Five Things I Liked This Week, August 4
Was that as fun for you as it was for me? It’s been a busy month, both personally and for baseball. The All-Star game, the draft, the Trade Value Series (okay fine, that one’s just me), the deadline; it’s been a mile a minute since the Fourth of July. Now we’re slipping back into normal baseball rhythms, with a month’s lull before the September playoff chase heats up again. I’m taking advantage of that break to get back to what I love: paying homage to Zach Lowe and talking about five things in baseball that tickled me. Despite the title, I’m casting a slightly wider net than “this week” – we’ve missed a lot!
1. Patty BailiffPatrick Bailey got the nickname Patty Barrels for his switch-hitting home run feats in college, but I’m officially revoking that one after he posted a 15 wRC+ for the entire month of July. It’s okay, because he’s not here to hit (though I think his bat is perfectly acceptable and will rebound the rest of the year). He’s here to keep the defense in order and grind opposing running games to a halt.
You think you can run in his courtroom (I’m stretching the analogy here, I know, but I like the sound of it)? He’ll shut you down as quickly as you can say “Rickey Henderson.” Since he debuted, he’s comfortably atop the throwing leaderboard; he’s caught 19 runners stealing, six clear of Shea Langeliers over than span. He has a cannon arm, pinpoint accuracy, and balletic footwork. He’s somehow always in a good throwing position despite also being a superlative receiver. This is what 80-grade catcher defense looks like.
To celebrate being clear of that terrible July, Bailey put on a show Tuesday night against the Diamondbacks. He started the game on the bench for a well-deserved rest, but entered the game as a defensive replacement when the Giants took a slim 4-3 lead into the eighth. He got things going right away by giving Jace Peterson a rude welcome back to the Bay:
That’s outrageous. No time to collect himself, no time to get out of his crouch, no time to even think; he gunned Peterson down remorselessly anyway. That looked like a clean steal when the ball reached home plate despite the failed bunt attempt, but Bailey is just too good:
That right there is a great day for a defensive replacement. How many catchers come in and immediately erase a baserunner? He wasn’t done, though. In the ninth inning, Arizona put another baserunner on, but Bailey wasn’t having any of it:
That’s absolutely incredible. Two innings, two baserunners erased, and one of them a game clincher. Just perfection. Take a look at it from another glorious angle:
I don’t really have anything else to say. Bailey might be the best defender in baseball right now. He’s winning games with his throwing arm, which is what pitchers are supposed to do, not catchers. The Giants wouldn’t be nearly this good without him.
2. The Versatile RedsCincinnati is in a pitched battle for the top spot in the NL Central. I’ve written about them frequently this year, largely because they’re so dang fun. It’s not just the sheer youthful exuberance of the Reds that draws me in, though. I also love their avant-garde approach to lineup construction, enabled by an embarrassment of middle infield riches and a few versatile corner types.
Here’s an example off the top of my head. On July 6, they pulled out a narrow victory over the Nationals, 5-4 in 10 innings. That’s not particularly notable; the Nats aren’t what you’d call “good” this season, even though they’re not the complete laughingstock that some feared before the season. No, what I loved about this game was that Cincinnati used multiple players at every defensive position.
Take a look at this delightful chaos:
That’s right: Kevin Newman, of all people, started at first base. He got replaced defensively by Spencer Steer, then Joey Votto, then Steer again after Votto himself got replaced. Newman got pulled from the game because the Reds pinch hit for Luke Maile with TJ Friedl, then left Friedl in the game in center field. That meant they needed a new catcher, and Curt Casali subbed into Newman’s lineup spot. Easy peasy.
Only, they pinch hit for Casali too (with Votto). That meant that DH Tyler Stephenson had to surrender his DH duties and don the tools of ignorance. But that meant the team needed to put a pitcher into the lineup. Sure, no problem; Jonathan India made the last out of the inning where Votto pinch hit, so the team simply pulled him for the pitcher’s spot.
But wait, who plays second base? That would be Matt McLain, who shifted over from shortstop. Naturally, then, Elly De La Cruz moved from third to short, and Steer, who had started the game in left before moving to first base, slid over to third with Votto replacing him.
Following so far? Good, good. Things were pretty much standard from here until the bottom of the 10th, when the Reds brought in their defensive replacements. Steer moved back to first, Nick Senzel moved from right field to third, and Jake Fraley took over in right. Just your standard LF-1B-3B-1B line for Steer.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll realize I left two positions unmentioned. After Friedl pinch hit, he stayed in the game as a center fielder, but the Reds didn’t remove their original center fielder from the game. Senzel merely slid from center to right, which meant Will Benson had to move from right to left, which was the impetus for moving Steer from left field to the infield in the first place. It all makes sense when you follow through on it, but no one is making these kinds of hockey-style bulk substitutions in the universal DH era. No one except the Reds, that is.
3. Miguel Rojas, Savvy to the EndMiguel Rojas was never much of an offensive threat, and he’s been outright awful this year. Honestly, “awful” might be too kind to him. He’s hitting .223/.275/.285. He hit his first homer of the year on Wednesday, and it’s August. That’s not when you’re supposed to hit your first home run. The Dodgers went out and traded for Amed Rosario, and they have to be hoping to ease Rojas out of the lineup sooner rather than later.
That seems like a reasonable plan to me, but I want to give a quick nod to his career before he’s relegated to the dustbin of history. I loved watching Rojas on a series of awful Marlins teams, and it wasn’t because of his uncanny ability to rack up one to two Wins Above Replacement year in and year out. In one specific phase of the game, and one specific phase only, he resembles Mookie Betts. That phase? Self-assuredly smooth actions on defense.
I’m mentioning this not to say that the Dodgers should keep playing him, but rather because a play he made a few weeks ago made all my old memories of Rojas come rushing back. It wasn’t exactly a highlight reel play. You might miss it if you weren’t looking for it. But his footwork and instincts are smooth like creamy peanut butter:
There are a ton of ways to get that play wrong. You could charge the ball; in double play situations, it’s generally a good idea to go and get the ball to save precious fractions of a second. But that wouldn’t work here, because there was no chance of turning two if multiple throws were needed. Charge this one, and you’re looking at one out maximum. You could angle your body wrong; to make this play, you need to catch the ball with your weight carrying you towards first base. You could get the footwork wrong; the timing was so tight that the foot that hits second base needs to be your plant foot for the throw to first.
All of that was automatic for Rojas. The Orioles broadcast isolated Rojas on a replay that really drives his skill home:
Those choppy steps are all part of the plan. Even the way he fields the ball is deliberate; the footwork means there’s no need for a barehanded stab, but the transfer needs to be immediate, and Rojas dropped down on the throw to accommodate that and also to avoid a sliding Colton Cowser. He did it with no time to spare whatsoever; it was a bang-bang play at both bases. If his internal clock was even slightly off, the Dodgers might have ended up with no outs instead of two. But his clock wasn’t off. It’s never off.
Modern baseball statistics are really good at measuring how valuable Rojas’ defense is, and it’s not valuable enough to offset his anemic offensive skills. But they can’t measure the sheer joy I get out of watching his defense. Even Betts himself just sat there and admired it from a front row seat. I hope we get plenty more plays like this from him before his offense plays him off the field.
4. Manny Being MannyThis probably won’t surprise you given my general taste in baseball players, but I love Manny Machado. I love his defense and his easy power. I love his mannerisms on the field. I loved when he sulked performatively every time the Padres shifted him into shallow right field. I love his 80s-TV-villain demeanor at the plate. As it turns out, I also love watching him take pitches.
When Machado is taking all the way, you’ll know it immediately:
Nope, probably not swinging at that one. He didn’t even keep his hand on the bat! He’d clearly made the decision to take no matter what, and it was a savvy decision; José Berríos had been wild all inning. But there’s no pretense of standing in at all. He’s up there completely uninterested in the pitch – maybe he’s thinking about the weather, or why the money in Canada is all plasticky-feeling.
With that delightful take out of the way, he stood in for the next pitch and at least looked like he was considering taking action:
Berríos looked befuddled on the mound. Was Machado just not going to swing? There’s something about his languid pre-pitch demeanor that makes it feel like he’s barely deigning to pay attention to what’s going on. But that’s just a cover; throw him something he’s interested in, and it’s go time:
That’s a ferocious hack; the barrel of the bat almost made it to the outfield. Imagine how much force he must have been swinging with to shatter the bat so completely and still muscle the ball for a bloop single.
The dichotomy between rest and action is baseball in a nutshell – Willie Mays described the sport as “violence under wraps.” But no one playing today epitomizes that for me quite like Machado. He can shut it down completely for a pitch, then crank it up to max effort to brute force a ball to the outfield, then take it all the way back down for a businesslike acknowledgement of his success:
5. George Kirby’s Alien PrecisionAs the saying goes, to err is human. Baseball has a great way of reminding us of that. The best hitters make outs 60% of the time. The best pitchers give up the occasional mammoth home run. Sure-handed defenders make errors, contact wizards whiff, and elite baserunners get thrown out. The sport is hard!
Don’t tell George Kirby that, though. He has otherworldly command – he’s running a 2.7% walk rate! – and it was on full display in his start against the Twins on July 20. Check out this sequence against Alex Kirilloff, for example:
I left out two fishing expeditions on 0-2 and 1-2 to make the GIF a reasonable length, but you get the idea: Kirby has the ball on a string. That slider away/slider down combination is ludicrous; they’re both perfectly located. Then he dots the same corner with a fastball, and has a breaker-for-a-strike wrinkle in his bag too? Come on, that’s overkill.
He had a whole bagful of those perfectly-placed pitches that day. Check out this smash cut of four strikeouts:
That fastball goes where Kirby tells it to. If you’re keeping score at home, he’s perfectly capable of dotting both edges with it, and he can move it up and down as appropriate. Oh yeah – he’s regularly hitting 97 mph. Seems pretty good to me!
When Kirby’s as on as he was in this game, it feels like he’s just toying with hitters. As he chugged towards the conclusion of this seven inning, 10 strikeout gem, he eschewed his secondary pitches and painted with his fastball. First to Byron Buxton to get an easy pop out:
Then to Willi Castro for his last strikeout:
Kirby will probably always give up his fair share of home runs, but that’s a small price to pay for his clinical command. There will be no walks. There will be plenty of disbelieving batters. It isn’t how most pitchers succeed, but it’s undeniably fun to watch.