. Hicks lollipopped that throw in there, and yet Arozarena was only halfway to second when he jammed on the brakes. That was beyond an aggressive turn; it was aspirational. “Maybe something awful will happen in the outfield,” that turn says.

I love the little deke toward second, too. It’s a completely unbelievable bluff. If Adam Frazier had thrown to first and Arozarena had bolted for second at that exact instant, he still would have been out easily on the return throw. The ball travels faster than a human, after all, and he was flat-footed and closer to first than second:

But it still caught Frazier off guard, because he’s probably never been in this exact situation before. A runner breaking toward you in a rundown is one thing, but the geometry is all wrong here. He did the thing he’s surely been drilled to do in similar but not identical situations: hold the ball. That’s good fundamental baseball; if the guy’s coming toward you, don’t let go, because you’re between him and the base.

Only he obviously wasn’t coming toward second. Frazier’s unconscious mind betrayed him. A split-second later, his brain caught up: throw the ball to first, and hurry! To make matters worse, he had to double clutch when he went to throw it, and that moment of hesitation got Arozarena two steps closer to the bag, more than making up for the stutter step that slowed his momentum. That made Frazier’s throw much harder, and he left it much too far to Ryan O’Hearn’s backhand side, away from the runner. In all, Arozarena’s audacious bluff gained him enough precious feet that there was a close play at the bag, which looked quite unlikely when he jammed on the brakes.

It still wasn’t that close. O’Hearn caught the ball with plenty of time to make a tag even after gathering in the throw. But it’s only an out if you actually touch them, and something tells me Arozarena was pretty good at tag:

“Ben, wasn’t he outside the base path?” No he wasn’t, unless I’m misunderstanding the rule. His right arm and hand missed first base by around a foot. He actually took a fairly direct route to the bag with his upper body. His lower body was a different story; he let momentum carry it wide. If you focus on his right leg, you can even see that he purposefully pulls it toward foul territory and away from O’Hearn’s trailing glove, all the while reaching toward first with his right hand thanks to the assistance of a left hand push. That’s not something you can plan for; he’s just intuitively great in small spaces.

It wouldn’t be a Randy Arozarena play, though, without a little comic relief at the end. The way he calls for time and the outstretched hand — help me out, I’m tired! — are both just perfect:

To answer my question from way up above, Arozarena didn’t get better at baserunning by reining in his aggression. He’s just been better at getting away with it this year.

3. Rain Games
The weather in New York this week mirrored the Mets’ season: miserable and unrelenting. That didn’t matter, for the Mets and Yankees, at least. Both of their seasons have been over for quite a while now, in practice if not technically. But when the Marlins came to town, that all changed. On Tuesday afternoon, they had a scheduled clash with the Mets. Just one problem: it got rained out.

Well, maybe rained out is the wrong term. Miraculously, there was a gap in the rain that would have allowed a game to get finished. Just one problem: the field was soaked through and completely unplayable. The league postponed the game and announced a doubleheader for the next day.

For the Marlins, this was terrible news. They’re operating with a four-man rotation that’s missing their top two starters, Sandy Alcantara and Eury Pérez. That already made for some tough decisions: the team was scheduled for six games in six days, which meant throwing in a bullpen game somewhere. Six games in five days? You can do the math. Adding to their furor, the field problems were reportedly caused by an error that happened days earlier. Rain soaked the field on Saturday when the Mets were out of town, and the field was left uncovered, and then four straight days of downpour gave it no chance to dry out.

I can see why that would be frustrating for the Marlins. An unplayable field seems more like a minor league issue; witness Memphis earlier this season. There was clearly no ill intent on New York’s side; I love a devious plan as much as the next person, but leaving tarps unused on Saturday to mess with a different team’s rotation on Tuesday is a bridge too far even for me. But regardless, the Marlins were simmering with anger, both at the Mets and the weather.

That’s how you end up with this happening:

That’s Marlins manager Skip Schumaker working with the Mets grounds crew. Well, “working with” might not be the right way to put it; that’s Schumaker grabbing a corner of the tarp and then subsequently getting into it with the crew, the Mets, and the umpires:

This is from Thursday night’s game, when the Marlins rallied for two runs in the ninth to turn a 1–0 deficit into a 2–1 lead. The rain was already coming down hard, and after the Marlins scored, the umpires called for a rain delay that ended up lasting more than three hours. Eventually, the game was suspended, which left the Marlins facing a potential trip back to New York on Monday.

That’s just the weather, right? Why was Schumaker so upset with the grounds crew? Well, there was the previous incident with the field, but even Mets manager Buck Showalter was confused. “We had two or three potential start times,” he told reporters after the game. “[The weather] would open and we would go quick and pull the tarp, but underneath is wet, too.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this all came to nothing. The Marlins clinched their spot in the playoffs on Saturday, and the league subsequently canceled this game that felt so important at the time. When you’re living and dying with every game, little annoyances like this get magnified. It’s one thing when you don’t play your best, or when someone else is just better. But some outside force like this? It’s enough to bring the pettiness out of anyone, and low-stakes pettiness is just one of many things I love about the regular season.

4. Heroism in Defeat
The Mariners aren’t going to the playoffs this year. After snapping their historic drought in 2022, this one stings less, but it will still go down in franchise history as a tough pill to swallow. They held the division lead, either outright or in a tie, for huge swaths of September, but a 1–6 stretch against the Rangers and Astros last week vaulted both of those teams past them for good.

To dig out of that hole, they would have needed something truly magical: a four-game sweep of the Rangers to close the season, plus a little help elsewhere. They nearly got it, courtesy of J.P. Crawford putting the team on his back. First, he rescued victory from the jaws of defeat. Seattle loaded the bases with no one out in the ninth inning, trailing by a single run. But Jonathan Hernández got two pop outs to wriggle his way from improbable escape to odds-on favorite. Then Crawford flipped the script:

Before the year, Crawford was on the metaphorical hot seat; plenty of Mariners fans advocated for the team to add a shortstop in free agency and shuffle Crawford either to second base or out of town. He responded with by far the best season of his career, outperforming the guys who were his presumptive replacements. He’s also playing his best in the biggest spots.

Oh, right, the biggest spots? The next day, he added a game-breaking grand slam:

It wasn’t enough. That down stretch doomed the Mariners in the end. The Rangers managed to eke out a single win in the series, and that was enough to hold onto their lead. In fact, the Rangers in particular foiled the Mariners all year, something that wasn’t lost on Cal Raleigh. “We’ve done a great job of growing some players here and within the farm system, but sometimes you’ve got to go out and you have to buy,” he told Ryan Divish after the team was eliminated. Crawford backed Raleigh the next day: “I think Cal made some great comments yesterday…. and I’m with him on that. I think we need to go out there and really make a move to help this team win,” he told Divish. It’s hard to feel differently after Texas splashed out big in free agency for two years running and used its newfound stars to eke by Seattle.

In the end, even a sweep wouldn’t have done it. The Astros blitzed Arizona to end the season at 90 wins and take the AL West on tiebreakers; even a Mariners sweep would only have gotten them to 89 wins, and the Rangers would have won a tiebreaker against them for the final playoff spot thanks to their earlier dominance against Seattle. But don’t put that on Crawford’s shoulders; he was remarkable this year, right through the end. The price of baseball is just going up in the AL West, and despite Crawford’s best efforts, the Mariners weren’t quite up to it.

5. C’mon, Blue
I made it all the way through the season without complaining about umpiring in this column. That was intentional; no one wants to see a column about the alternately charming and maddening idiosyncrasies of baseball players ruined by an Angel Hernandez GIF or whatnot. But in this one instance, I’m making an exception. This absolutely cannot happen:

That’s home plate umpire Shane Livensparger ejecting Joey Votto for arguing balls and strikes. Votto’s contract with the Reds expires after this year, and there’s a good chance that he’ll retire. The team missed the playoffs by a whisker, which means this might be his last game. The team and the stadium knew it; the Reds plugged Votto into the three spot in the lineup for the first time in years, and Cardinals fans gave him a round of applause as he came to the plate for his first, and ultimately last, at-bat of the game. Livensparger seemed to be the only person who didn’t get it.

I don’t know what Votto said. Quite frankly, I don’t care what Votto said. The game was meaningless; the Cardinals used Adam Wainwright as a pinch-hitter, and pitcher Alan Busenitz threw him five fastballs in a row. That should give you an idea of how seriously each side was taking this one. No one will remember the outcome of the game, or certainly the outcome of a first-inning plate appearance.

The worst part, from my perspective? Votto was pretty clearly right:

I understand that umpires live by some ejection code passed down on stone tablets by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, or something like that. There are things you can do and things you can’t. They don’t have to make sense; those are the rules, and everyone in the majors has to abide by them whether they like it or not. In a lot of ways, it’s like the strike zone.

But if umpires are trying to make the case that they shouldn’t be replaced by robots, “humans understand context” is one of the best arguments. The context here was everything. If this were a mid-season game, no one would think anything of it. We get it; Votto offended Livensparger in some way, and Livensparger exercised his right to toss Votto for it. I might not like these kinds of ejections, but I’m willing to accept that they help to keep the peace. The last game of Votto’s career? A game with no impact on season-ending standings? Have a little compassion.

I’m having a hard time imagining a situation that would lead to me ejecting Votto if I were umpiring. It would probably involve bodily harm, or perhaps some kind of long disruption that left everyone else more or less unable to play. Arguing balls and strikes? That’s nowhere near the line for me. Show a little understanding; I could probably program a robot umpire to give Votto a little more latitude in his last game, and heck, the robot ump wouldn’t have missed the call in the first place. At least Votto had a little fun with it:

And, of course, he had a thoughtful answer after the game:

He always does. There are a million things I love about watching Votto. I just wish I’d gotten to see three or four more plate appearances worth of him.

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

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6 months ago

Baseball is better with Joey Votto in it. I hope he takes a tv analyst job when he’s done playing.

6 months ago
Reply to  edwinblume

…or a job grading umpires

6 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Honestly, he should become an umpire and rub it into all their faces that he’s better at their jobs than they could ever hope to be.

6 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Sure, skill, training and experience has nothing to do with it. He’s just better because he’s a star player? Hope this was said sarcastically.

Adam Smember
6 months ago
Reply to  vbjd1111

If training and experience make umpires better explain why <insert name of terrible umpire> never got better over their career and arguably got worse. In fact name one ump ever who used to be poorly regarded but is now well respected for having worked to get better.

6 months ago
Reply to  edwinblume

I would vote for him for president if he ran in 2024. I don’t care that he is Canadian.

6 months ago
Reply to  jsdspud

Joey Votto For President/God

6 months ago

That is terribly sacrilegious, and I think Votto would agree with me, considering he is a practicing Roman Catholic.