Sunday Notes: Willson Contreras Stars in Will Craig’s Theatre of The Absurd

Javier Báez and Will Craig were the main protagonists in the tragicomedy that took place in Pittsburgh on Thursday. In a re-scripting of Merkle’s Boner, “El Mago” was cast as the hero, while the rookie first baseman co-starred as the unwitting villain. Given their respective roles, it’s understandable that they’ve received the lion’s share of attention for what transpired.

A supporting actor deserves his own acclaim. Largely overlooked — but no less important — were the actions of Willson Contreras. Had the Chicago catcher not made a mad dash toward home plate, panic and mayhem wouldn’t have entered the equation. Craig would have simply tagged Báez, relegating the latter’s amusing backpedal to a quickly-forgotten, footnote.

I brought that up to Pirates manager Derek Shelton on Friday.

“Yeah, I mean the one thing Contreras did was, he never gave up on the play,” responded Shelton. “He continued to run, and that was an important factor. He just continued to play, and finish the play. Unfortunately, it turned out against us.”

His thoughts on his ball club’s turning a routine play into Theatre of the Absurd?

“Move on from it,” said Shelton. “If we could all live our lives without making any mistakes, it would be really fun. But that doesn’t happen. Move on.”

Brandon Hyde and Will Venable have moved on from Chicago, where they
shared a clubhouse with Baez and Contreras as members of the Cubs coaching staff. I reached out to both for their perspectives on what will likely go down as the season’s craziest play.

“Knowing those guys the way I know them, that didn’t surprise me,” said Hyde, who now manages the Baltimore Orioles. “Willson is an extremely aggressive base runner. Always has been. At times he can run into outs, but he’s always going to take chances. And then Javy — I’ve seen it for years: the instincts he has. He plays the game like he’s playing in the back yard. So an extremely instinctual play by Javy, and then Willson is an ultra-aggressive baserunner [who is] fast for a catcher. He’s always going to push the envelope on the bases.”

“Javy did a great job of keeping the play alive,” said Venable, who is now Alex Cora’s bench coach in Boston. “Willson never stopped. With Javy, you just keep playing because you never know what’s going to happen when he’s out there. So yeah, great job by Willson to keep running.”

Kevin Cash doesn’t have the same level of familiarity with the Cub cohort, but like the rest of us he’s gazed in wonder at the replay. I asked for his thoughts on Contreras’s contribution.

“You can appreciate the anticipation that Contreras had, not assuming or quitting on the play,” said Cash. “It was pretty quirky. There’s a reason we’re all talking about it — you just don’t see it — but the way it looked from watching on highlights, [Contreras] was pretty committed to scoring if they were going to continue to extend that play. There was really no other option. I mean, if he just stands there, they tag [Baez] and the inning is over. But he created enough havoc — Baez and Contreras created enough havoc — to where it put a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of unfamiliarity, on that play. It messed the defense up a little bit.”

That would be an understatement. The play was messed up to the max, and not simply because Báez backpedaled and Craig brain-cramped. Contreras, his mad dash crucial to the script, is equally deserving of center stage.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Bibb Falk went 2 for 5 against Rube Yarrison.

Yam Yaryan went 4 for 5 against George Uhle.

Ad Yale went 0 for 4 against Irv Young.

Carl Yastrzemski went 10 for 16 against Bill Gogolewski.

Mike Yastrzemski is 8 for 9 against T.J. McFarland.

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Two Sundays ago, this column chronicled the collegiate exploits of Cole Irvin’s grandfather. The Oakland A’s southpaw told of how the late Roy Irvin helped lead USC to a Final Four appearance in 1954, but only after turning down a chance to play for John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.

Cole Irvin isn’t the only pitcher in the Oakland organization with a forebear who was accomplished in a different sport. Jack Weisenburger’s grandfather starred for the University of Michigan in the 1948 Rose Bowl.

“He was a role model for me, on and off the field,” said the 23-year-old Weisenburger, whom the A’s drafted out Michigan in 2019. “He loved talking about Michigan football, but it was never about himself or how he scored three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. It would be about how they whooped USC 49-0. If you look at the history of college football, they were one of the best teams of all time. He would always talk about that.”

The late Jack Weisenburger had an opportunity to play professional football, but he opted for baseball. An infielder, he played from 1948-1952, reaching Triple-A in the Boston Braves system. And while he never reached The Show, a big-league uniform was cherished family property for years. It was a Warren Spahn uniform. The Hall of Famer gifted it to Weisenburger one year during spring training.

The grandson’s career is off to a good start. Playing his first full season with the high-A Lansing Lugnuts, the young right-hander has made eight relief appearances and allowed just one run in nine-and-two-thirds innings. Moreover, 22 of the 29 outs he’s recorded have come via strikeout.

A visit to Driveline has helped fuel his success.

“I felt I didn’t have the velocity I wanted,” explained Weisenburger. “One of my college roommates who works for the Mets [as an analyst]— his name is Jack Bredesen — was also working for Driveline, so I went out to Seattle in November, right after Fall Instructional League. I was there for about a week, and then did remote after I came home to Michigan.”

Along with upping his velocity to a consistent mid-90s, Weisenburger has begun backspinning the ball better, increasing the ride he gets through the zone. He considers his slider — “I get a lot of horizontal movement on it” — his go-to pitch. Weisenburger also throws a curveball and an occasional changeup.

He recognizes the challenges in front of him. Asked how he can separate himself from his minor-league peers, the Rockford, Michigan native responded in pragmatic fashion.

“A right-handed relief pitcher is the most-common position in baseball, and there are a million guys trying out for a small amount of spots,” reasoned Weisenburger. “You’re splitting hairs to differentiate yourself — it seems like everyone is throwing mid- to upper-90s with a good breaking ball — so it’s just about staying healthy and throwing strikes. Hopefully you get the opportunities.”

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A quiz:

Billy Wagner holds the Houston Astros franchise record for saves. Which Houston pitcher holds the franchise record for wins?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES/LATE-MAY NOTABLES

Terry Francona got his 700th win as Cleveland’s manager on Thursday. That total is third-most in franchise history behind Lou Boudreau (728) and Mike Hargrove (721). Francona had 744 managerial wins with Boston, and 285 with Philadelphia.

Cameron Maybin flew out in his first at bat last night, making him 0 for 27 since joining the New York Mets — the longest hitless streak to begin a Mets tenure, surpassing Charley Smith’s 0-for-26 skein in 1964. Maybin singled his next time up.

Joe Beckwith, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Kansas City Royals from 1979-1986, died earlier this month at age 66. A right-handed reliever who logged a 3.54 ERA over 229 games, Beckwith won a World Series ring with the Royals in 1985.

Pirates left-hander Tyler Anderson has 19 plate appearances this year. He’s fanned 15 times and hasn’t drawn a walk. Reds right-hander Tyler Mahle has 20 plate appearances. He’s fanned twice and drawn three walks. Anderson has two hits, Mahle one.

Jacob deGrom has thrown 45 innings and been credited with three wins. He has a 0.80 ERA. Yumeiro Petit has thrown 28 innings and been credited with seven wins. He has a 3.21 ERA.

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The answer to the quiz is Joe Niekro, who was credited with 144 wins while pitching for the Astros. Roy Oswalt ranks second in franchise history with 143 wins.

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Jumping back to the Pirates, venerable Pittsburgh sports scribe John Perrotto asked Derek Shelton about his recent use of reliever Richard Rodríguez. With no late-inning leads to protect — the Bucs hadn’t won in a week — the underrated righty has been sans such opportunities.

“Richie’s really resilient,” Shelton said of the club’s closer, who has been stellar all season. “And to your point, John, not having save situations you have to keep him, and the [other] guys on our back end, sharp. Yesterday we pitched him in a deficit game… in hopes of tying the game and him going back out. We just have to be aware of how much he throws when he throws.”

Torey Lovullo shared similar thoughts earlier in the season.

“To a certain degree that closer role can be ticklish because of its unpredictability,” the Arizona Diamondbacks manager said. “You might have a stretch of four games where they’re needed, then you might have 10 days where they’re not. I think that adds stress — the infrequent use of a closer — as well. We weigh that. We feel that not using somebody can be just as dangerous as overusing somebody.”

As for Rodríguez, his numbers are well worth noting. The 31-year-old hurler has allowed just nine hits, one walk, and two runs in 21 innings out of the Pittsburgh pen. He’s won all three of his decisions and earned six saves.

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FARM UPDATE

Wenceel Perez is slashing .307/.398/.420 with the Low-A Lakeland Tigers. The 21-year-old is No. 14 on the Detroit Tigers Top Prospects list.

Johan Mieses is slashing ,292/.386/.722 with a minor-league-best 11 home runs with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. The 25-year-old outfielder signed a free-agent deal with the Boston Red Sox prior to last season.

Spencer Horwitz is slashing .316/.524/.404 with the high-A Vancouver Canadians. The 23-year-old first baseman-outfielder was taken in the 24th round of the 2019 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays out of Radford University.

Jacob Hurtubise is slashing .327/.472/.382 with the high-A Dayton Dragons. The 23-year-old outfielder signed a minor-league contract with the Cincinnati Reds last summer after attending the United States Military Academy.

Matthew Barefoot is slashing .329/.375/.624 in a season split between the low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers and the high-A Asheville Tourists. The 23-year-old outfielder was taken in the sixth round of the 2019 draft by the Houston Astros out of Campbell University.

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Left on the cutting room floor from my recent conversation with Jordan Westburg were his thoughts on positional versatility. The 22-year-old Baltimore Orioles prospect has started 11 games at third base this season, and another eight at shortstop. Westburg has no qualms with moving around the infield.

“The Orioles have preached to me being versatile,” said Westburg, who is beginning his professional career with low-A Delmarva. “I’ve embraced that, playing third, playing short, and we shift so much that a lot of times I’ll even find myself on the other side of second base. It’s a new challenge. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even learn some outfield. The more positions you have in your pocket, the more equipped you are to play every day in the big leagues.”

I asked the 30th overall pick in last year’s draft if there are any positions he couldn’t play.

“Maybe catcher,” replied Westburg, who matriculated from Mississippi State University. “I haven’t caught since Little League. That would be a little bit ugly, me behind the plate.”

What about toe the rubber? Could he “Ohtani”?

“I wish I could Ohtani,” said Westburg, “I haven’t pitched since I was a freshman in high school, so I don’t think you want me on the mound, either.”

He can definitely handle the batter’s box. In 87 plate appearances with the Shorebirds, Westburg is slashing .358/.483/.582.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Glenn Williams was named CEO of Baseball Australia last month. The former Minnesota Twins infielder was featured on episode 900 of FanGraphs Audio this past December.

Roki Sasaki earned his first NPB win yesterday as the Chiba Lotte Marines beat the Hanshin Tigers 6-4. The 19-year-old right-hander was taken first overall in the 2019 NPB draft.

Robert Suarez is 1-0 with 15 saves for the Tigers. The 30-year-old native of Venezuela has thrown 23 innings and allowed just one earned run.

Scott McGough is 2-0 with five saves for the Yakult Swallows. The 30-year-old former Miami Marlins left-hander has allowed three earned runs in 23 innings.

ByungHo Park is slashing .215/.320.392 with the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes. The 34-year-old first baseman played in 62 games with the Minnesota Twins in 2016.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

CC Sabathia has been playing softball in Central Park. Joe DeLessio has the story at Curbed.

ESPN’s Ryan McGee looked back at the 1981 Yale-St. John’s regional that Ron Darling and Frank Viola turned into a classic.

Boise State cut its baseball program last summer, and six of the school’s former players are now suiting up with the Pioneer League’s Boise Hawks. Ron Counts wrote about it at The Idaho Statesman.

At Baseball America, Alexis Brudnicki wrote about how John Axford is providing veteran presence for Team Canada’s Olympic bid.

The Athletic’s Katie Woo wrote about Mike Shildt and the St. Louis hat-confiscation issue.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Dale Long homered in eight consecutive games for the Pittsburgh Pirates from May 19-May 28, 1956. A left-handed hitting (and throwing) first baseman who hit 132 career home runs, Long appeared two games as a catcher for the Chicago Cubs in 1958.

Don Mattingly played 18 big-league innings as a third baseman and had 11 assists, one putout, and one error. The left-handed-throwing near-Hall of Famer played one-third of an inning as a second baseman — this was in the George Brett pine-tar game — without handling a chance.

Don Mattingly had 222 home runs and an .830 OPS.
Geoff Jenkins had 221 home runs and an .834 OPS.
Tony Oliva had 220 home runs and an .830 OPS.

Ichiro Suzuki scored exactly 111 runs four times in a six-season stretch (2002-2007) with the Seattle Mariners. He had 110 and 101 runs scored in the other two. Within that stretch were consecutive walk totals of 49, 48, 49, and 49.

Johnny Mize topped out at 43.6% in Hall of Fame balloting before being voted in by the veterans committee. Mize led the National League in home runs four times and was a 10-time All-Star with a 157 wRC+. He had 68.6 fWAR despite missing three seasons in his prime during WWII.

Johnny Sain had four seasons with 20 or more wins pitching for the Boston Braves. Over his 11-year career, Sain came to the plate 857 times. He had 190 hits and struck out 20 times. As colleague Tess Taruskin pointed out, Sain was also the first MLB pitcher to face Jackie Robinson, and the last to face Babe Ruth.

Guy Hecker went 26-23 with a 2.87 ERA for the Louisville Colonels in 1886. He also led the American Association with a .341 batting average, making him the only pitcher in MLB history to do so. Along with taking the mound 49 times — all but once as a starter — Hecker played 22 games as a first baseman and 17 more as an outfielder.

Players born on today’s date include Twink Twining, who pitched in one game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1916. A right-hander from Horsham, Pennsylvania, Twining threw two innings and allowed three runs.

Also born on today’s date was Dixie Upright, whose big-league resume comprises nine plate appearances, all as a pinch-hitter, with the St. Louis Browns in 1953. Upright logged two hits, including a home run off Hall of Famer Bob Lemon.

Roger McKee made his MLB debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 at age 16 and ultimately appeared in five big-league games, all as a pitcher. McKee went on to play 12 minor-league seasons as a first baseman/outfielder, seeing action with clubs such as the Baton Rouge Red Sticks, Shelby Farmers, Shreveport Sports, and Tampa Smokers. His full name was Rogers Hornsby McKee.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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docgooden85
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docgooden85

I’m annoyed by the ex post facto redefinition of this debacle as a great play by the Cubs. Not at all. It was a terrible series of screw-ups by the Pirates.

Josh
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Josh

Yeah, it takes 2 to tango, as they say. On the other hand, I’m going to a Pirates game soon and have probably never been this excited to watch them play. Who knows what might occur?!?

Wu-Bacca
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Wu-Bacca

Totally agree, Doc. I give Baez and Contreras SOME credit. If they’d done what most major leaguers do in that situation – lazily run into an out – they’d have a 0% chance of success. What they did instead gave them a 0.01% chance of success, which is exactly how much credit I give them. The other 99.99% goes to the Pirates.

I don’t mean that to be as snarky as it sounds, btw. The fact that Baez and Contreras did SOMETHING there rather than nothing is admirable, and made the play possible. But there’s an interesting moment in the middle of the play where Baez stands there watching Contreras score and signals safe rather than running to first (where no one was covering), when in fact Contreras was not safe until Baez touched first. This is a sure tell that Baez had no real clue what he was doing either and was, more than anything else, the lucky beneficiary of the Pirates’ largesse.

jwa05001
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jwa05001

I don’t understand how you can type the phrase “if they’d done what most major leaguers do” and not think it was a great play on the Cubs part. If Mike Trout hit like “most major leaguers” he wouldn’t be a great hitter. But he doesn’t. That’s what makes him great.

It’s exactly why craig didn’t know what to do. The Cubs players presented him with something most major leaguers don’t do.

Wu-Bacca
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Wu-Bacca

I think you make some solid points, jwa05001, but I can’t get totally on board with them. It just doesn’t seem to logically follow that if it’s a play most major leaguers wouldn’t do, and the play works, that it’s therefore a great play. As a thought experiment, let’s say there’s a runner on third and one out. There’s a short flyout to left, and, instead of throwing home, the left fielder decides to tag out the runner himself. The runner falls down on his way home and the left fielder tags him out himself. That’s an admittedly idiotic example, but in such a case you’d attribute the outcome of the play to the runner, not the fielder; you’d say both “no other major leaguer would try such a play” and “it’s dumb luck that it worked.” That’s how I feel about the Baez play.

I think you’re on more solid ground when you say that Baez put Craig into a situation for which he hadn’t practiced. But honestly, runners do things to avoid tags at first all the time – they veer; they slide; they sometimes stop dead in their tracks – and it doesn’t typically send first basemen into a tizzy. I’ve never seen someone run toward home in such a situation, so yeah, I give Baez some credit for outside-the-box thinking. But just as you give Baez the lion’s share of credit for doing something no other player has ever done before, I give the Pirates the lion’s share of discredit for doing a series of things I’ve never seen players do before either.

jwa05001
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jwa05001

And you’d have a good point about Baez’s safe call if he’d continued to stand there. That he almost immediately took off for first again shows he was aware of the rules involved with play. He was just briefly caught up in excitement.

Nobody had time to yell at him run to first…..he clearly knew exactly what he needed to do

jwa05001
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jwa05001

Last thing. Craig’s error looks bad in hind sight. But this is a guy who’s played thousands of baseball being presented with a situation he’d (probably) never even practiced.

Credit the Cubs players for actively putting him in that situation…..and for being aware of the implications of their actions in the heat of the moment

You might as well say why didn’t that guy hit a homer instead of strike out….didn’t he know the rule that a homer means a run?

Garys of Olde
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Garys of Olde

But Baez only signaled safe for a moment, and then immediately turned to run. I think he was probably just shocked that Craig actually fell for this, but it only made him hesitate for a second. I agree that this play was more of Pittsburgh’s fault than the Cubs’ credit, but Javy and Willson due deserve some credit.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

Also, there’s zero reason to refer to Craig as a “villain.”

Luy
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Luy

re: Craig as the villain. I guess metaphors are as hard for some people as getting a force out was for Craig.

TKDC
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TKDC

The metaphor makes no sense. Craig is not the villain in this tale, he’s the village idiot.

res
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res

True. But I know of no other current or former player who it would even occur to try and get in a rundown between first and home. Baez brain is wired differently. Without that instinct its just another 5-3 PO that no one remembers. Name one time you’ve seen a player try and get in a rundown between 1st and 3rd. You cant.

6er
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6er

Baez actually just got lucky because he couldn’t have known initially that Craig would spaceout and forget the outs or the rules or both. As for Shelton I’m sure he wants it to die because he and his staff are just as guilty as the guys on the field for not screaming for Craig to run back and touch first. It’s not like there was 40,000 screaming fans at the game.

Azizal
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Azizal

I agree that the Pirates mistakes are the real issue here. But saying Baez couldn’t have known Craig would screw up is irrelevant.

When breaking down the math here, it’s really important to note that Baez took literally zero risk to make something out of nothing. He gave the other team a chance to make a mistake, and got really lucky when it actually happened. Most players would not have tried, but Baez was right to, even if it was only a .00000001% chance of succeeding.

Baez most certainly knew it wasn’t likely to work, but he lost nothing by trying. That’s why you have to give him at least a little bit of credit. This type of thing is extremely common when good poker players face bad poker players. Good players make “mistakes” in order to bait bad players into making much bigger mistakes. Baez did that to Craig.