Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, June 23

Joey Votto

Welcome to another installment of Five Things, a look at odd circumstances and delightful happenings that caught my eye this past week. With the NBA solidly in its offseason, Zach Lowe’s column is taking a break, which means I might be the only Things show in town right now. This week was an awesome one for watching baseball, and I had a hard time narrowing the list down. I hope you like legends making big plays, unheralded rookies swinging games, and two Bay Area teams headed in opposite directions. Who am I kidding? Of course you like those things. Let’s get to it.

1. Joey’s Back!
The Reds are so much fun that I thought about making an entire five things column out of things I’m loving in Cincinnati these days, but I think we just call that an article, so I’m going to settle for writing about one of the best parts of their recent winning streak. As fun as it’s been to see the baby Reds gain confidence and romp to the top of the NL Central, there was something missing. All these kids are fun, but they were missing the team’s best player in a generation while he rehabbed in preparation for what will almost certainly be his last ride.

I started to get excited when Joey Votto’s goofy bus driver persona resurfaced. But I won’t lie to you: I was worried that he might not fit in as well as hoped. The infield was already packed with contributors, and Votto might lead the team to some tough playing time decisions they didn’t really want to make. He wasn’t even that good last year! It was definitely not preordained that everything would work out.

It still might not work out. Votto’s debut game was a delight, though. He went 2-3 with a walk, the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from him over the years. He worked counts, crushed the ball when he hit it, and generally looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. He even launched an impressive home run:

Getting an above average version of Votto back could go a long way towards keeping the Reds rolling. Their outfield is dicey at best. Their starting pitching has produced a 5.65 ERA in June, and that’s with Hunter Greene, who is now on the IL. Their success has been driven by huge performances from Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz, Spencer Steer, and surprise star TJ Friedl. At some point, someone will need to take pressure off of those guys.

Maybe that pressure valve won’t be Votto. He followed up his delightful debut with an 0-4 showing on Tuesday and a wild one — 0-2 with two HBPs — on Wednesday. At 39, he might not have much impact baseball left in him. But let me dream for a little bit. Votto is awesome, and I’m not ready for his career to be done just yet.

2. Blake Perkins Has Wheels
I’m going to start this segment off with a ton of caveats. Ketel Marte is a poor second base defender; he’s probably just a poor defender everywhere, in fact. Blake Perkins is limited offensively; we have him at 35 game power on the 20–80 scale, and that looks generous based on his batted ball metrics. But man oh man, the Brewers have found something fun in their desperation cycling through whichever outfielders can stay on the field. Perkins more or less won them the game on Tuesday night against a surging Diamondbacks squad.

The situation: the Brewers trailed 5–3 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Luis Urías started the inning by drawing a walk. Then Perkins got to work. To lead things off, he slapped a weak grounder to first base — not exactly the way you draw up your rally. Trust me on this one, though: things worked out anyway:

Now, should Marte have made that play? Sure. But that was a classic case of hustle paying off. Marte looked to second because he’s made a variation of that play 100 times and the runner has never come anywhere near being safe. I’m fairly certain that the reason he nonchalanted that ball over to first is because no one runs that hard on that silly little hit. But Perkins does, and it paid off.

Okay, so Perkins had changed one out to a hit with sheer hustle and speed. I’m not sure that’s article segment-worthy, but you can guess where this is going. With no one out instead of one out, Joey Wiemer stepped to the plate and smashed a grounder right back up the middle. It wasn’t a tailor-made double play ball, because it deflected off of Austin Adams, but surely there was some out to be gotten. Or at least there would have been, if it weren’t for that meddling Perkins:

Could Marte have made that play at first? I think so. He got pretty unlucky, though. He had to spin to field the ball and thus had his back to Perkins when he was deciding what to do. From this angle, you can see that going to second was a bad choice, but that’s hard to know when your back is to the play:

I think Marte could have gotten Wiemer there, though I suppose it might have been close. He didn’t get Perkins, as we saw. What could have been two outs if everything went well and Perkins were just a tiny bit slower turned into zero outs and the bases loaded. The Brewers cashed in all three runs, and even a bonus one, starting with an RBI groundout from Christian Yelich that otherwise could have ended the inning. They won 7–5. Speed really does change games.

3. Cowardly Bunts
Whatever you think of the zombie runner, one thing about its existence is a positive: it gives managers a chance to get weird. Pinch-runners, situational hitting, bunts, intentional walks, strange infield configurations: there’s often something slightly strange going on in extra innings these days, and I love it.

There’s one particular tactic I loathe, though: sacrifice bunting when behind. It’s a sucker’s bet, a play that feels like it’s effective but actually costs your team dearly. Playing for a tie is never as good as it sounds, for a straightforward mathematical reason. The difference between ending an extra inning down a run and ending that inning tied is half a win — a sure loss compared to a 50/50 shot. That’s the same as the difference between ending the inning tied and ending the inning up a run — a 50/50 shot compared to a sure win. That makes the math pretty easy: the winning run is worth as much as the tying run, so sacrificing outs and therefore chances at scoring a second run to increase your odds of scoring a first run is a bad percentage play.

Major league managers have done this math. In the first two and a half months of the 2023 season, no team led off the bottom of an extra inning with a bunt attempt when trailing. There were only seven such attempts in 2022, and five in 2021. It’s not even fair to say that the tactic is dying; it was hardly alive to begin with.

I have bad news on this front, though. Mark Kotsay is singlehandedly fighting this trend. Last Saturday, the A’s and Phillies went into extras. After the Phillies went scoreless in the top of the tenth, Kotsay had JJ Bleday bunt. He didn’t get the bunt down, and the A’s went scoreless. The Phillies followed up by scoring in the top of the 11th. Kotsay shockingly went back to the well:

Hey, it worked! It didn’t matter even a little bit. The next batter, Carlos Pérez, laced a game-tying double. But with one less out to work with, the A’s couldn’t drive Perez home. This is a textbook example of why you don’t bunt when down a run; plenty of the ways that tie the game would have scored that run regardless of whether the runner was on second or third.

The Phillies got another shot against the worst pitching staff in baseball, and they scored another run. Kotsay had already been burned by bunts not once but twice in extra innings. He didn’t care. Shea Langeliers joined the bunt brigade:

Ugh. Esteury Ruiz followed that up by striking out on three pitches. Bleday grounded out weakly to first to end the game. I’ve been feeling a little bandwagon-y about the A’s after the rollicking reverse boycott, but these bunts are making me rethink my decision.

4. Mike Yastrzemski’s Sneaky Strong Season
Across the bay, things are going decidedly better. The Giants have surged into playoff position thanks to a long winning streak that included a rare sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles. They’ve gotten contributions up and down the roster. Thairo Estrada, J.D. Davis, and LaMonte Wade Jr. look like potential All Stars, Joc Pederson has been excellent when healthy, and rookie Patrick Bailey is off to a strong start behind the plate. On the pitching side, Logan Webb has been his usual solid self, Alex Cobb is enjoying a bounceback season, and the bullpen looks strong.

That’s all true, but don’t forget another Giant: Mike Yastrzemski is doing the same thing he does every year, hitting more than you’d expect and playing solid defense wherever the Giants need him. It would be boring if the long sweep of his career weren’t so unexpected. Yastrzemski’s output has looked unsustainable year after year, and I’ve heard he’s “been solved” by opposing pitchers more than a handful of times. Yet here he is, producing at an All-Star level at age 32. He might never get a big free agency payout, because he didn’t debut until age 28, but he’s been somewhere between solid and great for quite a while now.

His 2023 campaign has been driven by power. Oracle Park might be where home runs go to die, but it’s a neutral offensive park for lefties overall thanks to the huge power alleys, which result in 8% more doubles and 23% more triples than your average stadium. That fits Yastrzemski’s game to a tee; he gets the ball in the air quite often, and usually to the pull side. There’s plenty of room for those batted balls to land safely in right-center, and if he pulls them down the line, well:

Surely, the regression train will actually arrive at some point. At this point, though, it’s safe to say that talent evaluators simply got this one wrong. Yastrzemski looked like a career minor leaguer right up until he started holding his own in the majors. He looked like a flash in the pan until he backed it up. Now it seems like he should be in age-related decline, and he simply isn’t.

It’s easy to get lost in projections and estimates of future value. It’s easy to say that what someone is doing isn’t sustainable, as though that somehow diminishes it. But the production Yastrzemski is racking up isn’t fake. It helps the Giants win games. If he weren’t around, this team wouldn’t be as good, and it wouldn’t have been as good in any of the past four years either. Not everyone needs to be a franchise-carrying phenom. What a wonderful career.

5. Clayton Kershaw Climbs the Ladder
Tuesday night featured a pitching duel in Anaheim. Clayton Kershaw and Reid Detmers battled to a standstill over the first sixth innings, but after Detmers turned in a clean seventh, Kershaw ran into trouble. Hunter Renfroe doubled to put runners on second and third with no one out in a 0–0 ballgame, which left Kershaw no margin for error. He coaxed a grounder out of Kevin Padlo that was too hard to allow Drury to score, and you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Chad Wallach was due up next, and he has a career 33.6% strikeout rate.

Wallach didn’t go down easily, though. He fouled off two sliders to get into an 0–2 hole, and then he started battling. First, a few takes:

Next, a foul ball and then a take that almost turned into a called strikeout:

Wallach was putting together a masterful at-bat. Kershaw had thrown three sliders in the strike zone; he’d swung at all three. Kershaw had missed the zone with three breaking balls; Wallach took all three. It wasn’t a good fastball spot, what with a runner on third and less than two outs, but Wallach was hanging so tough against the softer stuff that I might have tried to elevate a heater and live with the results. Kershaw had something different in mind:

To be fair, I don’t think he actually had that pitch in mind. Will Smith’s actions behind the plate were identical to the two low balls from earlier in the at-bat. But that UFO slider bamboozled Wallach. He muttered to himself as he walked off, the victim of a bizarre pitch that worked perfectly. Kershaw skated through the inning unscathed, the Dodgers scored two in the top of the eighth, and that was that.

How weird was this pitch? Kershaw started pitching in 2008, the first year for which we have pitch tracking data. In his illustrious career, he’s racked up 2,622 swinging strikes on sliders. Exactly five of them were higher off the ground than this one. All five came in 2015 or before. The last time he got a swinging strike within even six inches of this one’s height was 2016. Quite simply, this isn’t how his slider works.

Except it did work, even if it wasn’t what he planned. That’s baseball for you: sometimes a miscalculation pays off in unexpected ways. Sometimes you hang a slider so high that it’s no longer hanging, and instead dangled just out of reach, like a steak on a table just too high for a dog to get its mouth to. Kershaw shook his head ruefully even as Smith pointed his glove out at the mound. “Good pitch,” Smith’s gesture said. “I mean…” countered Kershaw’s. Don’t you just love baseball?

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

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9 months ago

I didn’t necessarily think the A’s were “tanking” this offseason, since they went out and signed a bunch of guys who they thought could contribute. (They were wrong about that, but that’s not the point here)

That said, reading this article while watching Mark Kotsay call for the bunts makes me think that maybe they have switched into tanking mode at this point. I didn’t think that call would inherently mean someone was tanking before reading the article. But after reading it, it sure does seem like a very bad idea, and he kept calling for it.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

In the 10th, that’s somewhat defensible, though I doubt Bleday is even an average bunter. Bunting the runner over there decreases your overall run expectation, but that’s not what’s relevant — it’s the chance that you score (at least) one run that’s relevant.

I can even squint and make the bunt in the 11th work. The hitter is Tony Kemp who is having a terrible year, is pretty fast, and looks to be a better-than-average bunter, so you might stumble into 1st and 3rd with 0 out.

But the one in the 12th? No. Nope.

Ben lays out the standard win expectancy math and even that would frown on the latter two. If you were to adjust for the fact that the Phillies are a significantly better team than the A’s, the chances of your team “winning” the next inning are definitely lower than 50/50. You should be playing to win now, because even though your team sucks, and it’s a bad bet to bet on them plating 2+ runs, it’s still a better chance than outscoring the Phillies in the next inning.

Last edited 9 months ago by sandwiches4ever
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think the epic death match between the A’s and Royals is the best proof of the value of the new MLB draft lottery. Moving the needle a little to get a guy like Wemby in the NBA draft is one thing, but unless you have Bryce Harper as the prize there is so little value in full-out tanking in the MLB that managers should be out there trying to win no matter what. If the front office wants to tank, let them be the ones to make it happen.

Last edited 9 months ago by tz
9 months ago
Reply to  tz

I don’t really think that there was much “tanking” in the traditional sense before the draft lottery either. The Cubs in the early Epstein years and the Astros in the early Luhnow years are the only obvious examples.

But even with the draft lottery, I am starting to suspect the math has changed for the A’s. The A’s will play the rest of 2023 and all of 2024 in a city where they will draw a microscopic number of fans. Who cares if they burn all their bridges? And they won’t be in a new stadium in Vegas until 2028 at the earliest, so they might not even be in Vegas from 2025-2027.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Even those Astros and Cubs teams weren’t really tanking for draft picks, they were just dropping payroll and looking for diamonds in the rough while they were in the rebuild. Getting a few high draft picks was just a perk. Finding guys like Altuve and Keuchel was basically as central to their rebuild as drafting Correa, Bregman, Appel, or Tucker. No one else in the rebuild was really the result of a top 10 draft pick except kind of McCullers since they signed him overslot with the savings on Correa (also Daz Cameron since he was overslot and traded for Verlander).

Half the teams in the NBA or NFL have tanked harder than even the Astros did for draft picks.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Gotta wonder if he was trying the Joe Masson strategy of “anything to fire up the team”. That’s the only possible logic I can really come up with- it’s not like he only had his worst hitters bunt, or like he had especially great bat control guys up behind them. He just… made them bunt. I can understand a lapse in judgement out of frustration if you have to manage the A’s this year, though. I’d be frustrated too