Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, April 14

Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another installment of the five things that most caught my eye in baseball over the past week. As I mentioned last time and will no doubt continue to mention long into the future, this column was inspired by Zach Lowe’s excellent weekly NBA column. To quickly recap, the idea here is that there are constantly tons of little, delightful things going on in baseball. They can’t all have a column of their own, but that doesn’t make them any less pleasing – or irksome. The following isn’t an exhaustive list; it’s merely a few things that I think you’ll enjoy.

1. One Pitch Knockouts
I discovered a new category of walk-off this week, and I can’t believe I’ve never recognized it before. Let’s set the stage: the Twins and White Sox took a 3-3 game into the bottom of the 10th inning. The White Sox had failed to score in the top of the inning, which put them in a dire situation. Willi Castro started the bottom of the 10th on second base, 180 feet away from ending the game. Jesse Scholtens, hardly Chicago’s best reliever, took the mound. Merely living to fight another inning felt like a long shot.

As it turns out, the Twins didn’t need a whole inning. They needed exactly one pitch:

The official game log had this to say: “Michael A. Taylor singles on a bunt groundball to third baseman Hanser Alberto. Willi Castro scores. Throwing error by third baseman Hanser Alberto.” A more succinct description: “Michael A. Taylor bunts, chaos ensues.”

That was a great spot to bunt, the best possible result, and also a downright hilarious way to end a 10-inning game. Baseball is all about the slow build. Sure, home runs are a quick jolt of offense, but most rallies feature hits, walks, and errors building on each other to a triumphant conclusion. Instead, this time the slow build was all about what happened between innings. Players jogged to their positions. Scholtens threw warmup pitches. Castro ran out to second base. Both broadcasts explained the finer points of extra-innings strategy. It was all supposed to be a buildup to an exciting duel, with high-stakes batter/pitcher confrontations stretched out over multiple at-bats and plenty of pitches. Instead, it ended right away, and with a bunt, and a baseball that hit Taylor in the head (he was fine):

Would I want every game to end on a bunt? Of course not. I wouldn’t want every extra innings game to end on the first pitch, either. But there’s something delightful about the inversion of form here that I want more of. Not with a bang, but not with a whimper either. The zombie runner might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes for some delightfully whimsical endings. The Twins didn’t care, though; they mobbed Taylor past first base. He looked appropriately sheepish, but hey, a win is a win:

2. How the Mets Roll
Baseball is a fair sport in the long run, but the long run can take a while to show up. There’s no rule that says your hard contact has to get rewarded; you can hit five screaming line drives in a row and have each one find a fielder’s glove. I’m not a major league hitter, but I imagine that one of the hardest parts of their job is keeping an even demeanor even when the game feels like it’s stacked against you.

Of course, that’s not the only way things can go. Sometimes you feel jinxed, and sometimes you’re the New York Mets this past Monday. In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Mets were nursing a two-run lead against the dangerous Padres when Mark Canha led off with a double. This is a bunt-friendly column, so you know what happened next: Luis Guillorme tried to bunt Canha over to third for a good shot at an insurance run. What you might not have guessed is that Guillorme bunted the ball perfectly:

“You couldn’t roll it out there any better” is an overused announcer trope. That implies that it would be easy to roll it out there. I’ve played bocce ball enough times to know that rolling the ball that far and with that slim of a margin for error is tremendously difficult. This ball had to walk a fine line to stay fair, and it juuuuuust got there:

Two batters later, things got sillier. Tomás Nido cued one off the end of his bat, and, well, you’ll just have to see this one:

I’m just gonna say it: you couldn’t roll it out there any better. It sat on the chalk! Poor Yu Darvish just shook his head ruefully; what other option did he have? Seriously, you need to see that one again:

Every base hit is a line drive in the next day’s box score, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to get a gift every once in a while. If you’re not convinced of how good that feels, just take a look at Nido and Tommy Pham in the aftermath:

Bonus Mets content: the broadcast remains as delightful as ever. Tune in for a random afternoon game, and you’re liable to hear sentences that have never previously been conceived of. “That was a snappy Tom – put that in your Bloody Mary,” said Keith Hernandez this Wednesday. He was talking about a David Robertson curveball, for the record.

3. Alek Manoah’s Non-Competitive Pitch Problem
If more pitchers were like Alek Manoah, baseball would be a lot more fun to watch. He works deep into starts, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and challenges hitters rather than nibbling. He went at least six innings in 25 of his 31 starts last year, a welcome throwback in a world increasingly populated by five-and-dive starters and one-inning reliever parades.

This year, Manoah hasn’t found his form. His strikeout and walk rates are both 15.9% — that’s far too many walks against not nearly enough strikeouts. He’s already had starts of 3.1 and 4.1 innings, each shorter than any start he made last year. He’s lost a little velocity, but that’s not the biggest problem here. No, the thing that’s most vexing Manoah is a troubling increase in non-competitive pitches.

Manoah’s game is built on efficiency, and part of that is not wasting pitches. Baseball Savant has a handy “waste” zone – it refers to pitches thrown so far away from the strike zone that they hardly ever draw swings (roughly 6% in each of the past five years). Every year, only about 9% of pitches fall into that non-competitive bucket. Last year, only 8.3% of Manoah’s pitches ended up in the “waste” zone. Pitchers almost never intend to throw it there; those are just the pitches where their mechanics betray them, and they either yank the ball or have it fall off their hands weirdly.

This year, Manoah’s mechanics have been betraying him a lot. In his second start of the season, he threw 16 waste pitches out of 98 total, a 16.3% mark. On Tuesday, he threw another 15 (16% of his 94 pitches). His fastball velocity was down in both starts, too: he bottomed out below 88 mph, and he’s averaging roughly 1 mph less this year than last.

In graphical form, it’s just as ugly. Here’s a good Manoah start from last year:

Here’s this Tuesday’s start:

It doesn’t take a data scientist to spot the problem. Manoah couldn’t land his slider, and he left a bundle of sinkers above the zone too. The AL East is going to be a grindhouse this year. The Rays have already pulled out to a sizable lead. If Toronto is going to chase them down, their ace needs to start repeating his delivery and stop giving batters free pitches.

4. Blind Tags and Ghost Tags
2023 is not a good year for fielders who like tagging out runners. The bases are bigger, which means it’s harder to find runners. Pickoff throws are limited, which means runners are getting better leads, and the pitch clock only exacerbates that problem. The end result is that a chance to tag a runner out, whether on a stolen base attempt or not, presents itself far less often than a year ago.

What’s a fielder to do? If you’re Brandon Crawford, you just get better at tagging. The Royals are aggressive on the basepaths, which is a mixed blessing: it means more chances to tag someone out but a lower likelihood of succeeding. A lower likelihood isn’t the same as no likelihood, however. When MJ Melendez tried to advance on a fly ball to center, Crawford wasn’t having it:

That’s just perfect. He had no time to execute a standard spin-and-find. He knew where Melendez was likely to be, and he could hear him; that would have to be enough. You need a firm grasp of your position to execute a tag like this:

And just for fun, one more angle of it:

Of course, not everyone has eyes in the back of their head. That doesn’t stop infielders from getting their tags in, though. Take this beauty, pointed out by a reader last week. Francisco Lindor did some tagging (and acting) without even having the ball to prevent Christian Yelich from getting a free base:

Tagging a guy after he’s safe in the hopes that he’ll come off the bag for an instant is no fun. Doing it without the ball so that he gets paranoid about getting tagged out and don’t advance, while the ball kicks around the outfield? Sheer genius.

You don’t have to be a Gold Glove shortstop to get in on the tagging party, either. Brendan Donovan is more notable for his positional versatility than his defensive value; he’s slightly below average at a wide array of defensive positions. That measures his range, sure hands, and arm, though. His imaginary tagging? It’s off the charts:

You can’t see it from that angle, but Nolan Gorman’s errant throw got all the way to the wall in left field. Yonathan Daza was sure he knew where the ball was, though: in Donovan’s glove. He jammed his finger slightly on the play, which might have helped distract him, but that canny fake tag saved a base either way.

Maybe I’m grading on too much of a curve, but I’m more impressed by Donovan’s wherewithal than by Lindor’s. I expect Lindor to make genius plays I hadn’t thought of and to look smooth while doing so. I picture Lindor mulling over his grocery list while he’s in the field; he seems to have everything under control to the point where he has time to think about other things. Donovan is more of a max-effort type. But in the world of effective fake tags, they’re both number one in my book.

5. Ezequiel Tovar’s Balletic Defense
Ezequiel Tovar’s transition to the major leagues is still a work in progress. He’s batting .209/.227/.302 so far, and didn’t take his first walk of the season until Wednesday. The power he intermittently showed in the minors has mostly disappeared. He swings too much. The road to positive offensive value looks tenuous.

The Rockies will likely give him time to develop that offense, though, because Tovar is a breathtaking defender. Here, watch him not turn a double play and still make it look like art:

You could hang that toe drag in the Louvre. The snap throw afterwards is audacious. You need to see this in slow motion to truly appreciate it:

Want him to range deep into the hole and come up with one? I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the throw, but I can say for certain that it’ll look pretty:

When he’s charging the ball, he sets his feet instinctively and fires with a stable platform from positions where most players couldn’t:

Tovar is hardly a finished product. In a thus-far minuscule sample, both DRS and OAA think he’s below-average defensively. As I already mentioned, his offense has a long way to go. But if you’re looking for some of the prettiest infield defense in baseball, don’t overlook Colorado. Tovar has the skills to be a highlight reel defender for years to come.

That brings us to the end of another installment of the five things that most caught my eye this week. Our sport is full of tiny, delightful, maddening moments like these, which is a big part of why I love it so much. Until next time, I hope you have as much fun watching baseball as the Rays do playing it:

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

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1 year ago

Brandon Crawford doesn’t need to look. He senses all living things.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

May the force be with him

1 year ago
Reply to  Daclubbies

He’s definitely stronger in the force than Yu Darvish, who was trying to pull that ball over the line with his mind and it didn’t work at all.