Welcome to Notes on Baseball, a Sunday list of the baseball writing and surprises I found interesting over the past week.
On Tuesday, the Pirates beat the red-hot Royals to move back over .500 at 12-11:
Pittsburgh (12-11) has won three straight games and 11 of 16 since a 1-6 start, moving back above .500 for the first time since it was 1-0 in the opening week.
"We have to figure out ways to create run-scoring opportunities and we did a nice job of executing," Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. "Sometimes you don't have to hit the ball hard to score some runs."
The Pirates were generally regarded as the worst or second-worst team before the season started. And they’re beating expectations without their young star, Ke'Bryan Hayes, who is struggling with a wrist injury.
Hayes’ replacement, Colin Moran, is hitting well with 4 homers and 17 RBIs through Wednesday.
What else is going right? Defense and pitching:
… the Pirates have made just one error in their past 74 innings. Their overall error total (12) is solidly among the 10 lowest in MLB. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s bullpen has given up just five earned runs over its past 13 games and 46 1/3 innings (0.97 ERA).
When you add some stellar starting pitching to the mix – and (Tyler) Anderson most certainly contributed that – it’s a recipe that will help you win a fair amount of games.
Not all fun and games
On Wednesday, Cubs first basemen Anthony Rizzo took the mound against the Braves, who were blowing out Chicago 10-0. Rizzo faced his friend and NL MVP Freddie Freeman, and hilarity ensued
It was a light and funny moment in a Cub season largely bereft of fun so far.
But Patrick Mooney wrote that not everyone enjoyed Rizzo’s lightheartedness:
The video of Anthony Rizzo striking out Freddie Freeman became a kind of personality test for Cubs Twitter. Reactions ranged from appreciating the light-hearted interaction between two All-Star first basemen to wondering why the Cubs were clowning around while losing by 10 runs.
It wasn’t old school vs. new school as much as the conflicted feelings about how a team with so much recent success can sometimes be such a tired act.
The Cubs are last in both batting average and ERA. The team’s recent run of success is coming to a close, and some Cub fans, long accustomed to losing, are a little edgy about a potential return to the bad old days.
Lest we think the Cubs don’t care, they did empty the bench on Friday in response to trash-talking from Reds pitcher Amir Garrett:
Javier Baez led the charge:
"I'm just tired of it," Baez added, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPN. "If you really want to fight, we'll go one on one."
For Cub fans this season, the most interesting aspect might not be wins and losses, but watching how players and management handle the final deconstruction of a once-championship core.
A worrisome $341 million Met bet?
Francisco Lindor signed a mega-massive $341 million dollar with the now big-spending Mets. But like the Mets, Lindor has struggled with heightened expectations:
As a Met, Lindor has walked more often (13.3 percent of his plate appearances) and struck out less frequently (12 percent) than last year (9 and 15.4 percent, respectively). What stands out most from a look under the hood is that he simply isn’t striking the ball with any level of authority. His average exit velocity stands at 88.3 miles per hour, a career nadir, as per Baseball Savant, and he is hitting the ball on the ground (52.5 percent) the most in his career since his 2015 rookie season while sitting on a worst-ever line-drive rate (18 percent).
In 2020, Lindor actually set a career peak for line-drive rate (33 percent). This season’s exit-velocity drop, however, follows a significant one last year to 89.9 mph after averaging 91 mph in 2019.
Hmm. The velocity drop is alarming. Lindor isn’t just hitting less than his career baseline. He’s hitting the ball significantly less hard.
Matt Musico argues Lindor isn’t a stranger to slow starts:
Through his first 126 plate appearances in 2018, Lindor was slashing .245/.331/.409, which gave him an even 100 wRC+. Although that’s not shabby, nobody views him as simply an average offensive producer. He then went on a tear for the three months that followed, hitting .308/.382/.617 with a 165 wRC+.
The 2019 season was different because an ankle sprain and a calf strain forced Lindor to the injured list to start the year. So, he only compiled 38 plate appearances before April was through. But still, he posted just a .723 OPS and a 76 wRC+. Despite this, Lindor managed to finish the year with a 115 wRC+ with a .854 OPS, 32 home runs, 74 RBI, and 4.5 fWAR.
Still, Lindor’s declining exit velocity is worrisome. And Musico shares other advanced stats that signal potential long-term trouble:
He’s recorded just two extra-base hits (one double and one homer), which has resulted in a ghastly .058 ISO. He’s also not pulling the ball nearly as much as he has in the past (40.3% for his career, 31.1% so far in ’21), along with producing a 53.3% ground-ball rate, and a soft-hit rate (21.3%) that’s almost higher than his hard-hit rate (24.3%).
Lindor is already facing boos, just a month into his Met tenure:
Said Lindor of the booing:
"I just hope they cheer and jump on the field when I start hitting home runs."
Diamonds in the rough
Among the more surprising teams this season are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were expected to be stranded in the desert, wander far behind the more heralded Padres and Dodgers.
But after a rough start, Arizona was a 10-6 streak as of last week. The team’s depth has been tested, and the club has responded well, as manager Torey Lovullo told Ken Rosenthal:
But in truth, he was planning to increase the use of his bench all along.
“I feel like I have begun to manage this team differently than in previous years,” said Lovullo, who is in his fifth season with the club. “I was very intrigued by what was happening in Oakland and Tampa Bay so I spent some time this off-season speaking with (Bob) Melvin and (Kevin) Cash. Their conclusion was that it takes 26 players to win a game and when I heard that a bell went off for me.
“As a result, I have a rotation of players, which would have taken place even if the injuries never occurred. Different daily lineups and pinch-hitting also plays into our new approach. On top of having really good players, we have some amazing coaches that really dug into how we could prep/practice at a very high intensity.”
Supposed-ace Madison Bumgarner has struggled under the weight of a huge contract, but threw a not-a-no-hitter this week in a seven inning game:
Since the game was only seven innings, the MLB ruled Bumgarner’s gem wasn’t an “official no-hitter.” Credit—or blame—a 1991 rule:
The confusion dates back to a 1991 ruling from Major League Baseball's committee on statistical accuracy that defined a no-hitter as "a game in which a pitcher, or pitchers, gives up no hits while pitching at least nine innings. A pitcher may give up a run or runs so long as he pitches nine innings or more and does not give up a hit."
But the D-Backs don’t care.
For the Diamondbacks, it’s been an interesting and at times exciting start to a season in which they were expected to languish.
Thanks for reading! See you next Sunday.