HomeTrending MLB NewsFive Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, April 19

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

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Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another edition of Five Things, where I highlight some strange and amusing happenings from the last week. We’re getting into the rhythm of the season now; 20 games in, you start to get a feel for how watching your team will feel this year. Are they going to be exasperating? Do they look like a fun group? Have a few new players completely changed the vibe from last year? Are they hitting so many homers that they had to make a new dong bong homer hose?

That’s part of the fun of watching baseball, in my opinion. Playoff odds are one thing, but how you feel watching your guys get from point A to point B matters a lot more in the long run. If you’re reading this article, I’m willing to bet that you’re watching dozens of hours of baseball throughout the year – perhaps even hundreds. The playoffs for your team might last 15 hours of game time. The little things are the point, and there were some great little things this week. As always, I’d like to thank Zach Lowe, whose basketball column inspired this one in both name and content. Let’s get going.

1. A Tip of the Cap to John Sterling
Maybe I’m biased, but my favorite John Sterling call is the one that mentions our website:

That’s far from the only Sterling call I’ve enjoyed over the years, though. I lived in New York for more than a decade, and his bombastic home run calls were part of the fabric of the city. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “It is high, it is far, it is gone” from my cabbie’s radio, or echoing out of a sports bar that had the game on TV muted with the radio cranked.

Sterling’s announcing style tends toward the theatrical, which is part of why his calls are such a delight. When he announced his retirement this week after three and half decades of Yankee radio broadcasts, I did what I’m sure a lot of New Yorkers did, whether they’re Yankees fans or not. I went to the tremendous @JSterlingCalls Twitter account and relived some of the delightful nonsense that he concocted for each player.

“Like a good Gleyber, Torres is there.” “Nobody beats the Rizz!” “I’ll give you the skinny on McKinney.” Every Yankee, no matter how peripheral, had his own home run call. He mixed that ever-changing whimsy in with the old standards. His drawn-out “Theeeeeee” in “the Yankees win” leaned into his unique style and became part of team lore. They don’t make calls like that anymore; no one is that sure of themselves or unafraid to be completely different from the rest of the world.

There will never be another announcer like John Sterling. I’m going to hear “You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn” in my head when something weird happens until the end of time. Happy retirement, John – I’m glad you went out on your own terms, and just know that even though you don’t know who FanGraph is, we absolutely know who you are, and we’re huge fans.

2. The Other Baby Birds
We get it, Orioles: You’ve got talent. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and Jackson Holliday are consensus top prospects from three consecutive years, which is ridiculous when you stop and think about it. They’re slam dunk great hitters, all of them. They even have the same flowing golden locks and questionable facial hair choices. (In Henderson’s defense, his mustache is allegedly only still around because he broke out when shaving it off.) The future of the Orioles is a great baseball club that looks like a prep school lacrosse team.

Plot twist: Those guys have been a mixed bag so far this year. Henderson is mashing, to the tune of a 171 wRC+, but Rutschman hasn’t found his power stroke yet; he checks in at a disappointing 106 wRC+. Holliday got a late start, and he’s still searching for his first extra-base hit. In aggregate, the three have put up a 110 wRC+, not what you’d hope for from a trio of franchise saviors.

Not to worry, though. The other prospects the Orioles have amassed in recent years are more than picking up the slack. Michael Baumann — our Michael Baumann, not Baltimore’s — already covered Colton Cowser’s hot start, with the 250 wRC+ and homers to parts of the stadium that no one was even sure existed. But that might undersell how outrageously fun his start has been.

The nicknames are coming in hot and heavy. Fans are already calling him “The Milkman.” The Camden Yards faithful moo every time he comes to the plate. “They’re not booing, they’re saying (word)” is a pretty common sports trope, but “They’re not booing, they’re mooing” is definitely a new one for me. Cow masks at the stadium are just par for the course now:

Cowser might be turning fans into cow people, but another O’s youngster is breaking out just as much at the same time. Jordan Westburg isn’t a rookie – he played half a season last year and looked like a steady contributor. He’s off to nearly as hot of a start as Cowser, though, and he’s doing it in huge spots. He keeps coming up with runners on base, and he keeps racking up extra bases and RBI.

Is his start sustainable? Probably not. It’s hard to run a .349 BABIP, hard to have as many extra-base hits as singles, hard to barrel 12.5% of your batted balls and make hard contact 62.5% of the time without huge raw power. But his approach looks legit, and it’s not like he’s hitting those doubles and home runs by accident. He has a solid approach and a fly ball swing. The stadium isn’t a plus for him given the bite out of the left field fence, but he looks like a nice everyday contributor at worst, and I’m willing to dream on a little more than that. He can also handle second and third defensively, which suits Baltimore’s roster quite well.

That doesn’t even mention Coby Mayo and Heston Kjerstad, who are absolutely annihilating Triple-A at the moment. Connor Norby and Kyle Stowers have started hot. Yes, the O’s are headlined by their flaxen-haired top trio, but there are more reinforcements waiting in the wings, and the other birds are helping to drive the offense right now.

3. A Tale of Three Outs
You know the saying “It’s a line drive in the box score”? That’s slightly less true now that some online box scores are extremely detailed, but the concept is still valid. A hit is a hit is a hit, and at the end of your career, what you produced matters, not how you did it.

I’ve never heard the inverse, but it’s also true. If you record an out, it’s an out. At the end of the year, the spectacular snag or beautifully played grounder count the same as the play where a first baseman stumbles and falls but gets up to step on the base in plenty of time anyway. It doesn’t matter how pretty the play is, as long as it’s an out. Routine outs are outs too, though I’m skipping those for today. This is a column about weird and fun stuff, after all.

Want a demonstration? I’ve got good news: The Mets got three wildly different categories of outs Tuesday night, all of which are just “outs” as we look back at it now. First, there’s the opponent misplay. If an opposing baserunner gets lost, falls down, or otherwise doesn’t attempt to advance, you can make a force play out of anything:

Wait, where’s the runner? Boy, that’s a bad look for Connor Joe, the guy who should have been standing safely on second base there. He had a week to forget in Queens; this baserunning blunder joins a fielding flub and a heaping helping of double plays. But this was objectively terrible. I truly have no idea what he was doing. Watching his baserunning close up doesn’t make it any clearer:

Ah, your classic 7-4 fielder’s choice. Still, that’s a force out in the box score. This next one is just a fly out. But oh my, what a fly out:

I love pretty much everything about this play. Andrew McCutchen hit that one 103 mph on a line, a clean double off the bat by all appearances. But Harrison Bader got on his horse right away and took a perfect line to where the ball ended up. He also played the warning track just right with that stylish slide. The raised glove and partial snow cone are just icing on the cake:

One more category: You goof up, but your teammate bails you out. Here’s one of the best defensive shortstops of the past decade having a shocking mental lapse but getting bailed out by Jeff McNeil:

I couldn’t tell you what Francisco Lindor was thinking there. The play at second wasn’t there, plain and simple. Not only that, but the play at first was extremely there. McNeil had time to make a double play style turn and get the out. A less aware second baseman might have missed that one, focusing on the force at second with two outs. But McNeil was on it and saved the day. Yep, just your classic 6-4-3 single play. Like they say, it’s a groundout in the box score tomorrow.

But wait! There’s more to this one. It turns out that it belongs in a rarer category: You goof up, but your teammate bails you out with help from a goofup by an opponent. Watch Jared Triolo running down the line:

4. Masyn Winn’s Quick Hands
Last week, I spent some time investigating stolen base rates and didn’t find a lot of answers for why their predicted rise never materialized. Then I sat down to watch Monday night’s Cardinals-A’s game, and now I have a new theory. Maybe the defenders just got better. Seriously, this is just ridiculous:

Give Willson Contreras his due: He got the ball out of there quickly despite a tough pitch in the dirt. He sacrificed throw speed in doing so, but that was unavoidable given where he was releasing the ball. A reverse angle makes it clear that the ball hung and tailed a bit:

That’s good work by Contreras – but it generally wouldn’t be good enough work to get Zack Gelof, who got a great jump on the pitch. Statcast has a model for stolen bases that breaks throws down into their constituent parts. From where Contreras received the ball, the average catcher would’ve had an 11% chance of catching Gelof. Contreras gained an impressive 14 percentage points on the transfer from glove to throwing hand; from this point, a catcher with an average arm would catch Gelof about 25% of the time. He lost five percentage points with his throw — but that’s a great tradeoff between exchange and throw, giving up far less on the velocity than you gain on the quickness. His accuracy neither helped nor hurt; it tailed toward right field a bit, which is better than tailing toward left but not quite as good as flying true.

Astute mathematicians will notice that I’ve summed up all the things that Contreras did, and we’re still only at 20%. The other 80% in Statcast’s model comes from “teamwork.” In other words, it comes from Masyn Winn being a wizard:

I mean, get the heck out of here with that. Normal major league shortstops don’t make that play. Good major league shortstops don’t make that play. Tags work in a predictable way. You catch the ball and then you tag the runner, hopefully before he touches the base. But that just wasn’t going to work here. Gelof was so close to the bag, and the ball was so far away from the bag, that the standard swipe tag had no chance of succeeding.

The only alternative was to let Contreras’ throw do the tagging. That’s easier said than done, though. Catching the ball is a lot easier when you pick a fixed point and grab the ball there. If you want to make a Winn-esque tag, you need to work out the ball’s path, then let your glove travel on that path using the ball’s momentum.

You also need to have a little trust. There’s no way to look at the runner while you attempt this type of tag. It’ll take all of your concentration and both eyes to track the ball with this kind of catch. The place your glove will end up is necessarily behind you thanks to the momentum of the catcher’s throw. Also, you better hold onto the ball tightly, because if you execute everything just right, the would-be base stealer is going to slam into your hand at full speed with no warning:

Remember when Javier Báez’s tags were an object of baseball fascination? Winn’s performance here would fit right in with those. It’s one thing to have the physical capability to make a play like this. It’s something else entirely to decide what tag to make on the fly, then execute it flawlessly with no margin for error. There’s no time to think here; the choice to go for a no-look has to be instinctual. The combination of that dexterity and subconscious decision-making is absolutely elite.

Winn is only 22. This is his rookie season. His best defensive tool is his cannon arm, one of the strongest in the majors. But if he’s going to keep doing magical things like this, the sky’s the limit for him defensively. I’m looking forward to watching him continue to develop in the big leagues. If this tag is any indication, he might already have things figured out.

5. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Agile Like a Cat
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has worked tirelessly on his defense throughout his career. When he came up with the Blue Jays, he was a poor enough defensive infielder that they moved him to left field, the least demanding position on the diamond. He even struggled there out of the gate. He stayed afloat thanks to a huge throwing arm (14 runs above average per DRS, 10 per Statcast), but getting to the ball was always an adventure. Over the past few years, he’s gotten far better at the range aspect, buoying his overall defensive value to comfortably above average.

It’s not always the most graceful defense, though. Even while he’s helping his team out, he runs around the outfield like a bull in a china shop. Gurriel is 6’4” and powerfully built. He looks like a power hitter overcoming his own body to make good plays rather than someone born to do it. Here’s an example:

That looks like something I would do, and I’m an uncoordinated 38-year-old. If you watch closely, you can see what happened. To maximize his throwing power, Gurriel planned on crow hopping into the throw. He lined up his footwork with that in mind: Field the ball, transfer while you set your feet together, and finally take a big step and unleash the cannon. Just one problem. His left cleat got stuck. Take a look at the toe as he tries to stride:

You could imagine this going much worse. If Gurriel released the ball while falling, the ball could have gone anywhere. If he lost the ball hitting the ground, the runners could have advanced. If he panicked and tried to do too much, there basically would’ve been no good outcomes for the Diamondbacks there. Honestly, he wasn’t getting Nolan Arenado at the plate even without the slip; after that happened, it was all about damage mitigation.

He mitigated that damage flawlessly. And honestly, I might be underselling his athleticism in this whole thing. Sure, that didn’t look balletic. It’s a man paid to play sports, tripping on his own feet during the game. But the strength, flexibility, and spatial awareness required to get back to his feet so naturally is no joke. The mental acuity to relax and make the best of a bad situation is great, too. A side angle reveals that he managed to react on the fly and use his left leg as a kickstand to smoothly get back up:

Honestly, this just makes me more in awe of what great athletes major leaguers are. This is someone at his worst, literally slipping and falling with everyone in the stadium watching. Even then, his actions look smooth in slow motion. This is one of the less graceful players in baseball doing one of the less graceful things he’s done on the field this year, and it would still make you stop and stare if you saw someone pulling off that roll in the gym. Baseball might be a sport predicated on making people look silly – but the people looking silly are still phenomenally strong and coordinated.

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