Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, June 9

Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Five Things was off last week while I gallivanted around the country on vacation. Well, I’m back, and I’ve been furiously watching baseball to make up for the time I missed on the road. As such, some of these items are going to be amalgams of a few games because the same themes kept calling out to me. As always, this column was inspired by Zach Lowe of ESPN, whose basketball columns are some of the best in the business. We’ve got plenty to cover, so let’s get started.

1. Unexpected Pitching Duels
Last Thursday, the Rockies and Diamondbacks faced off in Arizona. The pregame forecast: runs galore. Zach Davies brought his 5.68 ERA to bear for the Diamondbacks (with a 5.65 FIP, it’s not like he’d been catastrophically unlucky) while Connor Seabold took the mound for the Rockies (5.94 ERA, 5.79 FIP).

Naturally, both pitchers came out in fine form. Davies started shakily but recovered to post three straight scoreless innings. Meanwhile, Seabold couldn’t miss; well-located fastballs helped him escape his first jam of the game to complete five scoreless innings:

The good times didn’t keep going – both teams scored two runs in the sixth to chase the opposing starter – but just for a moment, Davies and Seabold did their best impressions of aces. I love that kind of game, where you show up expecting a shootout and get a tense duel instead.

I used Davies and Seabold as an example, but if you watch a lot of baseball, you’ll come across these games all over the place. The Tigers and White Sox combined for a measly three runs in last Saturday’s game, a clash between Reese Olson and Mike Clevinger. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson they are not – but if you pick your GIFs well, any pitcher can look dominant:

Sean Manaea (and opener John Brebbia) performed a similar trick against the Pirates last week, only to be matched inning-for-inning by Johan Oviedo:

In the long run, these sterling starts aren’t the norm for any of these pitchers. That’s why they have chunky ERAs and why their managers have the bullpen on speed dial. In fact, as I watch these games, I keep expecting the other shoe to drop, even though some of the lineups they’re facing are themselves prone to mediocrity. A 1-0 clash between, say, Max Scherzer and Zack Wheeler is fun to watch because of the mastery on display. A 1-0 clash between Davies and Seabold is fun to watch because it might turn into a track meet at any given moment, with an endless parade of runners crossing home plate.

It’s nice to subvert expectations every once in a while. I wouldn’t want every matchup between fifth starters to go this way. No one would – there wouldn’t be much run scoring if the bad starters were consistently that good. But as an occasional treat, journeymen and rookies firing on all cylinders puts a smile on my face.

2. Batters Flinching Away From Strikes
Hitting is hard. Pitchers throw a million miles an hour and all have wipeout secondaries. The game might feel slow in the aggregate, but each individual pitch is a split-second decision. Deciding whether or not to swing is a complex choice made in about as much time as it takes for a single heartbeat.

With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s time for a confession: I love the pitches where hitters recoil as though a pitch is about to hit them, only for it to hold the strike zone. This will always be funny to me:

Standing in against those extreme lefty arm slots doesn’t look fun to me at all. The ball must appear out of thin air and at a ludicrous initial position. It’s one thing to practice hitting, and another entirely to watch a hard projectile fly at your hip at high speed and not recoil.

There’s also the classic “I’m going to wear this fastball, aren’t I?” flinch:

I get it. If Corbin Burnes was throwing near me, I’d be in a fetal position, covering my organs as best as I could. They’re asking these guys to swing at those pitches? I hope they’re getting hazard pay. Based on Frazier’s face after that pitch, he probably hopes so too:

I don’t have any great analytical secrets to glean from these. I don’t think that batters who flinch perform any differently from those who don’t. I don’t even think there’s much difference between ducking out of the way of a fastball and having your brain bent by a huge breaking ball:

But this column is about things I like in baseball, and seeing that the instinctual reaction of professional hitters, with their years of training and elite reflexes, is still roughly similar to what I’d do in the same situation will always bring me joy. To be fair, though, that’s where the comparison ends. Unlike me, they do a lot of damage when they don’t flinch:

3. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Heating Up Strangely
I might be the biggest Ke’Bryan Hayes believer on the planet. In each of the past two years, I’ve ranked him aggressively on our Top 50 trade value lists. I love his pristine defense, the kind that makes plays like this seem commonplace instead of impossible:

I also love his bat-to-ball skills and raw power; he’s not a huge guy, but he consistently puts up top-tier exit velocity numbers while making a lot of contact. He’s been in the top quarter of all big league hitters for hard-hit rate every year of his career. But despite that, his last three seasons have produced wRC+ marks of 87, 88, and 88. For whatever reason (cough groundball rate cough), he just hasn’t been able to translate his hard-hit batted balls into power.

I was getting ready to bump Hayes down my preliminary trade value list this year – and then he went and did this:

Obviously, I was back in immediately. But a slightly deeper dive into what Hayes is doing raises more questions than answers. For example, let’s overlay that wRC+ graph with his hard-hit rate:

I barely even know how to think about this one. Hit the ball hard less frequently and profit? It doesn’t add up. It gets weirder when you add in groundball rate:

What’s going on? Well, when he hits the ball in the air, he’s hitting the snot out of it. Though his overall hard-hit rate is down, that’s not the case if we look only at balls hit in the air. Here’s his average exit velocity on balls hit in the air over the past two years. This season starts around observation 200. He’s hitting the ball harder than ever – when he gets it off the ground:

Interestingly, the same can’t be said of his grounders. He’s showing far more pop when he elevates, but his average exit velocity on grounders is towards his career lows, which explains how he’s getting more out of his contact despite a lower overall hard-hit rate:

Is Hayes finally tapping into his power? I’m hardly an impartial observer, but I’m getting excited. Hitting the ball hard and in the air has always been a struggle for him. He’s been a valuable player despite that. If he can recapture even a fraction of the power on contact he displayed in a white-hot 2020, he might be a force to be reckoned with in the Pittsburgh lineup.

Normally, I’d say that he doesn’t have to be. A slick-fielding third baseman with average offense is already a valuable player; Hayes was worth three wins above replacement last year despite an anemic .244/.314/.345 batting line. But the Pirates need some good fortune to contend with their shoestring budget. Hayes turning into a superstar on a bargain contract could be the exact break they’ve been waiting for over the past few years.

4. Gary Sánchez’s Second Fifth Act
I was living in New York when Gary Sánchez broke into the majors, and it’s not hyperbole to say that his rookie season was the biggest story in town. He looked like the next Yankees superstar, and perhaps because of that memory, I’ve always expected him to have a little more in the tank. As he vanished to Minnesota, and then to the land of minor league free agent deals, I couldn’t quite believe it. He was so good when he was good.

This year looked like it might be the last of Sánchez’s major league career. He started the year in Triple-A with the Giants, then opted out of his minor league deal to sign with the Mets and pursue an opportunity opened up by various injuries. That lasted all of seven plate appearances; Tomás Nido’s return meant Sánchez got designated for assignment. What an ignominious end for the one-time toast of New York.

Only, it wasn’t the end. AJ Preller’s Padres were a perfect fit for Sánchez: Preller loves acquiring top international prospects from the middle of the last decade (examples: Nomar Mazara, Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor) and San Diego’s catching situation is a mess. Sánchez got a shot, and he’s running with it.

He’s always had this kind of easy power. That’s not in doubt:

Neither is his throwing arm; he’s already thrown out two would-be base stealers. Likewise, the holes in his game are the same as always. He’s an indifferent blocker (he’s already racked up a passed ball and two wild pitches in San Diego) who strikes out too often. We’re not looking at a Garenaissance here; to paraphrase the late Denny Green, he is who we thought he was.

For the Padres, that might be enough. Luis Campusano, Brett Sullivan, and Austin Nola have combined for -1.1 WAR this year. In plain English, they’ve been awful, and Campusano’s hurt. The Padres are, as ever, built around a few stars and a lot of hope. Depth is hard to come by when you trade your entire minor league system for major league roster upgrades.

Sánchez isn’t going to finish the season with a 169 wRC+. He’s not going to win an MVP or anything like that. I’m not even sure he’s a first-division starter. But he’s a productive member of an exciting team, something I absolutely didn’t see coming this winter, and particularly not this spring as he spun the minor league contract wheel. What a fun rebound.

5. Reds Fever: Catch It
I didn’t come into the 2023 season expecting much from the Cincinnati Reds, but they’ve sneakily turned into one of the most exciting teams in baseball already. It’s not just all-world prospect Elly De La Cruz, though it’s partially him. I mean, look at this home run:

Heck, look at this triple:

But De La Cruz isn’t the only reason to watch this Reds team. Matt McLain is riding a completely unsustainable BABIP to a white-hot start of his own, and he’s playing solid shortstop defense while he’s at it. Jonathan India is in the middle of a bounce-back season and still might be running out of places to play because the Reds simply have too many infielders. Spencer Steer looks like the real deal, Joey Votto might be back soon, and Christian Encarnacion-Strand is setting Triple-A ablaze in a call-up audition. Their infield is jam-packed with exciting players.

Are they a finished team? Most definitely not. The pitching staff behind Hunter Greene is full of question marks, though Andrew Abbott should help there. Their outfield is mostly filled with placeholders; Jake Fraley and Stuart Fairchild probably won’t be parts of the next great Reds team. Jose Barrero and Will Benson look like fringe contributors at best. Tyler Stephenson is doing less and less catching, but he might not have the bat of a DH, particularly given the infield clutter the team is dealing with.

Those are reasons not to believe in the Reds as a serious contender just yet, but they aren’t reasons to avoid watching them. They’re so much fun right now. Youth movements are a blast, in my experience; the good games can feel like parties as the players feed off of each other. Benson’s walkoff blast against the Dodgers, the second consecutive game the Reds closed out in the bottom of the ninth, was awesome:

It’s been a rough decade for Cincinnati fans, with a two-game playoff cameo in the 2020 season their only postseason action since the Dusty Baker era that saw three playoff berths from 2010-13. Given the state of the pitching staff, I don’t think the playoffs are in the cards this year. But brighter days are ahead, and between the young cores of the Reds and the Pirates, the NL Central looks to be on the upswing for the first time in quite a while.

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

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1 year ago

love this reds team. ashcraft needs to figure out his fastball command