Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, May 17

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another edition of Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week. After taking a week off to recharge and travel, I was itching to watch some baseball this week, and the sport delivered. After spending last week in New York, I had the city on my mind, and the Mets delivered with some exciting series against the Braves and Phillies. There was good rivalry action out west, too, with the Dodgers and Giants squaring off. And of course, there’s that classic rivalry, Tommy Pham against the concept of ever taking a single play off. As always, thanks to Zach Lowe for the inspiration for this series. Let’s get right into it.

1. Max Effort Every Time

Tommy Pham is my favorite baseball player. To be clear, I don’t think he’s the best baseball player. I’m not sure that I, personally, would want him as a teammate, even. He’s too intense for my laid back view of the world. But his maniacal drive is absolutely delightful to watch, and it’s particularly delightful now that he’s on a team that is absolutely not competing for a playoff spot this year.

The White Sox are dead in the water, but don’t tell Pham that. He doesn’t have a halfway bone in his body. Everything is maxed out all the time. In the Tuesday matinee half of a doubleheader against the woeful Nats, Pham was all business. This is his “celebration” after tying the game with a line drive single:

That’s the look of someone who is locked in. And he’s not just locked in at the plate. Let the ball bounce away just a few feet from catcher Riley Adams, and Pham is taking second base, and third if you’ll let him:

A lot of runners wouldn’t have broken so hard as soon as the ball got ever so slightly free. But Pham isn’t a lot of runners. It’s to his detriment sometimes – he might be the only baserunner to dance far enough off first base for Jon Lester to pick him off – but he’s always redlining, always taking the smallest half-chance anyone gives him.

Pham is 36 and playing center field more often than not. He’s not taking many days off; the White Sox have played in 14 games this month, and he’s started 13 of them. He’s been injury prone throughout his career. You’d think that staying healthy and showcasing that he can still hit so that he can be a deadline trade acquisition would be at the forefront of his mind. But no, Pham just wants to win.

Marginal baserunning opportunities? Pham didn’t go from a 16th round draft pick to a 10-year major league career by passing those up. You don’t make $36 million after breaking into the majors at 27 by taking plays off. Tough sinking liners that are hard to pick up against the stadium lights? Pham isn’t playing those on the hop, obviously; he’s going for the whole thing:

That wasn’t the best fielding play you’ll see all year, but it was a high effort play. It’s risky, too; if Pham missed that one, a run would score, and he had little reaction time and little margin for error given the trajectory. As Steve Stone pointed out on the White Sox broadcast, he had to angle his body while coming in to be able to see the ball through the glare. A lot of fielders would just let that one bounce and hold the batter to a single. But Pham’s not the kind of guy to make the safe play, and it worked out well for the Sox on this one.

Grinding at-bats is hard at the best of times, but I imagine it’s tougher when your team is 3-22 on the day you play your first game. The White Sox have gone 11-8 since then, but even when they get blown out, Pham is giving 100% until the last out, taking everything that’s left on the table and angling for a little more than that if he can get it. His offensive game is built on elite pitch recognition and just enough aggression to keep pitchers from flooding the zone. That means every plate appearance is a battle, and it must be tempting to sell out for power on the first pitch every once in a while and give yourself a mental break. But that’s not Pham’s game; he’s only too happy to battle every time up, regardless of situation.

It’s an absolute delight to watch him play, and I hope we get to for years to come. Few players take baseball more seriously than Pham, and for as much as I enjoy tomfoolery and hijinks, I love a dose of hard-nosed hustle every now and again. The White Sox – and whoever ends up trading for him in a month or two – are lucky to have him.

2. 20-v-1

OK, fine, it didn’t actually take 20 Mets to retire Bryson Stott on this play, but it sure felt like it:

Just your standard 3-2-5-2-3 putout. This felt like the punchline of a classic joke: How many Mets does it take to retire a baserunner? There were plenty of heroes and goats on this play, and some of them were even the same people. Omar Narváez started the rundown in standard fashion, and his soft toss to Brett Baty should have sewn this play up nicely, but Baty simply missed it:

The backup in that part of the field was Narváez, because he would normally take over the third base side of the rundown as Baty chased Stott home. But this was no ordinary play; he had to field the ball with his back to Stott, take an inside turn, then make a right-to-left throw with his momentum carrying him the wrong way and with Stott in his throwing lane. The throw was understandably off line.

Pete Alonso was ready for action, though. He saw what was going on at third and got in a defensive crouch in front of the plate instead of treating it like a routine play. Then he made a nice scoop and took care of business:

That’s some top notch recovery work by both Narváez and Alonso, neither of whom have great reputations as defenders. It didn’t matter even a little bit, of course. The Mets didn’t score a run in this game, and they’re scuffling through a tough patch of offensive underperformance. But they’re still giving extra effort to clean up messes, even if those messes are of their own making.

Bonus goat: Stott possibly could have been safe a few different times on this play. He broke toward home when Narváez tossed the ball to Baty, but if he’d seen Baty bobble the ball, he likely could have made it back to third base safely. Then, he kept his eye on the ball and decelerated to a stop when Narváez made his rushed throw home. That’s instinctual, but I don’t think it was right. That’s a really tough throw, and trail runner Alec Bohm was going to make it to third anyway. If you’re going to beat a rundown, you need to put pressure on the defense on the tough exchanges, and Narváez’s wheeling throw was the toughest exchange. When you decelerate there, you’re just giving up an out. If he’d broken for home and gone with it, I think he had a reasonable chance at scoring. Josh Harrison would never.

3. 1-v-20

The opposite of that Mets ensemble play is Matt Chapman taking on the Dodgers by himself:

That’s just ludicrous. No one makes that play. I mean that almost literally, in fact: I used Stathead to look for groundballs that occurred with only a runner on third and less than two outs, and there have been seven other 5-3 double plays since 1969, the first year with complete play-by-play data. In other words, you don’t see this one every day.

So many things had to line up for this play to happen. First, Chapman has to scoop a hard-hit baseball cleanly with Outman screening him. It’s not a gimme, though hardly the hardest part of this play:

Next, Outman had to make the textbook-correct play of trying to get back to third. Honestly, what else can he do there? If he freezes, he’s a sitting duck. If he breaks toward home, he’s also as good as out. But if he can get back to third before Chapman gets there, he’s keeping a runner in scoring position. And what’s the worst that could happen? Oh, right:

You can see that Outman realized it as soon as he started back toward the base. He tried to stop his momentum, but it was too late. Chapman smelled blood, and he accelerated toward Outman instead of starting a lackadaisical rundown for a routine out. Then Chapman brought out the cannon:

That’s why he’s one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. That’s not some lumbering ox headed down the first base line, it’s Mookie Freaking Betts. And Chapman got him by a lot despite throwing across his body from foul territory. That’s what one man taking on an entire team looks like, defensively speaking. It didn’t work out so hot for the Giants in the end – they lost 10-2 – but brilliant defense like that is part of what you get with Chapman.

Bonus Chapman: If you like players who embody the place where they play, Chapman is your guy. He was born and raised in California, went to college in Fullerton, then played the vast majority of his career in Oakland. When he hit free agency, he came back. He exclusively plays music originating from California as his walkup song, and generally music from the Bay (“Not Like Us” made it into his rotation this week as the California classic of the moment). He seems like he truly likes living in the Bay Area, and I hope he sticks around on the team for a while to give fans more time to appreciate him.

4. What is it, the Braves?

Brandon Nimmo was hurt; he left Saturday’s game with soreness in his right side. But he had to come back Sunday, even at less than 100%, because something about playing against Atlanta turns him superhuman this year. He’s hitting an absurd .450/.500/1.050 against them, and this isn’t empty production either. There he was, forced into batting after entering the game as a pinch runner, with everything on the line:

This isn’t some fluke of easy pitching matchups. He’s tagged A.J. Minter for two homers. He’s wearing out Charlie Morton: two singles, a walk, and a homer. Tyler Matzek is a lefty specialist, and Nimmo is 2-for-2 with a triple against him. It doesn’t matter what Atlanta does; he’s just crushing everything its pitchers throw at him right now.

In fact, this is a Mets-wide phenomenon, not just a Nimmo thing. The two teams have played six times already, the most that either team has faced any opponent this year, and they’ve played to a 3-3 tie. The Mets get up for these games; they have a .345 wOBA against the Braves and a .294 wOBA against everyone else. They get on base more. They slug more. They’re not facing chumps, either; Atlanta’s pitching staff has been quite good this year, and the Mets are taking it to them.

This being baseball, the distribution of their success probably won’t matter in the long run. Sure, it’s good to go 3-3 against arguably the best team in baseball, but the vast majority of their games are against other teams, and the Mets haven’t been so hot there. They do have an easier schedule the rest of the season thanks to getting half of these games out of the way already, but at the end of the day, getting a win matters much more than who you get it against. Still, I love to see teams raise their level against good opposition, and this definitely counts.

5. Sometimes You’re Gonna Pop Out

Everyone other than Joey Votto hits the occasional popup. You know the rule: A popup is as good as an out. We even use that in our WAR calculation here. Major league batters are hitting .017/.017/.019 on popups this year. But minor league batters are hitting roughly double that in the tracked data we have available. Sure, most lazy fly balls don’t present much of a defensive challenge. But sometimes you can place one juuuuuuust right and find a safe patch of grass where a defender will have to make a stellar play to convert your mishit into an out.

The thing is, major league defenders make stellar plays. They make the tough plays that turn fringey popups into outs all the time. Luis Matos would have survived with only a foul ball against most first basemen, even major leaguers. But Freddie Freeman is just too good:

His replacement in Atlanta is no slouch either:

Sure, the railing is a lot of the challenge there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge. Tristan Gray did the same on the other side of the diamond:

Isaac Paredes took advantage of the extra space from the on-field bullpen to snag a tough one:

Karma came for Matt Olson when he lofted a foul popup of his own:

We could probably stop with that spectacular play, but why would we do that? After all, the extra popups that major league fielders convert mostly come on foul balls, but they aren’t exclusively on foul balls. This one would likely drop against weaker defenders:

That’s a long way to run for a catch with your back to the play. Speaking of which, this Paul DeJong play is more difficult than it looks, and it looks pretty difficult:

Edmundo Sosa snagged one too:

The point is, everything is just better at the major league level. The defenders make great plays against good contact, sure, but they do it against bad contact too. Maybe BABIP is down because hitters are swinging for the fences, but it’s also down because defenders are so dang good these days. All of these plays happened in the last week, and I didn’t even include every difficult play, because no one needs that many videos of fly outs. No wonder popups are such an offensive death sentence.

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

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2 months ago

Every team needs a Tommy Pham.

David Klein
2 months ago

And he enjoys when teammates tell him he taught them how to play hard again and he calls out teams that don’t work hard.

2 months ago

fortunately for the white sox, there will probably be a couple teams that want a tommy pham in a month or so!

2 months ago

Just don’t invite them to your fantasy football league!