Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, June 30

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another look at five things that caught my eye in baseball this week. As usual, I’m following a template set by Zach Lowe, who is great at his job and popularized the concept. Summer doldrums are here for many teams, but nearly everyone is in the race and there’s still plenty of fun baseball happening. I was particularly drawn to two young catchers this week, as well as two key members of the 2019 World Series winning Nats and some great baserunning. A quick programming note: I’m spending this whole weekend on vacation and not watching any baseball, so this column will take a break next Friday and return the following week. Let’s get started.

1. Patrick Corbin (Briefly) Returning to Form
I won’t surgarcoat this – Patrick Corbin has been one of the worst starters in baseball over the past three years. He went from key cog in the Nats’ World Series machine to a guy who couldn’t buy an out in seemingly no time at all. He has a 5.89 ERA since the start of 2021. The only worse marks posted by a pitcher with 200 or more innings belong to Dallas Keuchel, who played himself out of baseball with remarkable speed in 2022, and ex-teammate Chad Kuhl, who got released earlier this week. Keuchel accrued his 6.35 ERA over 222 innings; Corbin has thrown a remarkable 421. He’s actually among the top 25 starters in innings pitched over those years, despite the eye-watering ERA.

It’s been a swift fall for the former star, made all the more strange because his once-fearsome slider was the main problem last year. But trust me, that slider still pops on its best days. I’m always a little hesitant to say that Corbin is turning the corner – he’s burned me before – but after this Wednesday’s start, I want to believe.

Mariners fans, cover your eyes: On Wednesday, Corbin absolutely shredded Seattle, to the tune of nine strikeouts over seven scoreless innings. Just like he did at his best, he used the slider in unlikely fashion. The Mariners ran out eight righties against him, which you’d think would hurt a guy who made his reputation throwing sinkers and sliders. Instead, he wore out the lower inside corner, and snapped off back foot sliders that left Mariners hitters flailing. When they were on their heels, he countered by floating it in for a called strike:

Are these just cherry-picked highlights? Well, sure, but I think this game is slightly more than that. There’s a new style under the hood, or possibly some new horsepower. Corbin’s slider was up two ticks, back to the speeds he frequented in the late 2010s. He posted the highest average velocity on his sinker in any start all year while simultaneously throwing sinkers less frequently than in any previous start. He filled in the gaps with extra sliders, but also with extra four-seam fastballs. He threw more four-seamers than in any previous start, and threw them harder than in any previous start.

Those were the only three pitch types he threw; no changeups, no cutters, just fastballs and a mindbending slider. I’d say it was an audition for what Corbin could look like as a reliever, but he threw 102 pitches. Let’s just say that, at only 33, it might be premature to count him out for good. A few more outings like that, and teams might come calling for some starting pitching help (provided Washington chips in some money), something that felt impossible at the start of the year.

2. Too Much Framing
Francisco Alvarez has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise desultory Mets season. He’s holding his own offensively, which no one was worried about, but he’s also putting together a solid defensive campaign, truly impressive for a 21-year-old catcher. He’s allowed too many stolen bases so far, but it doesn’t look like a terminal problem. He has a league average arm and gets the ball out quickly; over time, I think he’ll figure that out. He also rates as one of the best receivers in baseball this year; he’s already added six runs worth of extra strikes behind the plate.

Sometimes, though, that urge to frame gets to be too much. You miss 100% of the framing attempts you don’t make, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. This pitch was never going to be a strike, no matter how perfectly Alvarez received it, but he still went for it, and it cost him:

Most passed balls are the result of catchers trying to make tough plays. There’s a cross-up or a pitch in the dirt, and emergency measures are necessary. As you can see from that telltale glove jerk, that’s not what was happening here.

The excellent SNY camera crew caught what happened perfectly. Alvarez was trying to catch the ball with his glove moving towards the zone. That’s a common trick to make the pitch look better than it is. In slow motion, you can see the problem:

At first, I thought it might have been a cross-up, but doesn’t quite make sense. That pitch was a changeup; Ottavino doesn’t throw any pitches that break further to his arm side. If it were a problem of missed signs, Alvarez would have missed from the inside going out, expecting something closer to the plate and scrambling outside. Instead, he got his glove further out than the pitch, and then tried to pull it back in. On the broadcast, Keith Hernandez was all over it right away.

Watch this angle:

Again, you can see what he’s going for. If your glove is moving towards the zone when you receive it, the pitch just looks better, not least because the momentum of the ball will carry your glove towards the zone instead of wildly outside. His plan was to get out there, then reverse course to bring the ball in. Maybe the pitch location wasn’t perfect, but it was catchable. Alvarez is still a work in progress defensively, as this play showed. It didn’t end up mattering – Jesse Winker popped out – but that’s the kind of youthful mistake the Mets are hoping Alvarez will iron out over time.

3. More Rookie Catchers
450 miles west, another young catcher is breaking in. Bo Naylor spent 2022 tearing up the minors, then spent 2023 tearing up the minors again while waiting for Mike Zunino to get DFA’ed. Now that he’s joined the major league team, he looks like a good bet to stay there; Cleveland needs hitting like I need air and water. Don’t sleep on Naylor’s athleticism, though:

That’s a hard play for a ton of reasons. The best reason? It was supposed to be a pitch out! The Guardians drew this play up because Nicky Lopez was on first. No one calls pitch outs anymore; Statcast lists only 18 of them this season. You can see why the Guardians did here, though. Lopez was very likely to go, and Freddy Fermin is not such a fearsome hitter that you can’t afford to waste a pitch fishing for a free out on the basepaths.

Unfortunately for the Guardians, Trevor Stephan was having a rough night. He’d just allowed the go-ahead runner to score by throwing the ball away on the previous play. He missed his pitch out location by a lot:

Naylor made a great play just to catch the ball; if that one got past him, Lopez’s speed might have gotten him to third base. That’s usually where this would end – when runners steal on pitches that go astray, catchers generally just eat the ball.

Instead, Naylor entered the matrix. He was facing the wrong way, with the ball carrying him into a full 360 degree spin. No matter; he still made it work:

Everything about this play is amazing. Watch his footwork. That little hop step with his left foot keeps him in the game; if he’d taken the standard right-footed step instead, his momentum would have carried him too far towards third base to make the play. He then gets both feet planted into a throwing position while mid-spin, then uncorks a laser from a solid throwing position. The throw was right on the money, too, despite the tailing action that no doubt resulted from the difficult setup. I’m willing to bet that he accounted for the tail by starting his throw a little bit to the left side of the bag, even.

This isn’t the kind of play that catchers make often, because they’re rarely in this situation. It’s not a huge part of catcher defense, because again, catchers are rarely in this situation. But don’t say that catchers aren’t athletic, because my goodness what a play. Just try to spin and throw at home without having to catch a 92 mph fastball while wearing catcher’s gear first. It’ll give you a whole new appreciation for this daring feat.

4. Physics Are Overrated Anyway
When I was a kid, my dad used to settle arguments by citing Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Did he eat my candy stash? Heisenberg uncertainty principle, anything could have happened to that candy. Were we late for my friend’s birthday party? Maybe, but maybe the atoms in our clocks were all conveniently wrong. I’m not sure he was using it in the spirit of the concept, but apparently his physics professor in college had them calculate the infinitesimal odds that the positional uncertainty of atoms would let you throw a baseball through a battleship, and he used it in that vein.

Hey, random physics professor, I have a better idea. Why not calculate the odds that Matt Vierling can slide through Marcus Semien? I don’t see any other explanation for this:

That’s not how baseball works. That throw was there in plenty of time; baserunners can’t just choose to briefly become intangible in pursuit of avoiding a tag. If they could, the sport wouldn’t work very well. Also, why isn’t Vierling doing this more often?

Okay, fine, a closer examination reveals that, like most magic tricks that seem to defy physics, this is just sleight of hand. It’s amazing sleight of hand, though:

The decision to go for a wide slide looks questionable to me; Vierling was trying to avoid getting tagged on the foot heading in, but I think he might have beaten Semien to the bag. After he decided to go wide, though, it’s pure beauty.

Semien covered a ton of space with his tag. Even though he started on the wrong side of the base, he was able to keep his glove high and right in Vierling’s way. The body control necessary to make this play is outrageous; he’s adjusting his arm and also pushing his torso backwards using his right leg, all mid-slide. Not only that, he has to get back to the base afterwards, so his left foot turns into a brake as soon as he eludes the tag.

I don’t have anything more to say about this. Please, though, check out even more angles, courtesy of the Tigers social media team. This play is worth your while:

5. Juan Soto, Incandescent In The Dark
Remember when everyone was worried about Juan Soto? He started the year scuffling, not hitting the ball hard enough and striking out too often. He had a sub-.200 batting average at the end of April. This wasn’t some “batting average is dumb” fact, either. His wRC+ was a shocking 100 on April 26.

Yeah, about that. Since that arbitrary April 26 cutoff, Soto is hitting .311/.460/.563, good for a 180 wRC+. He’s walking more frequently than he strikes out, naturally, but he’s also crushing the ball. He’s at a 153 wRC+ despite that slow start to the year, the sixth-best mark in baseball. He plays every day; he’s appeared in all 81 Padres games, and only once as a pinch hitter. He’s even much improved on defense; he was perhaps the worst outfield defender in baseball last year, and he’s only a hair below average this year. This is the guy the Padres thought they were getting at last year’s trade deadline.

There’s just one problem: the Padres stink. They’re six games below .500, mired in fourth place in a surprisingly competitive NL West. Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado have combined for a league average batting line, not exactly what you’d expect from two stars. Gary Sánchez has come back to earth. Jake Cronenworth turned into a pumpkin. The Matt Carpenter/Nelson Cruz DH platoon is below replacement level.

Some of their record comes down to bad sequencing and bad luck. They’ve outscored their opponents by 20 runs this year, and BaseRuns thinks their true talent is a bit better than that. Per our Clutch stat, which measures wins added or lost by over- or under-performance in high leverage scenarios, their bullpen has cost them nearly three wins through high-leverage failures, the second-worst mark in the game. Fernando Tatis Jr. missed a chunk of the season and has been excellent since returning. All is not necessarily lost.

It’s probably lost, though. We give them a 28% chance of making the playoffs, and it’s getting late in the season to change that trajectory. They’ve been stuck in neutral all June, 12-14 despite outscoring their opponents by 20 runs in the month. A team this star-studded shouldn’t be this bad.

Maybe that’s just Soto’s fate, to excel while everything around him falls apart. Things didn’t start out that way, but the Nationals fell into disarray while he was their best player. The Padres didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory last year, though they had a nice playoff run. Despite his strong performance this season, they appear to be on the outside looking in.

I don’t find Soto, or stars in general, less interesting for playing on bad teams. Heck, Ted Williams’ Red Sox only finished in the top two spots in the American League in six of his 19 seasons, and I don’t hear anyone saying he was no fun because of the team he played on. It feels weird in this day and age of free agency, though. I hope the Padres make a run, but I’m enjoying Soto’s toiling anyway, a rare bright spot on a disappointing club.

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

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9 months ago

Things I Like: Marcell Ozuna got a hit in every game this week bringing his season line to .251/.332/.493 (120 wRC+) and to .310/.373/.559 (149 wRC+) since Ben Clemens declared on 5/8/2023 that “Ozuna still looks bad to me” and looking at stats is “literally my job.” Don’t ya love to see the stats Ben? 😉

9 months ago
Reply to  lavarnway

And now in Ozuna’s 236 games and 971 plate appearances since the start of 2021 he is all the way up to 0 WAR and a 94 wRC+.

9 months ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

Not bad considering he suffered a major hand injury in there that took him a long time to recover from and sapped his power for a while when he came back.

Chip Lockemember
9 months ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Your incessant clogging of the comments section talking about how Ben couldn’t predict the future in one specific way for a mediocre player at best is the saddest thing of this baseball season.

9 months ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Ben was presented with a series of basic stats showing that better results in the future were likely for Ozuna and he chose to ignore them and answer flippantly. That’s why I continue to remind him.

9 months ago
Reply to  lavarnway

“I’ll be there in minute honey, someone is wrong on the internet!”

9 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

What do you mean, “honey?” I just assumed everyone else here lived in the mom’s basement like I do.

9 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

One of the most trenchant fictional stories about our modern times and it came from a single panel stick figure cartoon.

9 months ago
Reply to  lavarnway

Imagine being so small and pathetic that your driving cause is to rag on a baseball writer for offending the dignity of a domestic abuser by failing to predict that he might return to being a moderately useful player for a month or two

9 months ago
Reply to  lavarnway

This is literally trolling. Stop.