Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, May 5

Randy Arozarena
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Cinco de Mayo, and welcome to another edition of five things I liked or didn’t like in baseball this week. As I’ll surely note until the heat death of the universe, I got the idea for this column from Zach Lowe, who writes my favorite basketball column with the same conceit. This week’s edition has a little bit of everything.

1. Tampa Bay’s Perpetual Green Light

I’m going to show you the start of a play:

Now, here’s the deal: without the benefit of an error, the runner on third scored on this play. The runner on first advanced safely to second. How? The power of aggression and a heaping helping of Randy Arozarena realizing no one is covering second base, that’s how:

Poor Lucas Giolito saw it all, but like Cassandra, no one listened to him. The last-second point towards home plate is heartbreakingly pointless.

That might not look like a high-percentage play, but the Rays have been making this kind of aggression work all year. It helps to have a team full of fast and fast-twitch baserunners, and running in spots like that gives you the element of surprise, but you also risk some outs if you run so aggressively.

Only, the Rays don’t make outs on the basepaths. They’ve been caught stealing nine times, but they’ve only run into four other outs on the basepaths, which is shocking considering their aggression; they led baseball with 73 baserunning outs last year. But if you run this aggressively and don’t get caught, you’ll probably be the best baserunning team in baseball, and indeed they are: they’ve added 7.5 runs of value on the basepaths this year, three runs ahead of second place. Everyone’s getting in on the act: Arozarena might be the ringleader, but Yandy Díaz made an excellent secondary read to turn Arozarena’s cheeky advancement into a run.

Can they keep it up all year? I doubt it, because c’mon, did you see that play? There’s pushing the envelope, and then there’s tagging up on a popup that barely left the infield. But maybe I’m wrong, because they pulled off another daring heist Tuesday:

Boy, I hope I’m wrong. The Rays are a ton of fun, and their berserk baserunning is a big reason why. Brandon Lowe is enjoying it as much as I am:

2. Jorge Mateo’s Intuitive Brilliance

Close your eyes and visualize, and I’m sure you can come up with an idea of what good shortstop defense looks like. It’s range into the hole, a strong arm, and catlike agility to transition from one to the other. Jorge Mateo checks all the boxes, and he has a 2022 Fielding Bible award to prove it. But wait, there’s more:

You can add a talent for improvisation to that list of skills, clearly. Baseball isn’t always a fast sport, but fielding is all about split-second decisions. There’s no time to plan out your next move; a few tenths of a second is the difference between a fast runner and a plodding slugger, between an out and a hit. The fielders have an internal clock that lets them know when they can take an extra beat, but that’s a beat to gather yourself, not a beat to see the entire field from above and realize you can make an unfathomable play.

Most of the time, no one even gets to that ball. Mateo’s range is superlative, particularly on plays deep on the dirt or into the outfield. But even when he got to the ball, the obvious play was a throw to first base. This position hardly screams “sprint to third”:

When pundits talk about baseball IQ, they don’t usually mean plays quite this spectacular. They usually mean smart baserunning, or backing up an unintuitive position when the play develops weirdly. They don’t mean this play, because plays like this never happen. Mateo had about the blink of an eye to make up his mind when he saw Zach McKinstry take off for third. He was in the middle of loading up to throw to first when his peripheral vision picked up a baserunner, and he didn’t hesitate for an instant:

That’s bad luck for McKinstry, who saw Gunnar Henderson sprawled out on the ground and thought he had a free base. Against roughly 29 shortstops in baseball, he did. But Mateo is decisive, and blazing fast to boot. McKinstry isn’t slow, but you can count the number of major leaguers who can beat Mateo in a footrace on one hand. Henderson might be the presumptive shortstop of the future in Baltimore, but right now Mateo is hitting .321/.372/.595 and playing improvisational jazz defense. He’s a key driver behind Baltimore’s surprising start.

3. Michael A. Taylor, Making Plays

If you went back in time to March and told Twins fans that Byron Buxton wouldn’t have played a single game in center field this year by May, they’d be devastated. But Minnesota is in first place in a weak AL Central, and Buxton has been raking as a full-time DH to start the year. Using one of the best defensive outfielders of our generation there — voluntarily! — sounds bonkers, but after the Twins acquired Michael A. Taylor this offseason, they could replicate Buxton’s defensive value in center and give him a less taxing role to help keep his bat in the lineup.

This strategy wouldn’t work if Taylor didn’t produce offensively, but he’s done just that so far. He’s never going to be a dynamo at the plate — this is his 10th season in the majors, and he’s only posted a wRC+ above 100 once — but if he can stay in the neighborhood of average offensively, the Twins will happily save mileage on Buxton’s legs.

One way Taylor is contributing offensively: with a marvelous bunting game. He’s already dropped a walkoff bunt this year, which is hard to top. Last Friday, he pulled off what looked like a comparatively easy one, a safety squeeze that pulled Salvador Perez off of home plate and drove in Joey Gallo:

That’s exactly where they teach you to bunt it. Look at an overhead view of the situation as Perez retrieved the ball:

Magnificent. Even more fortuitously, no one was covering first, which means that Taylor both drove Gallo in and reached safely himself. Old school coaches frequently say that a squeeze bunt with less than two outs is the hardest play to defend, and that goes double when someone like Taylor is blazing towards first base. But he didn’t stop there:

What?!?! A double, too? That’s just icing on the cake, and if you do the math, you can see why it happened. Four infielders converged on home plate. One infielder tried and failed to cover first. That only leaves the shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr., who was covering third on the play. Why cover second with a runner on third and no one else? Because Taylor will take a free base if you’ll give it to him, that’s why. I especially loved Witt moonwalking backwards toward third just to be safe:

Taylor wasn’t satisfied with a ten-foot double, though; he stole third base later in the inning and scored a run. He might not have Buxton’s thunder, but when Taylor is playing like this, he’s a first-division center fielder. That’s exactly what the Twins had in mind when they traded for him this winter, and they’re hoping it will pay off with a fresh and healthy Buxton to prevent any September swoons this year.

4. Juan Soto, Patient as Always

Juan Soto is off to the most disappointing decent start to a season in recent memory. He’s hitting .227/.397/.427, good for a 130 wRC+, the second-best mark on the Padres. He’s also second on the team in WAR, trailing only Xander Bogaerts. That’s only a bad start by Soto’s elite standards, or as measured in batting average, I suppose. But even he would tell you that he’s been off. His swing looks unsettled; he’s been too early on a lot of pitches this year, resulting in more popups and wasted grounders than we’re used to from him.

Even when he’s scuffling, though, I love watching Soto work. His swing might be misfiring right now, but his sense of the strike zone is as strong as ever. On a 2-for-4 Monday night that featured a two-run double, I found myself transfixed by an eighth-inning walk. It started uncharacteristically, with a first-pitch swing. And a second-pitch swing. And a third-pitch swing:

Reiver Sanmartin was having a tough inning, but his first three pitches were perfectly located. He was dotting corners and making Soto look foolish. That last swing looks more like me playing intramural softball in college than one of the best hitters in baseball.

0–2 is a great spot for any pitcher to be in. Even though the outcome of the game wasn’t in doubt, striking Soto out would be a feather in his cap. But the job wasn’t done yet, and Soto is darn near impossible to fool. First, he got out of the way of a waste pitch:

A bounced changeup led to a muted shuffle and evened the count at 2-2:

Poor Sanmartin: he threw three great pitches and two bad ones, and now he was getting trapped in Soto’s web. This is still a pitcher’s count, but only nominally, and only against an average batter. It already felt like he would have to pull out something special to get a strikeout.

On his next pitch, he missed his target by a mile — and nearly dotted the inside corner:

That was an ugly swing, more a desperate attempt to defend a well-located pitch than an offensive effort. It worked, though, and Soto even found time to apologize to Curt Casali after catching him with the backswing.

My favorite part of all these clips is how much of a show it all is. He pounds himself in the hip after bad swings. He shuffles after good takes, or dances away after a pitcher buzzes him inside, smiling all the while. He’ll apologize to the catcher or chat up the umpire. All the while, he’s measuring the strike zone. And Sanmartin had gone from in control to barely hanging on:

More shuffling. More pounding. All of the sudden it was 3–2, and Sanmartin was surely despairing against this strike zone robot he was facing. Out of his last six pitches, three had been near-perfect, bisecting the edge of the zone. Soto fouled all three off and comfortably took the three that missed.

You probably know what’s coming next:

Pitchers can only throw strikes for so long. No one hits their target every time. Against Soto, that’s all he needs: leave the door open a crack, and he’ll walk through it to first base. He’ll put on a show while doing it, too.

Walks are mostly boring. They’re my least favorite part of three-true-outcome baseball; strikeouts are usually filled with delightful pitches and flailing swings, and home runs are a jolt of adrenaline, but walks are just men in pajamas standing around debating rules. Not when it’s Soto doing it, though. He’s a one-man show, with the pitcher providing the stage. I’m in favor of more walks in baseball — as long as Juan Soto is drawing them.

5. Stall Tactics

We’ve all seen it this year. The pitch clock is ticking down. The man on the mound hasn’t figured out what to throw, and he’s oblivious. There he is, staring down the catcher; doesn’t he know he has to go go go?? Three seconds, two seconds, one second — wait, timeout?

That’s Luke Maile circumventing the pitch clock there, but it happens quite a lot. The one that sticks in my head most so far is Alejandro Kirk, saving Chris Bassitt from further angst (and a walk) after he’d racked up an automatic ball before the game started:

The pitch clock has been a smashing success. Games are flying by, and they’re doing so with just as much action as before. That bonus tension when the clock gets low is the right mixture of low stakes but not no stakes; it matters, but it’s hardly going to flip the game on its head. It’s just a ball, or a strike depending on who’s being charged for it. They’re not out there awarding automatic home runs or anything; as far as I’m concerned, it’s a perfectly reasonable price to pay for streamlining the game.

These late timeouts circumvent the design of the rules, but it’s hard to blame the catchers for that. Canceling a ball is far more valuable than a mound visit; it would be a mistake not to call timeout in both of these situations. It even shows situational awareness, something I normally love in baseball.

My problem with it is that when a catcher calls for a mound visit, he actually has to go out and visit the mound. I’m not categorically anti-mound-visit; baseball is a mental sport, and a well-timed visit to let a pitcher cool down or refocus can steady the ship in trying times. But these visits aren’t about that. They’re about preventing an automatic ball, and then hey, I called a visit, might as well go out there. I understand why catchers are jogging out to the mound in these situations, but it’s merely ornamental, wasting time for the sake of wasting time.

Baseball without dead air is awesome. The league shouldn’t let this loophole stand. If a catcher wants to use one of their mound visits to prevent an automatic ball, let them. But don’t let them go out to the mound when they do; that’s not why they used it. Those meetings are basically useless; Maile and Kirk each spent less than ten seconds at the mound on their visits. When a catcher calls timeout with less than five seconds left on the pitch clock, the umpire should allow it, but keep the catcher behind home plate. MLB is doing a great job reining in dead time. They should stick with it and excise these vestigial mound visits.

Once again, thank you for indulging me as I walk through the plays that made me jump out of my seat or throw my hands in the air, for better or worse, this week. Until next time, enjoy baseball, and enjoy the tiny moments as much as the big ones.

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

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9 months ago

Baseball is a lot more fun to me this year, and this column captures a lot of the stuff I don’t get to see. The Rays are just a fun team to watch, but that’s true of all the good teams this year, as those teams all seem to be really aggressive on the bases.

One thing I’m noticing- and I think it’s chickenshit but it’s allowed- is a lot of batter timeouts with two strikes. Makes sense? I would probably do it too. I’m curious if there’s more success for batters after a timeout.

9 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

If you haven’t already used your timeout for that PA, why wouldn’t you use it with two strikes? A lot of players change their approaches at the plate in 2 strike counts, it makes sense to me to want to have a few extra seconds to think through scouting notes/choke up/whatever.

9 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Boy, as a Cardinals fan, this is the worst season of baseball I’ve experienced in my long, long life. I wish I could sit back and enjoy some of the changes; they are mostly good for baseball. I’m glad fanbases around the country, such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, are getting to enjoy the game, though.