Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, June 16

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another installment of Five Things, a look at some things that caught my eye in baseball this week. As usual, I’d like to thank Zach Lowe, whose NBA column inspired me to start this one. This week has a few more things I don’t like than usual, from young players with defensive issues to young players missing the season with injury. Don’t fret, though: there’s a heaping helping of good defense, and even some amusingly awful plays for comic relief. Let’s get right to it.

1. Abysmal Defense in Winning Efforts
It’s hard to overstate how poorly the Giants fared on defense last Sunday. They kicked things off by letting a popup fall between three defenders, and that was just the beginning. They let that run score in ignominious fashion:

There’s no sugarcoating it; that was ugly. This might be worse, though:

That’s a zero play; Casey Schmitt didn’t touch second and also didn’t get the ball to first on time. I hardly know where to start there; the throw to second was too casual, Schmitt wasn’t in a position to touch the base in time, and it wasn’t even that close at first. Thairo Estrada probably should have just gone to first with that, and if he really wanted to go to second, it should have been with greater urgency. But if you think that’s bad, what about forgetting how to catch an underhand toss?

I often marvel at how automatically major leaguers make easy plays. Plays that I might make in a softball game 80% of the time get made 99.99% of the time in the bigs. By the time you reach the majors, you’ve made these routine plays so many times that they’re whatever level is easier than routine; automatic, perhaps, or whatever other word you’d prefer. It’s jarring to see those plays not made. It just looks wrong, like David Ortiz in a Yankees cap or billionaires trying to show human empathy.

That’s how weird it feels for a pitcher to drop an underhand toss on an easy feed. Sure, anyone can do it – but my definition of “anyone” doesn’t include major league baseball players. They make plays like that in their sleep. I’m mentally moving on, thinking about the game state or my plans for the rest of the day or similarly banal thoughts. There’s just no part of my mind that thinks “Oh, he might drop that.”

Yeah, about that:

The Giants were as bumbling as can be in this game. They went full Sideshow Bob, stepping on rakes at every opportunity. This was, by a fair margin, the worst-played defensive game I’ve seen all year. Oh yeah – the Giants won by double digits. Estrada and Joc Pederson both had two-homer days. Brandon Crawford pitched. It’s a good reminder that baseball highlights don’t always have a lot to do with the results of baseball games. These defensive highlights were hilariously bad, the kind of inept thing you expect bad teams to do – and yet I bet the mood was pretty good in the San Francisco locker room after this one.

2. Keibert Ruiz’s Throwing
Keibert Ruiz is one of the new faces of the Nationals, part of the return for trading away previous franchise stalwarts Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. He forced himself to the majors in 2021 with a torrid minor league season, and has been a fixture there ever since. He’s underperforming offensively this year despite striking out only 7.6% of the time, but I think he’ll turn things around on that side of the ball. His defense? I’m not so sure.

Ruiz has allowed a staggering 55 stolen bases so far this year. He’s only thrown out 11 would-be stealers. Thanks to Statcast’s catcher throwing leaderboard, it’s easy to see what’s gone wrong, and the problems are all over the place. Sometimes, he lollipops the throw:

Sometimes he holds the ball too long. You can’t exactly tell from this angle, but Emmanuel Rivera had a poor jump; Ruiz just couldn’t make a clean transfer and had to eat it:

That Rivera non-throw is the one that caught my eye – Ruiz allowed an eye-watering five steals in that game, though several of those were stolen on the pitcher – but the Freeman throw is closer to what’s ailing Ruiz.

In two words: arm strength. Sixty-three catchers have made five or more throws to second base this year. Ruiz is 60th in pop time; it takes him 2.05 seconds to get the ball down there on average. That’s because his average throw travels 77 mph, also 60th out of 63. He’s middle-of-the-pack when it comes to getting the ball from glove to hand, but if you combine middling transfer time with poor arm strength, the result is a ton of stolen bases.

There are ways to get by as a defensive catcher even with a below-average arm. Jose Trevino is a good example of this; he has the exact same arm strength as Ruiz per Statcast, but still controls the running game acceptably well. He does it because he’s accurate, makes quick transfers and rarely gives a throw away. If there’s a chance to make a play, he gets the ball down there. If there isn’t, he doesn’t.

Statcast estimates the chances of catching a runner for all attempts, even the ones where catchers don’t throw. When Trevino holds the ball, it’s because he has no play; Statcast thinks an average catcher would catch only 13% of basestealers. That’s a good time to eat the ball and not try a throw that you can’t make with a weak arm. Ruiz fails to make his throws far more frequently, and on easier attempts to nab; Statcast thinks an average catcher would throw out 26% of would-be stealers. Getting to Trevino-level mechanics behind the plate would turn a few stolen bases into outs and help balance out the ledger.

When Ruiz has everything working, he can throw runners out. Here’s an example of what that looks like:

He might never be a plus defender, but despite his lackluster arm strength, there’s a path forward. It involves getting the ball down there, every time, and hoping that some break your way. Ruiz is going to be on the Nationals for a long time; he signed an eight-year extension before this year. How he handles his defensive duties will go a long way towards determining how fun those eight years are for him.

3. Slick Defense From The O’s
After a slow start, Gunnar Henderson is living up to the preseason hype. He’s pummeling the ball to all fields and walking enough to get on base at a solid clip despite a concerning strikeout rate. He’s gotten more aggressive in June, and it has paid off: he has five homers in the month already and is downright scalding the ball.

His electric production on contact is what makes Henderson such a great prospect, but I’ve also enjoyed his defense. He might be a long-term third baseman, but he’s moonlighting as a backup shortstop for the Orioles this year, and he’s shown some admirable instincts there. In fact, the whole Orioles squad is playing exciting defense. One recent example was an unconventional double play on Wednesday:

There’s a lot to like on this play. Want to keep the runner on third base from marauding home? Flick your eyes to third after fielding the ball:

This GIF is hypnotic to me, but if you watch closely, you can see Henderson turn his head against the natural rotation, just briefly, before turning to fire to second base. Whit Merrifield is both fast and a good baserunner, but he had to respect that fake. With George Springer running, Henderson knew he wasn’t turning a double play, so sacrificing a split second to slow the runner made good sense.

Adam Frazier turned Henderson’s deke into an out with a heads up play of his own. Instead of setting up for a standard double play turn, he stood right on top of second base and set up to fire home. Like Henderson, he had already mentally abandoned the idea of trying to get Springer. By getting in position to throw home, he was able to make a clean transfer and accurate throw in a position where most second basemen would have their weight pointing the wrong direction:

Spare a little love for Adley Rutschman’s smooth tag, too. Frazier’s throw was slightly to the third base side of home, which let Rutschman open up and combine the motions of catching and tagging. He did it exactly like you’d coach it, and even brought his knee down as he pivoted to give Merrifield less plate to aim at. That’s just beautiful defense all around; if any of the three of them had been out of sync, Merrifield likely would have scored.

4. A Requiem for the Pasquatch
I’ve been looking for a good time to bring up one of my favorite local bits, but I didn’t want it to happen this way. The Royals are abysmal this year, and even Vinnie Pasquantino, one of their best players, wasn’t immune. After a solid rookie season, he saw his contact quality dip and his results follow suit. It gets even worse than that: Pasquantino is out for the season after tearing his labrum.

That’s a bummer for a Royals team that could scarcely afford any bad news. When you’re as bad as the Royals, developing your players who might be part of the next good squad is of paramount importance, and it’s hard to develop when you’re out injured.

Even worse, from my big league-hopping perspective, is that I won’t get to see the Pasquatch anymore. Like I said, it’s been a bad year in Kansas City. But one thing always brightened my day when I watched Royals games: Pasquatch sightings.

The Royals came up with the idea this year, and I can’t overstate how fun I find it. The concept is pretty simple: a guy in a Sasquatch costume roams the left field wall above the Royals Hall of Fame whenever Pasquantino reaches base. Home run? Break out the Pasquatch:

Walk? The Pasquatch will take a stroll:

Single? You guessed it:

The KC broadcast didn’t cut to the Pasquatch every time Pasquantino reached base, but that only added to the fun of it for me. It was flavorful, too: a Sasquatch should be at least a little hard to find. I find myself tuning to Royals games more often than I’d expect this year considering how awful they’ve been. A lot of that came down to Pasquantino and his yeti admirer. Get well soon, Vinnie!

5. Perfect Slam Robberies
Eugenio Suárez came close to accomplishing an impressive feat on Wednesday night. With the Mariners down four runs in the ninth inning, he came to the plate with the bases loaded and the chance to tie the game with a single swing. He got a pitch he liked, and drove it to right. Unfortunately for him, Jesús Sánchez is tall:

To settle any questions, this was a true robbery, not one of those leaps near the wall that people talk up. It was a phenomenally tough play, a no-look catch at full extension:

That’s about as big of a swing as you can get in a game of baseball. The Mariners’ odds to win the game were 9.4% when Suárez stepped to the plate according to our win probability chart. If that ball had gotten over the wall, they would have been around 58% likely to win. Instead, they were pretty much down and out; again per WPA, they had only a 3.9% chance of prevailing after Sánchez made the catch. That catch was worth more than half of a win, in other words.

I enlisted some help from my friend Mark Simon at Sports Info Solutions to see just how rare this is. Per SIS, there have only been three tying or go-ahead grand slam robberies in the ninth inning or later since they started tracking them 20 years ago. But that understates the rarity: the other two came in tie games, so they were more like regular home run robberies. That’s still exciting, but something about the batting team needing all four runs, and getting so close to getting them all, really speaks to me.

These exact slam robberies, where the batting team trails by four, are incredibly rare. There have only been four in the last 20 years, again per SIS. The other three: Matt Holliday robbing Mike Jacobs in the third in 2006, Reed Johnson robbing Prince Fielder in the fifth in 2009, and Aaron Hicks robbing Luis Valbuena in the first in 2017. There’s just far less drama in those robberies than in doing it in the ninth.

Given how infrequently the conditions line up, it might be a long time before we see one of these again. That’s pretty dang cool in my book – unless you’re a Mariners fan, in which case you have my condolences.

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

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11 months ago

It took place over a little more than a week, but the A’s raising their winning percentage 81 points by winning 7 straight games against the two teams have been jockeying for the lead in the NL Central and the best team in baseball is one of those just absolutely nuts things that I love about baseball.

11 months ago

Only four teams (TBR, HOU, BOS, ATL) have had longer winning streaks this season than the A’s. Two other teams (BAL, PIT) have had streaks as long (plus one additional streak of 7 for each of TBR and ATL) than the A’s.

11 months ago

Speaking of the central, there is 1 good team from the central in both leagues combined (twins). What a pair of not serious divisions

11 months ago
Reply to  matt

There isn’t one good team even if all the players from the Central Divisions in both leagues were combined into one team.

11 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

That’s obviously not true. That team would win 120 games. You would have Luis Robert, Dansby Swanson, Jose Ramirez, Paul Goldschmidt, Joe Ryan, Mitch Keller…and the depth would be incredible.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Of course it isn’t true but can’t anybody laugh at a little hyperbole when they see it. Isn’t there a single funny bone left in the world?

11 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Not on the internet, no. No funny things on the internet!