Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, April 5

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the triumphant return of Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, the longest-named column in baseball. Rogers Hornsby famously stared out his window all winter waiting for baseball to return. I can’t claim to have done the same, but I’m still overjoyed it’s back, and what better way to celebrate than by talking about some weird and delightful things that caught my eye while I soaked in baseball’s opening week? As always, this column is inspired by Zach Lowe’s basketball column of a similar name, which I read religiously.

1. Non-Elite Defenders Making Elite Defensive Plays
Great defenders make great plays. I’m sure you can picture Nolan Arenado making a do-or-die barehanded throw or Kevin Kiermaier tracking down a line drive at a full sprint. That’s why those guys are such storied defenders; they make the exceptional seem expected. There are plenty of other players in baseball, though, and many of them make the exceptional seem, well, exceptional. When someone you wouldn’t expect turns in a web gem, it feels all the better, and this week had a ton of them.

There’s the Juan Soto throw, of course:

That was brilliant, and it came at the perfect time. Plenty has already been written about it, but that doesn’t make it less impressive. Soto is at best an average outfielder and likely worse than that, and his arm is one of the weaker parts of his game. But he’s capable of brilliance out there from time to time, particularly when accuracy matters, and this one delivered.

But there were so many more! How about Brett Baty doing his best Arenado (or Ke’Bryan Hayes, shout out to the real best third base defender) impression on a tough grounder:

That’s phenomenal work. The combination of a weakly hit ball and fast runner meant that Baty had to make every instant count. Any wasted movement on a gather or pivot would’ve made Matt Vierling safe. This wasn’t your normal plant your feet and make a strong throw kind of out; Baty was either going to fire off balance or eat the ball. Check out his footwork, courtesy of the always-excellent SNY camera crew:

That throw came against his momentum and with his left leg completely airborne. As an added bonus, fellow lightly regarded defender Pete Alonso received the throw perfectly. Baty was a top prospect because of his hitting. If he keeps making plays like this, we might have to tear up that old scouting report.

Speaking of prospects who aren’t known for their fielding, Jordan Walker was one of the worst outfield defenders in baseball last year – understandable for a 21-year-old learning a new position in the major leagues. He’s fast and has a powerful throwing arm, so the building blocks are there, but the numbers don’t lie: He was out of his element in the outfield.

Maybe this year is different, though:

Simply put, that’s a great play. Jackson Merrill’s liner was headed toward the gap, which meant that Walker had to come in almost perpendicular to the ball to make a play. A bad step early in the route likely would’ve left him high and dry. But he got it right and turned a double into an out.

These guys won’t always make the right plays. In fact, they often won’t. That only makes it more fun when they nail it. Even bad major league defenders are capable of brilliance. Stars – they’re absolutely nothing like us!

2. Location, Location, Location
Pop ups are death for hitters. Infield pop ups are particularly so. Every other type of hit has some chance of finding a hole, but the combination of short distance and long hangtime mean that if you hit the ball straight up and it doesn’t go far, you’re going to be out. Batters hit .006/.006/.006 on infield fly balls from 2021 through 2023 – 12,583 pop ups led to 74 hits. You generally need some wild wind, a collision, or perhaps an overzealous pitcher trying to field for himself to have any shot at a hit. Mostly, though, it just turns into an out.

So far, 2024 has had other ideas. In the first five days of games, two infield pop ups turned into singles. One even turned into a double. It’s silly season for bad contact, in other words. It all started with Eddie Rosario:

That’s one of the hardest-hit infield pop ups of the year, one of only two hit at 95 mph or harder. That meant that the Reds had all day to camp under it, but unfortunately for them, it was a windy day in Cincinnati on Saturday. Gameday reported 17 mph winds from right to left, and you can see Santiago Espinal and Christian Encarnacion-Strand struggle to track the ball. If your infield pop up is going to drop, that’s a common way for it to happen.

Another unlikely but possible option is to hit the ball extremely softly, as Matt Carpenter demonstrated on April Fool’s Day:

That was a pop up, but it didn’t go very far up. With the infield playing at medium depth and Graham Pauley guarding third base after an earlier bunt single (yeah, Carpenter had quite a day), there was just no time to get to it. Maybe Matt Waldron could have made a play, but pitchers generally stay out of the way on balls like those for good reason. Even then, it would have required going over the mound and making a running basket catch. Sometimes, your pop ups just land in the exact right spot.

But wait, there’s one more. This one was a real doozy by René Pinto, also on April 1:

This one is the last pop up hit archetype: a Trop ball. There’s no wind in Tampa Bay’s domed stadium, but there is a blindingly white roof. White, conveniently enough, is the color of a baseball. So when you really sky one, as the Rays catcher did here, things can get dicey.

How easy of a play was this? In some ways, it was phenomenally easy. After all, five different fielders had time to converge on the ball, and Corey Seager easily could have made it there if he weren’t covering third. That ball hung in the air for more than six seconds, plenty of time for everyone to judge it. It didn’t carry very far, and there was no pitcher’s mound to stumble on.

Leaguewide, hits like this are the least likely of any pop up to land. Even at the Trop, batters are hitting only .011/.011/.011 on them in the Statcast era. But in other ways, it’s not a probability but a binary. This was Jonah Heim’s ball, but he just plain couldn’t see it:

From there, it was academic. And the Rangers’ diligence in heading for the ball meant that no one was covering second, so Pinto got to jog an extra 90 feet with no one stopping him. That might be the slowest home to first time on an in-play double that I’ve ever seen. That screenshot up above was only a few seconds before the ball landed, and Pinto was still near home plate.

In the long run, these things will even out. Most infield fly balls get caught. But sometimes things get really weird – and weirdness can be sublime. Naturally, Yandy Díaz smoked the next pitch for a 331-foot frozen rope – and made the last out of the game. What a sport.

3. Oneil Cruz Is Chaotic, and Good
I watched Saturday’s Pirates-Marlins tilt closely to write about Jared Jones, but my eyes kept straying. Catch a Pittsburgh game, and I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same way. Oneil Cruz isn’t always the best player on the field. Sometimes, in fact, he’s a hindrance for Pittsburgh’s chances. But one thing you can never say is that he’s boring.

When Cruz is on the basepaths, his speed means trouble. For who? It’s not always clear, because he’s aggressive to a fault. When he’s on third base and the ball is hit on the ground, you better believe he’s going home:

I think that was a good decision, but it’s close. A perfect throw from Josh Bell probably gets him there; Bell had already thrown out Michael A. Taylor at the plate on a similar play earlier in the game, for example. But the throw wasn’t quite perfect, and Christian Bethancourt couldn’t corral it anyway. Cruz would have been safe even if Bethancourt caught it cleanly, but the ball rolled to the backstop to bring in another run.

In the long run, pressure like that tends to pay off, at least in my opinion. Taylor would have been out at first if Cruz didn’t go for it, and the difference between second and third with two outs (Cruz stays) and first and third with two outs (Cruz tries for home and makes an out) isn’t particularly huge. Sure, it’s a chaotic play, but it’s a positive for the Pirates.

Cruz’s defense is a work in progress, but no one can doubt his tools. Sometimes he’ll make a mess of a play that should be easy:

I’m not in love with his decision to stay back on that ball, but Jesús Sánchez is slow enough that it all should have worked out anyway. But staying back meant Cruz had to crow hop and fire a laser to first. He has a huge arm, but it’s not the most accurate, as you can see here. A different setup would have made that play far easier.

On the other hand, sometimes he’ll make a mess out of a play, only to recover because of that cannon arm. This is definitely not how Tom Emanski would teach it:

Cruz handcuffed himself on the initial attempt; instead of being able to make a clean backhanded pick, he got stuck with the ball coming straight at him and flubbed the scoop. For most players, that would be the end of the play, even with a catcher running. But Cruz has a get out of jail free card: He can pick the ball up barehanded and then unleash havoc. The NL Central has a ton of big shortstop arms: Masyn Winn set the tracked record for an infield assist at the Futures Game last summer, and Elly De La Cruz is no slouch. But Cruz might have them both beat when he can set his feet and get into one. Even flat-footed, that throw got on Connor Joe in a hurry.

This game had a ton of Cruz action; not every Pirates game is like that. I watched Monday’s Pirates-Nats tilt hoping for an encore, but Cruz held onto a ball rather than attempt to turn an outrageous double play and was restrained on the basepaths. At the plate, he’s striking out so much that hard contact is barely keeping him on the right side of a 100 wRC+. His trajectory in the majors is still extremely uncertain. Still, I’m going to keep tuning in and hoping for some excitement. You never know what will happen next when Cruz is on the field.

4. The White Sox Get Feisty
It’s going to be a rough season on the south side. The White Sox are a bad team, they don’t have any obvious reinforcements in sight, and they got swept in the season-opening series against the Tigers. The Braves were due up next – after treating the White Sox like a de facto farm system over the winter – and Atlanta romped to a 9-0 rain-shortened victory Monday.

Tuesday promised more of the same. The temperature at game time was a miserable 44 degrees. Remarkably, 12,300 courageous fans showed up, but not all of them were there for the home team. After all, rooting for a club that seems likely to get battered by the best team in baseball on a frigid Tuesday night doesn’t sound particularly appealing, so a meaningful percentage of the audience was audibly cheering for Atlanta. Things were looking grim, in other words.

Something funny happened, though. The White Sox and their fans made a game out of it. Garrett Crochet spun an absolute gem in his second start of the season: seven innings, eight strikeouts, one walk, and one lone run on a Marcell Ozuna homer. When pinch hitter Paul DeJong smacked a solo shot of his own, it gave Chicago a 2-1 lead with only two frames left to play.

That set the stage for an explosive finish. Almost immediately, Atlanta threatened again. Jarred Kelenic worked a one-out walk in the top of the eighth, bringing Ronald Acuña Jr. to the plate. “MVP! MVP!” The Atlanta fans in attendance made their presence known as Acuña worked a walk to put the tying run in scoring position.

But Chicago’s fans, few though they might be, weren’t going quietly. They drowned out the MVP chant in a series of boos, then started a “Let’s go White Sox” cheer as a counter. After a sleepy start, the game suddenly had some juice.

Michael Kopech came in to relieve John Brebbia after that walk, and he promptly walked Ozzie Albies to load the bases. But Yoán Moncada turned a slick double play to keep the Pale Hose out in front. The dugout loved it:

The Sox tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, and it turned out they needed it. Kopech had a tough time closing things out. Ozuna smashed his second solo shot to cut the lead to 3-2 before Kopech walked Michael Harris II after an extended plate appearance in which Harris fouled off a string of high fastballs and spit on a low slider. Orlando Arcia wouldn’t go down quietly, either. Kopech again missed with the one slider he threw, and Arcia eventually slapped a cutter through the infield to put the tying run in scoring position for the second inning in a row.

Was this fated to be a crushing loss? Kopech couldn’t find the zone against Travis d’Arnaud, falling behind 3-1 with four straight elevated fastballs. The slider was totally gone; perhaps the adrenaline that came with the potential for his first big league save was too much. The crowd and players were rowdy now, treating this early April game like one with huge implications. Boos rained down after not particularly close pitches got called balls. Braves fans tried to start their own cheers but got repeatedly drowned out by the Sox faithful.

With Acuña on deck, walking d’Arnaud was unacceptable. Kopech tickled the strike zone on 3-1, which brought it all down to a full count pitch. He hit his spot perfectly, and d’Arnaud could only pop it up:

The crowd roared. The lights dimmed as fireworks went off. Kopech looked relieved more than excited as the team celebrated around him. For a day, at least, Chicago’s best was enough to hold off the best team in baseball.

This isn’t how the year will go for the White Sox. They’re headed straight into a rebuild with an unpopular ownership and front office group. I’m not sure that the fans will be able to muster up the same excitement for a July tilt against the Pirates. For a day, though, the atmosphere felt electric and the underdogs came up big. What a magical sport that lets us find moments of excitement even in seasons of despair.

5. Nolan Jones Tries To Do Too Much
Nolan Jones is one of my favorite young players to watch. He’s what you’d get if you took a garden variety power hitting outfielder and stapled a bazooka to his right arm. His outfield defense is below average if you ignore his throws, but you can’t ignore throws. Statcast has him in the 100th percentile for arm strength and runs saved with his arm; in other words, he’s a highlight reel waiting to happen when he picks the ball up. He had 19 outfield assists last year in less than 800 innings, leading baseball while playing 500 fewer innings than second place Lane Thomas.

This year, things haven’t gone quite so well. Jones already has more errors than he did in all of last season. One sequence against the Cubs summed up what I think is going wrong. Everyone knows Jones has a cannon, and so when Christopher Morel singled to left, Ian Happ wasn’t thinking about trying to score from second base:

That’s just smart baserunning. There’s no point in testing the best arm in the game when he’s running toward the ball from a shallow starting position. Only, did you see what happened out in left? Let’s zoom in:

Jones planned to come up firing. He absolutely didn’t need to; as we saw, Happ had already slammed on the brakes. But if you have the best arm in the game, every play probably feels like a chance to throw someone out, the old “every problem looks like a nail to a hammer” issue. He tried to make an infield-style scoop on the run and paid for it. That’s a particularly big error given the game state and location on the field; there’s no one backing Jones up there, and with only one out, it’s not *that* valuable to keep the runner at third anyway.

The ball rolled all the way to the wall, which was bad enough. Happ and trail runner Seiya Suzuki both scored easily. But Jones compounded the error. Let’s see what happened next from Morel’s perspective:

Like Happ, Morel slammed on the brakes as he got to third. After all, Jones has a huge arm and there’s still only one out, so trying to squeeze in the last 90 feet doesn’t make that much sense. Even with his eyes on the play the whole time, he decelerated to a stop. But Jones overcooked his relay throw:

I’m not quite clear about what happened there. That was a situation for a lollipop; the play was over, and all he had to do was return the ball to the infield. Maybe he got a bad grip on the ball, maybe he slipped as he was throwing it, but he just spiked it into the ground and Ryan McMahon couldn’t handle the wild carom.

This feels to me like a clear case of Jones trying to do too much. He appears to be pressing, trying to throw the world out after last year’s phenomenal performance. But part of having a huge arm is knowing when you don’t need to use it. That experience comes with time, and I’m confident that he’ll figure it out, but his aggression has hurt the Rockies so far. Oh, and those other errors? Sometimes you just miss one:





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

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Jack Cashionmember
1 month ago

Thank you Ben! Please keep this one up.