Welcome to another installment of my weekly look at the plays and players that caught my eye. As usual, thanks go to Zach Lowe, who pioneered the concept for ESPN and is one of my favorite sports columnists. This week’s edition features fakes galore, a fun underdog story, outfield defense both good and bad, and a heaping helping of the Braves, Dodgers, and Rays. Let’s get to it.
1. Willy Adames, Dekemaster GeneralBaseball players love to pull off fun and unusual plays. You can see it in their faces when something unique happens. As far as I can tell from my last few years of baseball viewing, there’s no one this is more true of than Willy Adames. He’s a corner case waiting to happen, and I can’t get enough of it.
Here’s an example from recent memory: Adames is always ready to deceive the runner at second base after a steal. Tommy Edman stole second base against the Brewers earlier this month, getting such a clean jump off of Corbin Burnes that the catcher had no chance to nab him:
That’s a great play by Adames just to reel in the throw, which could easily have flown into center field. It wasn’t a particularly impactful time to keep Edman from reaching third base, what with two outs in the inning and all, but every 90 feet helps. But after making that spectacular play, Adames tried to make an even more spectacular one. He started gesturing towards the outfielder as if to say he’d lost the ball:
Watch closely, and you can see Adames subtly trying to sell it. He puts his glove in a position where the ball is less likely to peek through and keeps his eyes on the outfield. You can’t really tell from this GIF, but he clearly yelled something too. He went full-on cheesy in pursuit of selling it, even if Edman was never going to fall for it. Want proof? Edman shared a laugh with him after the play:
“Hey, nice try there,” he might have said. “I’ve played the middle infield too, you know.” That’s the kind of smile I usually save for when I’m playing poker with my friends and one of them bluffs into my unbeatable hand.
But to quote Michael Scott quoting Wayne Gretzky, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Adames lives by that quote, and he was back at it mere days later. This time, he got his man:
That play mostly looks strange at first glance. How in the world do you turn a double play on a popup? But look a little closer, and you’ll see Adames at work. Look at him calling for the ball:
Is that a particularly great fake? I mean, not to me. He looked over towards third to track the ball before truly committing to it. But Josh Lowe had his head down on the steal attempt, and by the time he picked up Adames, he was in “receive double play turn” position. He even bluffed one of those maybe-you’ll-fall-off-the-base tags:
Does that make sense on a force play? Not to me, and not to the Rays third base coach wildly gesticulating in the background. But baseball happens fast, and Lowe was dead to rights. He looked appropriately chagrined afterwards:
Watch Adames play, and you’re bound to see a few of these bluffs. They’re most fun when they work, but if you ask me, they’re pretty fun either way.
2. Highs and Lows From Gabriel AriasThere’s almost no worse org to be a part of if you’re a middle infield prospect than the Cleveland Guardians. Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario have had the middle infield to themselves for years, and Giménez just signed a contract extension. The farm system is full of shortstops and second basemen (Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio, Angel Martinez, the list goes on), and it’s not like they can just shift to third base; José Ramírez has that covered for the foreseeable future.
Gabriel Arias, our 10th-ranked prospect on the club, found a way around that logjam. Cleveland’s outfield is the reverse of the middle infield; it’s not Steven Kwan and two cardboard cutouts of Steven Kwan, but it’s not much better than that. If you want to find a spot in the major leagues with the Guardians, it helps to be an outfielder.
Arias, whose calling card is his excellent defense, doesn’t seem like an obvious fit for right field at first glance. But with Oscar Gonzalez back in the minors and Will Brennan benched, he’s getting a shot out there. He’s batting a middling .205/.287/.372, which is somehow still a huge upgrade on what Cleveland was getting out of the position before. But if he can keep his head above water offensively, he’s a lock to stick in right, because his throwing arm is one of the best in baseball.
Arias’ outfield defense first came to my attention in his second game in right field. He didn’t throw anyone out, but he made a few throws that made me press rewind. This one in particular shocked me in a good way:
Oh, you want another angle? Deal:
I was so impressed by Arias’ arm that when I went on Mark Simon’s Sports Info Solutions podcast, I made a point of bringing up his defense. And this was after only two games played in right field in the majors. With a few more under his belt – he’s up to 63 innings now – he’s starting to put together some highlight plays, and some lowlights too.
On Sunday against the Mets, Arias’ inexperience paid off when he bobbled a ball right into an outfield assist. This probably isn’t how you draw it up at home, but hey, it still counts in the scorebook:
Sure, he shouldn’t have bobbled that. Sure, he made a fairly standard relay throw. Sure, it was Gary Sánchez running. But hey, first outfield assist, and he nailed the cutoff man! That was fine, and he wasn’t done. If one is good, two is better:
This time, he opted for speed over power, uncorking a spinning two-hopper that was right on the money. That was far more impressive, even though he still didn’t dial in the throw perfectly. Running towards the foul line and throwing to second base is a difficult combination, and that was a situation where the ball had to be out of his hands almost as soon as he reached it to have any chance.
That’s not to say that it’s all been a success. As you can see in those two throws, Arias is still learning on the job, particularly when it comes to how outfield footwork differs from infield pivots. He’s particularly scattershot when trying to pull off quick turns and throws:
I’m not sure how this experiment will end just yet, but I want it to succeed. I’m a big fan of outfield assists, and I’m hoping that Arias will provide his fair share in the years to come. Hey, it’s more likely than beating out the 75 other contenders for the second base job.
3. Regular Season Grudge MatchesThe sheer length of baseball’s regular season makes it unique. You have to win a ton of games to make the playoffs, and it doesn’t matter who they’re against. Four wins on an AL Central swing in August count the same as four against the Rays in June, though one set of four would presumably be far harder to acquire. When everyone has to play so many games, how you play is more important than who; the matchups work themselves out over the course of the year.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the occasional regular season clash between titans, though, and this week’s Braves-Dodgers series provided just what I was looking for. The Dodgers started strong, putting up eight runs on both Monday and Tuesday. They were hardly beating up on weak pitching, either; Spencer Strider might be the best pitcher in baseball right now, and Charlie Morton is arguably Atlanta’s second-best option. It didn’t hurt my enjoyment that Jason Heyward got in on the act in his first game in Atlanta as a Dodger:
The Braves didn’t take it lying down, though. The Dodgers looked like they were building towards a sweep when they tied Wednesday’s game 3-3 in the eighth inning. That didn’t last long:
Regular season showdowns don’t always work out this way. Sometimes the pitching matchups don’t cooperate or a star is injured. Sometimes one team or the other is scuffling. But the stars aligned for playoff-caliber baseball in May. Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, and Will Smith gave Atlanta pitching all it could handle. Ronald Acuña Jr., Sean Murphy, and Austin Riley did the same on the other side of the ledger. Bobby Miller’s debut was electric. Strider struck out 11 in a loss. Both teams were firing on all cylinders all series long.
Obviously, most matchups won’t be like this. The Braves were our preseason World Series favorites and the Dodgers are the freaking Dodgers. If you’re expecting a series like this before October, you’ll generally be disappointed. Not this week, though. This felt like an NLCS preview, subject to the whims and uncertainties of playoff baseball.
4. Randy Arozarena, Taking a WalkYou probably don’t think of Randy Arozarena as a patient hitter. That’s because most of his game feels extremely un-patient. He runs the bases with his hair on fire. He has a flair for the dramatic in the outfield. He tees off on fastballs. He strikes out a lot. The whole package just doesn’t feel particularly patient, you know?
Surprise! He’s actually always been on the patient side of things. He’s never swung at an above-average rate. He’s not particularly chase-prone. You’ve probably noticed his power this year, but he’s also excelling by taking pitches. He’s never chased bad pitches less frequently, and not coincidentally, he’s posting career-best walk and strikeout rates.
Those are the raw numbers, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. He stands at the plate like he doesn’t want to walk. He shuffles his feet after misses, keeping himself ready to hit:
He looks annoyed with himself after he takes something in the zone, which just screams “guy who swings out of his shoes” to me:
Even after he draws the walk, I’m left feeling like he wanted to get something to hit. Look at him toss the bat away:
If it’s a particularly important walk, he looks a bit less annoyed, though he manages to look cool anyway:
Am I projecting too much? It’s entirely possible. This is a lot of speculation. Maybe Arozarena loves taking walks. Maybe he talks about his favorite walks lovingly in the dugout between innings. I like imagining him as a man annoyed by his own skill, though. “Ugh, I like hitting, why must I take these bases for free?” It’s just another thing I love about watching the Rays in general, and Arozarena in particular.
5. Mickey Moniak’s Time to ShineFor a first overall draft pick, Mickey Moniak has hardly had a prototypical career. He made it to the big leagues in 2020, but only for a brief cup of coffee, and his career seemed to plateau after that. By 2022, he was completely out of the Phillies’ plans, and they traded him to the Angels for Noah Syndergaard. That didn’t fix things either; he was pretty bad in limited playing time with their big league club last year, though he lit up the PCL.
This being the Angels, they needed some extra outfielders. Taylor Ward has been quite bad this year; he has 200 plate appearances and exactly zero wins above replacement. Brett Phillips barely played before he was outrighted to Triple-A and he’s not exactly an offensive spark plug. Moniak was playing well in Salt Lake; the team almost had to give him a shot.
He took that opportunity, and now he’s running with it. Really, that might be an understatement. He’s batting .419/.438/.935 in 32 plate appearances. He’s already clubbed four home runs, equaling his entire previous major league total. He hit a ball 110 mph, nearly three miles an hour faster than his previous hardest batted ball. He’s already been worth 0.8 WAR by our calculations, which brings his career total up to… well, up to zero WAR, because he’d been 0.8 wins below replacement level in the majors before this year.
Look, he can’t possibly keep this going. He’s already struck out 11 times. He’s only walked once. He’s running a .563 BABIP, for goodness sake. Statcast thinks he should have a batting average in the .200s, not the .400s. There’s nowhere near enough data to say whether this is anything more than a hot streak, but I’m willing to bet it’s just that. His plate discipline is downright terrifying; you can’t chase pitches outside the strike zone 46.2% of the time and succeed. He’s not even a fearsome power hitter; even with his newfound pop, he’s only slightly above the major league average there.
So yes, this streak is going to come to an end. This will probably be the best 10-game stretch of his career. (To be fair, it would be the best 10-game stretch of a lot of players’ careers; if he played like this for a full season, he’d accumulate just over 15 WAR.) Knowing that it’s fleeting just makes me want to savor it more, though.
Moniak is playing like he feels the same way. He tears around the bases at every opportunity. He hunts spectacular plays in the outfield. He’s already robbed a home run:
And that’s not even his most impressive defensive attempt. That honor belongs to a home run robbery attempt that juuuuust missed:
Moniak’s road to the major leagues has been bumpy. The expectations that come with being the first overall pick were never really fair to him; the Phillies signed him to an under-slot bonus and used their savings to splurge elsewhere in the draft. The cancellation of the 2020 minor league season came at an awful time for his development. He’s caught bad break after bad break.
That might still be Moniak’s long-term story: the top draft pick who never made it. But regardless of what happens from here on out, the past two weeks have been magical. On a team with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, he’s been the best hitter by a mile since joining the club. That’s pretty dang cool. I hope he’s enjoying every moment of it.
Those are the five things in baseball that most caught my eye this week. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did – hey, for once, it’s five likes and no dislikes. I’m taking a one-week break from the column next week (I’m traveling all weekend and won’t have my normal time to watch baseball for little weird things), but look for another installment on June 9. See you then.