HomeTrending MLB NewsFive Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, 5/24/24

Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week, 5/24/24

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another edition of Five Things I Liked (Or Didn’t Like) This Week. By now, you surely know the drill. I credit basketball genius Zach Lowe for creating the format I’m using, make a few jokes about how much baseball I get to watch to write this column, and then give you a preview of what you can read about below. This week’s no exception! I get to watch a ton of baseball, and this week I watched a lot of birds and a lot of bunts. I also watched a lot of the Pirates, just like I do every week. Let’s get right into it.

1. Reversals of Reversals of Fortune

For most of the 21st century, no one would bat an eye if you told them the Cardinals swept the Orioles. The Cards have been good pretty much forever, and the O’s went through a long dry period. But starting last year, things have changed. The Orioles last got swept in early 2022, and they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball since then. The Cardinals fell on tough times after 2022’s Molina/Pujols swan song season. Coming into their series this week, the O’s had the second-best record in the AL, while the Cardinals languished near the bottom of the NL at 20-26.

The O’s, again, were working on that historically impressive sweep avoidance streak – 106 straight series heading into the week. The Cardinals hadn’t swept anyone all year, and they’d already played some woeful teams. They’d been outscored by 49 runs, while the Orioles were outscoring their opponents by 58 runs. These aren’t your older brother’s Cardinals, and they aren’t your older brother’s Orioles either.

You can probably guess what’s coming: The Cardinals swept the Orioles to end that streak. They did so in ridiculous fashion, to boot. There was Sonny Gray taking himself out like Roberto Duran. There was a rain suspension. We had outrageous homers:

Little league homers:

And weird double plays:

This was a strange series from start to finish. The strangest part about it might be the result, though. The Orioles have dodged fluky series like this for literally years. The Cardinals have been tripping all over their feet. But this week, it felt like the 2010’s again, at least for a few days. Something tells me that the O’s are going to bounce back perfectly well. That didn’t make it any less weird to watch a series that felt like it was ripped from the headlines of 2021.

2. Bird Brains

Oh great, another excuse for Ben Clemens to talk about the Cardinals and Orioles. Nope! In fact, there’s some wonderful bird-related hijinks going on across baseball right now, and none of it involves the three teams actually named after birds. First, there’s the Giants and the Rally Pelican. This is a classic animal-related baseball story, but that doesn’t make it any less great. A pelican landed in the outfield during the fifth inning of a May 11 clash against the Mets. Here’s Giants announcer Dave Flemming describing it:

Versions of this happen all the time, but it’s not usually with a bird as majestic as a pelican. Just look at that thing! This isn’t a rally squirrel or a rally possum; Wikipedia tells me that the brown pelican has a 7.5-foot wingspan and feeds by plunge diving. This is no turtle who needs to be helped off the field; pelicans go where they want, and this one felt like catching some baseball. (Same, dude!)

Naturally, the Giants were buoyed by this magnificent bird. They’ve gone 8-3 since, one of the best records in baseball. They’re on fire, and they know why: Heliot Ramos went on a local radio show and credited the pelican over himself when asked who was responsible for the team’s recent win streak. That’s just being a team player.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, Johnathan Rodriguez is getting in on the bird action. The Guardians rookie noticed a baby bird on the field during a stoppage in play Wednesday afternoon. He leapt into action, scooping the bird up and handing it to a staffer who got it out of harm’s way:

Naturally, Rodriguez keyed Cleveland’s comeback win with a tie-breaking single in the seventh. It was his first major league hit, and it came after seven years of toiling in the minors. He was called up because the Guardians sorely lack right-handed hitters; he’s a direct replacement for Ramón Laureano, who simply didn’t hit enough to hold down a short-side platoon role. Rodriguez was off to a solid start in Triple-A, and luckily for that baby bird, he plays right field. The rest was history.

Whether Rodriguez is here to stay is beyond the scope of this article – I’m pointing out some things I liked, not doing a deep dive on fringe roster spots on good teams starved for outfield talent. But I’m rooting for Rodriguez to have a long major league career. “The guy who saved the bird” is just too good of an origin story.

3. Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bitty Base Hit

People come out to the stadium to see Shohei Ohtani hit dingers. Dodgers fans – Ohtani fans, if we’re being honest – pack visiting ballparks when he’s in town. He hears resounding cheers pretty much every night out. He’s the biggest star in baseball, an international icon. He doesn’t play the field, and he isn’t pitching this year. All that adulation is packed into the four-ish times a night he comes to the plate and tries to crush a baseball out of the stadium.

So, uh, what the heck was this?

The Statcast metrics on this one are a hilarious read. Exit velocity? 44.2 miles per hour. Hit distance? Two feet. Ohtani’s homers and laser beam doubles get endlessly posted and reposted online; I’m not sure that this hit will, but that’s a shame. It’s much funnier to consider Ohtani’s prodigious might in the context of a two-foot hit.

Was it a good bunt? It depends on how you want to define it. One thing is clear: The defense wasn’t ready for it. Take a look at where the third baseman and shortstop were positioned:

I completely understand why they were standing there. Here are all of Ohtani’s grounders since the start of 2023:

He barely hits any grounders to the left side of the infield. When he does, it’s most often right around second base. And he hits the ball hard enough that playing back generally makes sense; there aren’t a ton of softly hit rollers in there. Again, he’s Shohei Ohtani!

So defenses rotate and back up against Ohtani. He essentially doesn’t counter; since the league outlawed the true overshift last year, he hadn’t attempted a single bunt. He didn’t do it often even when opposing teams left the entire left side open, so naturally he cut the tactic entirely when they used a less extreme alignment.

And maybe Ohtani shouldn’t bunt, even with the defense giving it to him. This bunt was bad! When you’re bunting for a hit in this situation, you’re supposed to roll the ball down the third base line. Get past the pitcher, and you’re golden; no one else is making a play on that ball. But Ohtani didn’t do that even a little bit. He bunted the ball straight into the ground, and never came close to the third base line.

Bunting is really hard, particularly if you don’t do it often. Bunts like Ohtani’s usually produce outs. But there’s a secondary reason to bunt: it forces defenders to make tough plays with narrow margins. There’s not a lot of mystery in a groundball to second, particularly a well-struck one. But bunts are almost always close plays. It’s just a math problem; there’s enough time to throw a fast runner out on a bunt fielded by the pitcher or catcher, but only just barely. A cleanly executed pickup, transfer, throw, and catch will get a good runner out, but only by a few steps. That means you can’t botch any part of it and still get an out.

Major leaguers mostly don’t botch parts of that sequence. That’s why they’re major leaguers, after all. But occasionally they do, and I think that chance is higher when the defense isn’t expecting a bunt. Ohtani’s bunt put Joe Mantiply on the spot. His throw sailed on him just a little bit, and that’s all Ohtani needed to be safe.

I don’t think Ohtani is going to be bunting again anytime soon. He didn’t show much aptitude for it there, and while this is speculative, I watched a lot of Ohtani grounders to write this and he seems to hate running down the first base line with a throw coming from behind him. He ducks, covers his head, slows down, and generally seems like he’s trying to avoid getting unintentionally hit. He doesn’t need the bunts, and he’s not good at it anyway. But this one time, he got away with it. Naturally, he got erased on a double play one batter later. That’s baseball for you.

4. Bunt Double

Sadly, I don’t actually mean a bunt double, because there haven’t been any this year. But two bunt items in one article? I don’t often get a chance to do it, and I’m not passing up the opportunity when I get it. Another person not passing up an opportunity? Stuart Fairchild:

Let’s stop right there. That’s a better bunt than Ohtani’s, but it’s still not good enough to be a clean single with perfect defensive play. Ryan Yarbrough reached the ball in time to turn and throw to first. But there’s an obvious problem for the Dodgers. Let’s look at a freeze frame of the moment when Yarbrough grabbed the ball:

There are four Dodgers in frame, which is roughly how many you’d expect on a screenshot displaying home plate and half of the infield. The problem is, they’re not in a position to do anything. Freddie Freeman charged when he saw bunt:

Meanwhile, Gavin Lux started the play near the second base bag. He took off for first when he saw the play developing, but there was no shot whatsoever of reaching first base in time. Look at where he started:

Usain Bolt wouldn’t have been able to get to the base in time on that one. The real miscommunication here was between Freeman and Yarbrough, one of whom should have been ready to cover first. When that didn’t happen, there was nothing to do but eat the ball for a base hit. Or, well, this:

Honestly, that was a great throw to first. Yarbrough didn’t overcook it, and he didn’t panic and fire wildly. The throw beat Fairchild to first, and it was in a great spot for whoever was covering the base to step into the field of play and away from the runner and secure an easy putout. The problem is that that player didn’t exist.

Unlike Ohtani’s bunt, I think this one was actually excellent. It relied on the defensive alignment, but many bunts do. With only the pitcher and first baseman in position to receive a throw to first, the defense just can’t commit many bodies to fielding a bunt. Normally, you’d rotate the second baseman to first and the shortstop to second to have options everywhere. But with the Dodgers tilted heavily to the left side of the infield, the math didn’t work out for Los Angeles.

We talk about hitters bunting against the shift all the time, and they still mostly don’t. Ohtani’s successful bunt is a great example of the risks; sure, it worked out, but he had to get lucky for it to do so. Fairchild’s, on the other hand, was brilliant. The fail case of advancing a runner wasn’t bad. The defense was in a singularly poor position to defend a bunt. The Dodgers will think twice before using that alignment again against a hitter who likes to bunt – that was already Fairchild’s fourth of the year. With results like that, it’s no wonder he keeps going for it.

5. The Best Show in Baseball

Objectively speaking, the Pirates aren’t a great team this year. They’re 23-28, fourth in the NL Central and six games behind the Brewers. Our playoff odds give them an 8.6% chance of reaching the playoffs. They have one of the worst offenses in baseball, and some of the young hitters who were supposed to give them new life have performed badly enough to get sent back down to the minors. Their closer, David Bednar, is having the worst season of his career.

Here’s the thing: Despite all that bad news, I’m watching the Pirates more than any other team in baseball, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Pirates games are almost invariably exciting. There’s Jared Jones, of course: I’m already watching every one of his starts to hear announcers encounter him for the first time. He’s slowed down slightly since his blistering start, but he still has electric stuff and a delightfully aggressive mentality. Watch a Jones start, and you’ll see a ton of challenge pitches, a ton of strikeouts, and probably a home run.

Paul Skenes made the must-watch list as soon as he debuted in the majors. Think Jones’s slider is fun to watch? You’re going to love Skenes’s mindbending splinker, which he can dial up to 97. How fast can an offspeed pitch be? Skenes and Jhoan Duran are testing the limits, and Skenes is doing it for six innings at a time. He’s also blowing 100 mph gas past everyone, and his slider might actually be his best pitch. I have no clue how he’ll hold up or whether opposing hitters will adjust, but for now, there’s no one I’m more excited to watch.

You want more? The Pirates have more. Oneil Cruz is just as likely to do something you’ve never seen before as he is to turn a routine play into an adventure. Nick Gonzales is a fun post-hype sleeper who might have solved his swing and miss issues. Andrew McCutchen is a delightful veteran presence, and still a reasonable enough hitter that watching him doesn’t feel excessively elegiac. Also, he bat flips walks!

The bullpen is fun to watch too – but probably more fun for a neutral fan than a Pirates supporter. Aroldis Chapman truly has no idea where the ball is going right now. He walked all three batters he faced on Wednesday, then came back on zero days’ rest and threw three balls to the backstop (they were scored as a wild pitch, a passed ball, and a clean steal, but he looked to be at fault on all of them to me). He has a 26% walk rate – and a 39% strikeout rate.

I’m not sure how long the Pirates will remain this enjoyable to watch. Without a major change in fortune, they’ll probably start protecting their young arms before too long. The offense is truly a drag; the bottom half of the lineup is horrendous, and you can go multiple innings without seeing an exciting at-bat on that side of the ball. Ke’Bryan Hayes is still on the IL and Michael A. Taylor has hit poorly enough that he’s lost playing time, which means there are fewer defensive highlights to go around. But my goodness, the highs are high with this team, and the lows are so eye-catching that I can’t look away. There’s no bigger disconnect between record and watchability right now.

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