Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, May 19

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another installment of my weekly look at five things that caught my interest in baseball. As always, I’m indebted to Zach Lowe of ESPN for the idea – his basketball column is a must-read, and his observant eye always inspires me to look a little closer at what I’m watching. This week’s edition features one of the best players in the game, a fourth outfielder, an old ace reinventing himself, a current ace who I’ve unreasonably projected my own mannerisms onto, and a switch-hitter who might not be switch-hitting anymore. Let’s get to it.

1. Ronald Acuña Jr., All-Everything Again
Baseball lost one of its most exciting young stars when Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL in 2021. He was in the middle of breaking out – if you can truly break out from the elevated perch he already occupied – when it all just stopped. He didn’t play again for nearly a year, and 2022 Acuña wasn’t the same when he did return. He just didn’t have that extra gear that made him such a delight to watch when he debuted.

This year, it’s safe to say he’s back. His prodigious bat speed was already starting to reemerge in the second half of last season, but it’s on full display again in 2023. He’s back to being one of the fastest players in baseball, to boot; his 11 homers and 17 steals have me doing downright irresponsible 40/40 math on a nightly basis. He’s first in baseball in Wins Above Replacement among position players, which seems like a pretty good indication that he’s up to his old tricks.

That’s all well and good, but for me, watching him is the surest proof. He was a generational prospect for a reason; one look at Acuña is all you need. True story: I saw him in the Arizona Fall League in 2017, before he’d debuted in the majors, and he didn’t just look like he belonged in the big leagues — he looked like one of the best players there. That sheer athleticism is finally back.

To borrow from the late David Foster Wallace, Acuña’s swing is a great liquid whip. It doesn’t follow the laws of physics that other hitters are constrained by; the barrel of the bat stays in the zone for an impossibly long time, and yet carries unthinkable force. This home run looked almost casual:

It was also hit off of Sandy Alcantara at a jaw-dropping 115 mph. That’s the kind of thing that Acuña routinely did before his injury and that he’s getting back to now.

But it’s not just home runs that announce Acuña’s return. He looks like a Ferrari on the basepaths again, stealing bases freely:

Even when he gets caught in a rundown, the threat of turning on the jets makes defenders play conservatively. Though he never put it into high gear on this play, he stayed in it long enough for the defenders to do something silly and let him escape:

Oh, and don’t run on Ronald, by the way:

His 181 wRC+ is awesome. He’s striking out less often than ever before, which should pay long-term dividends. But those things are less impressive to me than seeing Acuña back in peak athletic form. Watching him is a delight. I’m thrilled for all of us that, after two years of having it taken away, we’re getting to see him at his best again. Now if he could just get back to playing good defense to go with that glorious arm…

2. Chris Sale Gutting It Out
Chris Sale might be a star, but that’s where the similarities with Acuña end. He doesn’t look effortless and overpowering; he looks like he’s throwing his entire body into every last pitch. You can almost hear the ligaments straining when he fires a high fastball:

That’s always been the case. Even when he was at his best for the better part of the 2010s, fans and analysts alike worried whether he could keep it up. Eventually, they were right; he made only 11 starts from 2020 through 2022, and while he’s already up to seven starts in 2023, he doesn’t look like the same guy he used to be. I don’t either, and time is undefeated in the long run, but it’s still weird to see Sale as just another pitcher rather than a sneering, jersey-slashing final boss.

I don’t think Sale will ever sustainably reach those highs again. That doesn’t mean he can’t wake up the echoes every once in a while, though. Last Saturday against St. Louis, Sale put up his best game of the 2020s. The Cardinals are perhaps the worst matchup in baseball for a lefty pitcher; since the start of the 2022 season, they’re hitting a combined .262/.338/.455 against lefties, good for a 125 wRC+. Their stars are righties. Their switch-hitters are better from the right side of the plate (more on this later). Their lefties hit lefties well. It’s an absolute nightmare.

Sale was up to the task. He held the Cardinals down for the first seven innings of the game, allowing only a Nolan Arenado solo home run. It was his third straight start of six or more innings, and his second straight with more strikeouts than innings pitched. But the Red Sox needed more — they’d torn their bullpen to shreds the previous day, sending five arms out in relief of James Paxton. Sale had already thrown 92 pitches, but he headed back out to the mound to deal with the bottom of the Cardinals lineup and preserve the lead his team worked so hard to give him.

The Cardinals didn’t make it easy on him. Andrew Knizner wouldn’t go away quietly:

He worked the count to 3-2 before flying out weakly. One more batter to go, and Sale reached back for everything he had left. Here are the last four pitches of his outing:

Here’s my best fastball — 97, 97, 96, 97 — in the strike zone. Come and get it. That’s the kind of pitcher Sale was at his very best. He might not be that guy consistently anymore, but it sure is fun seeing him turn back the clock when he needs it. Time is undefeated in the long run, but Sale is fighting it to a standstill right now.

3. Raimel Tapia, Monster Whisperer
Boston has built up a lot of Fenway mythology over the years and with good reason. One I’ve always enjoyed is the difficulty of playing left field beneath the Green Monster. It’s not that it’s impossibly hard or anything – there’s really not that much space to cover – but the angles are all wrong compared to playing in a conventional park.

Raimel Tapia isn’t a Boston lifer. He’s spent most of his career playing in the exact opposite of Fenway’s cramped and carom-heavy outfield: Coors Field and its endless expanses of grass. So maybe this is a sideways dig at Fenway mythology, because Tapia looks like he’s been playing there his entire life. Watch this, for example:

That’s a beautiful barehand pick, and if someone slower than Julio Rodríguez were running, it probably would have been an outfield assist. Failing that, it likely would have kept the runner at first. Oh, you want an example of that? How about one from the next inning:

I can’t stress enough how weird of a play this is for an outfielder. He looks almost like a third baseman out there, waiting for a high hop to come down for a barehand catch – only instead of throwing to first, he has to get much more mustard on it. Check out his footwork; he’s already starting a crow hop before he even catches the ball. The instant he secures it, he’s simultaneously turning his head to locate the second baseman and planting his left foot to initiate the throw.

Playing that shallow also means you’ll need to make weird short-hop recoveries because line drives come in much faster than they would at normal outfield depth. Here’s Tapia using his whole body to hold Teoscar Hernández to a single:

Sharp-eyed readers might note that all three of these plays are from the same game. What, was Tapia just playing out of his mind for one day? Maybe – but I watched every inning he’s played in left field at home this year and those three were the only tough plays he’s attempted. That’s another effect of the Monster; there just isn’t much playable outfield, which means there aren’t that many plays. That only makes me more impressed, though. Tapia’s a fourth outfielder, playing part-time at all three outfield spots. He rarely has a chance to try plays like these ones at game speed because they don’t come up very often. And still! He looks like a natural out there. You love to see it.

4. Kevin Gausman’s Twitchy Swagger
I can’t sit still. That’s hardly a me-only thing, I know, but I just can’t do it. I shuffle poker chips or coins. I hop from one foot to the other, or twiddle my thumbs. I spin a pen in my hands, or drum my fingers on my chair’s armrests. I slide my wedding ring off and then back on. Even when I’m writing on a deadline, I have to get up or spin around in my chair. I’m not alone in this, I know. In fact, Kevin Gausman is a lot like me, at least in this very narrow way.

I can’t get over this stylish flip:

He does that frequently. That’s not what most pitchers do. They grab the ball out of their glove, usually gently, but of course angrily from time to time. You can probably picture the John Lackeys of the world up there glowering while they yank the ball out of their glove disdainfully. But Gausman is pulling off a neat sleight of hand instead. Here, take a look at it in a different game:

Even aside from the flip, he’s a lot bouncier than your average pitcher. He moves around while he’s getting signs:

If he forgets to flip it up to himself, sometimes he’ll put the ball back in his glove so he can toss it back out:

That’s just who Gausman is on the mound. Even his delivery feels jagged, with a little more leg movement than you’d expect and a hesitation somehow tucked into the middle of a fluid motion:

What does this have to do with Gausman’s skill on the mound? Nothing, really. But he’s a ton of fun to watch for his mannerisms in addition to being great. Stars: They’re just like us, at least when it comes to the need to keep moving at all times.

5. Tommy Edman Stops Switching
You might not know this if you aren’t a Cardinals fan, but Tommy Edman is far better as a righty batter than he is as a lefty. He torches lefty pitching to the tune of a career .290/.333/.512 line, but hits a comparatively weak .263/.320/.383 against righties. That’s a larger split than most right-handed batters display, and that’s with the platoon advantage. Edman simply doesn’t have any power from the left side of the plate, and at this point everyone on both teams knows it. He bats much higher in the lineup against lefties, opponents attack him with right-handed relievers, and so on.

In 2021, Edman briefly experimented with remaining on the right side of the plate against righties. He tried it on exactly two days: July 21 against Tyler Mahle, and July 28 against a parade of righty relievers in Cleveland. It didn’t work – he went 0-for-4 combined – and he abandoned the experiment. But this year, he’s trying it again with much greater frequency.

First, he tried it against George Kirby. Kirby has displayed large reverse splits in his brief major league career, though I’m skeptical of how real they are. His biggest issue seems to be a .359 BABIP against righties, and he doesn’t have any particularly platoon-busting pitches. The most notable feature of Kirby’s arsenal is that he doesn’t throw many sliders — only 15% even against righties this year. In any case, Edman didn’t have much success against him, and he reverted to switch hitting when he faced Justin Topa later in the same game.

Edman wasn’t done, though: He tried it again against Mason Englert, a cutter-dominant Tigers reliever. Then he went back to the well against Brad Boxberger – Boxberger has pronounced reverse splits over a long major league career in relieving, so this one makes a lot of sense to me. Then it was time to step up to the plate righty against some truly fearsome opposition.

First on the list: Kenley Jansen. Jansen has been effective against both lefties and righties throughout his career, and cutters are notable for having no platoon splits to speak of. Right on cue, Edman turned on a cutter for a well-struck double:

Jansen might have the most famous cutter since Mariano Rivera. If he doesn’t, Corbin Burnes has a solid claim to that title. Naturally, then, it was time for Edman to bat righty against Burnes:

Seems like a pretty good plan! Of course, Burnes had a counter: he threw Edman nothing but sinkers and curveballs the rest of the way, discarding his cutter completely. Edman went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a weak grounder. That Burnes curveball is tough, particularly when you’ve rarely seen a right-handed curveball from the righty batter’s box.

Abandoning switch hitting is easier said than done. Sure, you might be naturally better from one side of the plate than the other, but the accumulated muscle memory from years of seeing right-handed pitchers from one vantage point adds up. The best time for Edman to give up on switch hitting was probably five years ago, when he’d have more reps to get used to it.

Still, I like that he’s trying it now. It’s a cool subplot if nothing else, and I think there might be something there. There will be growing pains, no doubt, but given St. Louis’ glut of offensive options, it might have been this or lose playing time. I’m all for players trying everything they can to help the team, and if it’s something unique like voluntarily giving up a platoon advantage, that’s particularly interesting.

I hope you had as much fun as I did reliving the past week in little enjoyable baseball things. And hey, don’t let the world get you down too much. Even if you feel like you can’t do anything right:

Things might turn out okay in the end:

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

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11 months ago

Nanodracula Jr. lives!!!!!!!