Welcome to The Monday 9, our weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.
Leading off: Bad baseball is the best baseball
“We all know why we’re here,” Pirates first baseman Will Craig said to start his Zoom session with reporters last Friday. I have been on a lot of Zooms with baseball players these past 14 months and I have yet to hear another one start so ominously.
(If you somehow don’t know why we were all there, here's what he was talking about.)
Here’s how Craig described the play that was, unfortunately, his introduction to the broader baseball world: “As soon as I released the ball I was like, 'Oh my gosh what am I doing?' Like, I know better than that. It's simple Baseball 101. But I guess, in my mind, when I saw him running back, I just kind of lost my mind for a second. I saw [Michael] Pérez looking at me and just released the ball and, yeah, the rest is history.”
There wasn’t much more he could say to make a mistake seem more explicable in retrospect. He tried to stay off social media that evening, reviewed the play in his mind at least 100 times, heard from friends who knew he’d be feeling down, heard from his manager who wanted to make sure he didn’t dwell, slept OK all things considered, and was feeling fine — if resigned to his future as a fixture of blooper reels — by the time he talked to the media almost 24 hours later.
There is an understandable temptation in sports and its media coverage to make sense of every shortcoming as something that can be ironed out. When a team is losing, we search for any explanation other than the fallible nature of human effort and the fact that the other guys are trying too. Craig’s boner was a particularly egregious and unsympathetic one — he didn’t come up just short on an otherwise athletic attempt, he was just kind of stupid for a second there.
The overall effect was an undeniable reminder that imperfection is eminently entertaining.
Almost immediately after the play went viral on Twitter came a debate as to whether it was an example of Javier Baez’s impressive baseball IQ or a complete defensive failure by the Pittsburgh Pirates, especially Craig, the rookie first baseman. And the point is: It was both! Baez’s savviness, the heads up baserunning of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (who scored from second), and the viewer’s delight were not in spite of the Pirates’ historic collective brain freeze. They were because of it.
Getting the better of a mistake is the best kind of baseball to watch, it’s reactionary which means it’s narrative. The more moving parts in a particular play, the more possible permutations and the greater chance of seeing something unique. Not to trot out too many buzzwords or anything, but part of what is so boring about modern baseball is that it’s been optimized to the point of predictability. Or if not predictability per se, at least routine. Ending up on second with a run scored on a routine grounder to third is not “better” “baseball” than putting a 99 mph fastball in the seats, for example. But it sure is fun. And a hell of a lot more memorable. — Hannah Keyser
No. 2: The feats of Tatis never cease
I guess we can call this making up for lost time. In 11 games and 50 plate appearances since returning from a COVID-19 IL stint, Padres supernova Fernando Tatis Jr. is batting .447/.520/1.053 with six homers and five steals.
Two of those homers, on consecutive nights this weekend, were the very obvious difference between Padres losses and Padres wins, tying up games with the Astros in the late innings.
First an eighth-inning solo shot that led to an extra-innings victory.
And then a dramatic, demolished, three-run blast in the ninth.
The most immediate results were more chances to gawk at the 22-year-old’s off-the-charts cool factor — a well-known but still growing legend. As the dust settled and the impact of his heroics coalesced, it became clear Tatis is still a frontrunner in the NL MVP race, IL time be damned. BetMGM has him at +375 right now, on the heels of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. (+300), and the Padres are tied for the best record in baseball.
After the first two seasons of his career were abbreviated by injury and then the pandemic, there were still prickly concerns about whether Tatis could sustain his thousand-tweets-a-minute pace of jaw-dropping greatness. And though 2021 has already been interrupted by a scary shoulder situation and COVID-19 protocols, Tatis is making incredible performances part of his routine, and making so much positive noise that he’s drowning out the doubts. — Zach Crizer
No. 3: Memorial Day playoff race check-in
At the season’s first natural checkpoint, nothing is decided and very few things are clear, but we can take stock of the contenders using FanGraphs’ handy playoff odds.
Sitting pretty: New York Mets, Chicago White Sox
It’s been far from smooth sailing for the winners of the offseason, but nonetheless they have their divisions under control. These are the only teams with a 75 percent chance or better of capturing division crowns — and thus avoiding the wild-card game. In fact, they are the only teams with better than 51 percent division odds entering Monday.
Dueling on top of a mountain: San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers
Look, both of these titans are making the playoffs. The question is who will do so via an automatic pass to the Division Series and who will face that one-game, wild-card challenge. Right now FanGraphs assesses that as a 49.7 percent (Dodgers) to 47.9 percent proposition. Brace yourselves for a high-quality, high-stakes battle.
Don’t look down: San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals
These three teams have resided atop their divisions for much of the season, but are not estimated to have the best chances of winning them or even making the playoffs as more talented teams rise across bigger samples. Still, the Giants in particular are changing opinions of observers and projection systems alike. After a strong weekend against the Dodgers, they are a favorite for a wild-card spot.
In the scrum: New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs
The AL East and NL Central races are in total chaos. There are no real favorites at this point, but the AL East still stands a good chance of stealing both wild-card spots.
Clawing for relevance: Cleveland, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies
It’s getting late early for teams decimated by injury or, uh, lackluster depth. Seriously, have you seen who Cleveland and the Phillies are rolling out, respectively, at first base and center field?
If your team wasn’t listed? Well, their chances at October are below the 10 percent line, but it’s a long summer. Keep dreaming and check back on July 4. — Zach Crizer
No. 4: A brief, dissenting opinion on the White Sox uniforms
I don’t entirely understand what or why the so-called Nike MLB City Connect Series is, but I’m not one to begrudge an opportunity to opine on fashion as it intersects with baseball. So let’s talk about the moody, gothic, and essentially universally applauded new White Sox unis.
The inverse black-and-white pinstripe is extremely cool and makes sense as an edgier alternate. Putting “Chi” on the hat and using the iconic “S” on the jersey — but at the start of “Southside” instead of “Sox” — is all very clever. The overall vibe fits with the team’s aesthetic link to hip-hop culture. Plus, people love ‘em, apparently. Tim Anderson’s jersey reportedly sold out in two hours and the rest soon followed.
In other words, I’m comfortable with the knowledge that my quibbles won’t matter, and yet I have them anyway:
South Side is two words. Like “New York” or “San Francisco” or “Kansas City” — all of which are presented as two distinct words when they appear on baseball jerseys! Are there no copy editors at Nike?! Are there no pedants on the South Side to make a fuss about this on social media?!
It is the burden of all baseball uniforms to fight against their inherent inclination to look like silky pajama sets. Monochrome makes that all the more difficult, but is often worth it. Pinstripes certainly don’t help, but they’re classic. So ultimately it’s the shininess of the White Sox new uniforms that really make it seem like they should put spikes on smoking slippers and send the guys out there in full loungewear. — Hannah Keyser
No. 5: Zack Wheeler, Cy Young contender?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A starter strikes out 14, but the team squanders the effort and loses the game. Classic Jacob deGrom outing (April 10 against the Miami Marlins). But I’m talking about the one most recently executed by his former teammate, Zack Wheeler, against the Tampa Bay Rays last week.
Wheeler’s career-high 14 strikeouts are the second-most (tied twice with deGrom, second to deGrom’s 15) for a pitcher this season. It’s not a fluke, either. His most recent start was indicative of his new and improved ability to convert two-strike counts to Ks, which has helped boost his overall K/9 rate to double digits this year.
When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract ahead of the 2020 season, it was to be a top-of-the-rotation guy. After five full seasons with the Mets that ate up his twenties, he had an even 100 ERA+. In limited samples since then, he has lived up to the potential the Phillies bet on. Since the start of 2020, he’s sixth for all pitchers in FanGraphs WAR and third in overall innings pitched.
Wheeler hasn’t ever really been part of the ace debate and his 12th place finish last year was the only time he’s shown up in the Cy Young voting. But he’s quietly become a worthy competitor for those titles. Even if these are all ultimately races to be second to deGrom. — Hannah Keyser
No. 6: Fantasy baseball’s risers and fallers
It’s checkpoint time on the fantasy side too. Dalton Del Don broke down which players have changed minds — for better or worse — in the first two months.
No. 7: Defensive positioning is not just the shift
As baseball confronts the increasingly urgent reality of dwindling offense, most of the conversations still center on big, naked-eye type trends and potential fixes. The shift, for one. This week at Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur showed that a more subtle, more gradual sort of shift may be siphoning away hits.
Third basemen and center fielders — while still playing in their recognizable places on the field — have simply moved back. By having their fielders stand further from the plate, Arthur showed, defenses have whacked a jaw-dropping number of points off of the batting average for balls hit toward those positions.
This is the nuance that has to be factored into tweaks intended to rebalance the game. And we’ve probably spotted only a fraction of these little changes. — Zach Crizer
No. 8: What did Shohei Ohtani do this week?
It’s hard to keep up with everything two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani is doing in 2021, so we are rounding up his unprecedented exploits every week. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition.
After getting his start pushed to Friday by ... traffic, Shohei Ohtani took the mound to square off with the Oakland A's (he got the night off on offense).
Ohtani looked good early, showing off his signature filth:
Then, something magical occurred. Mark Canha was at bat, and Ohtani fired a pitch that ended up too high. Canha didn't like that.
A story in four parts. First, the pitch and ensuing commotion:
Canha was very upset. Ohtani, on the other hand …
Lol. It gets better too — look at Ohtani while the benches cleared:
And this is how the at-bat ended (shout out to @PitchingNinja for the hilarious edit):
Yes, Ohtani ultimately took the loss as his trouble with walks hurt him in the seventh and the Angels provided little support en route to a 3-1 defeat, but that entire sequence was just chef's kiss. — Mo Castillo
No. 9: What to watch this week
The aforementioned AL East chaos takes center stage at Yankee Stadium this week as the Rays visit for a four-game set before the Red Sox roll in for the weekend.
Meanwhile, the Cubs get a big test against San Diego. After trading Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini to the unabashedly ambitious Padres, the Cubs are still competing in a mediocre NL Central, but will have decisions to make ahead of the trade deadline. How they are against top competition may help clarify that call. — Zach Crizer
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