Welcome to The Monday 9, our new 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: Why do we even have that replay option?
On Sunday night, the Phillies beat the Braves because the home plate umpire called Alec Bohm safe even though it looked like he might have missed tagging the plate altogether.
An umpire’s job is to make a call quickly and with conviction. Even though that conviction can seem like unmerited bravado to the fans at home, it’s an important part of the substance — and not just style — of an umpire’s role in keeping the game going. Leaving room for doubt would turn the diamond into a debate club. That’s how it worked before replay and, frankly, if that whole experiment has failed to deliver absolute accuracy, Travis d’Arnaud might be onto something with his suggestion that we simply go back to getting calls wrong occasionally — and save the five minutes.
Before we go that far, however, let me suggest a semantic adjustment to the replay rules that might help. When Bohm slides into the plate for the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning, the home plate umpire has two options: safe or out. But for some reason, given the benefit of extra angles and more time, MLB suddenly introduces a third option: too tough to tell.
On replay, it looked like he definitely missed the plate altogether. But when it went to New York for review, the call wasn’t “confirmed” — it was this third thing. The decisive and controversial call on the field “stood” because (apparently) “the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag.”
In other words, there was not enough evidence to overturn what had already been called. But why do we even have this option? (In 2017, almost 30 percent of replays were ruled this way.)
Deferring to a split-second decision that initially seemed suspect, necessarily made without all the angles and slow-mo, doesn’t make any sense. At this point, there are more than enough cameras trained on every play to make a new call altogether. Compared to the bang-bang binaries umpires have to contend with in-game, doing so should be simple — so why do we let them shrug and just go with some version of whatever he said?
I’d like to think that if the replay officials watching that slide over and over were forced to make a clean decision in a vacuum, they would have gotten it right and called Bohm out. But if they really thought he was safe, they should at least have to say so with conviction. — Hannah Keyser
No. 2: Oh right, injuries
Here are some names of baseball men you might be excited to watch this year: Ketel Marte, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Kevin Kiermaier, James Paxton, Miguel Cabrera, Cody Bellinger, FERNANDO FREAKING TATIS JR. Add in Mike Soroka, Sixto Sánchez, Kyle Lewis, George Springer, Zac Gallen and you’ve got what could be a shortlist of All-Star contenders or potential profile subjects. Instead, it’s a tour of players who have either hit the injured list already or are still out after sustaining spring training injuries or suffered recent setbacks.
Does that feel like a lot? It feels like a lot. Including players sidelined for COVID-19 protocols — which skews the injury numbers a little, but is certainly part of the baseball viewing experience this year — 62 players were put on the IL in the first 10 days after the 2021 opening day. In 2019, that number was 26.
If I had an explanation for the normal-year-over-normal-year increase, this blurb would be a lot longer. Teams were and still are incredibly concerned about how the jump from 60 games to a full 162 might affect player health, especially pitchers. But would those injuries be showing up already?
Even if it isn’t new to this year, it is notable. Not because it’s never been noted — the phrase “a war of attrition” comes to mind — but just because, well, it’s such a bummer. In the lead-up to a season perfectly timed to shepherd society (or at least sports fans) out of the pandemic and into what is supposed to be a blissful, idyllic summer, expectations about just how much fun baseball would be in 2021 abounded. MLB rosters looked like an abundance of riches and it felt like we’d finally be writing about on-field exploits more than mitigating factors. But, of course, there’s a reason why depth is the unsung superstar of the sport.
And that’s a harsh reality to reckon with when the baseball world spent so much of the winter singing about how Tatis, in particular, would be the next face of the sport. Not content to wait for history and hindsight to do their thing, we all agreed to buy in to Tatis’ greatness before he’d ever played 162 major league games — the Padres did so literally, by signing him through 2034, the rest of us simply by emotionally investing in his every at-bat.
The upside is a chance to knowingly watch a Hall of Famer’s entire career unfold in real time. The downside — in the event of a shoulder injury that they had to specify is “nonsurgical,” and apparently not entirely new for the 22-year-old, which I think was supposed to sound reassuring and not like the tip of the iceberg — is disappointment heavy with misplaced hope. Injuries happen, but it can hurt to remember that anticipation is always of the best-case scenario. — Hannah Keyser
No. 3: Shopping for the perfect homer celebration
How to celebrate a home run in the dugout, that is the question. For years, there was the dugout car wash/dance tunnel, as exemplified by the San Diego Padres. There was Jesús Aguilar’s tradition of getting up close and personal with the camera.
But now to really get noticed, you have to step up your game. The Boston Red Sox have acquired a cart — it looks like a laundry cart, probably. One homer equals free admission for one ride through their adoring teammates.
Then there’s whatever the Cubs are doing with a waffle maker. Every other team, you’re on notice. Let’s get some more contenders. Perhaps the local Walmart can help. — Zach Crizer
No. 4: Fish boast baseball’s best young rotation
The Miami Marlins are widely projected to finish last in the NL East this season. But there’s at least one area of the team that might already be among the best in baseball.
The Marlins have assembled a fantastic young rotation that looks capable of taking the team on deep playoff runs in the future. Through eight games, the team’s starters have posted a 2.01 ERA, tops in baseball. After a breakout 2020, Pablo Lopez has continued to suppress hard contact in two starts. Sandy Alcantara has upped the whiff rate on his sinker and changeup, and looks like a potential ace. Rookie Trevor Rogers, who posted a deceptively abysmal 6.11 ERA last year, has seen his fastball velocity jump, which has led to a major uptick in whiffs on the pitch. He registered 17 swinging strikes in his first start of the season and 19 in his second start, in which he outdueled Jacob deGrom.
The Marlins have managed to do this without stud prospect Sixto Sanchez, who has missed time due to shoulder soreness. If he can avoid major injury, the Marlins could boast four young, dominant starters later this season.
Will that lead to a lot of wins in 2021? Probably not — have you seen the rest of their roster? But the Marlins have ridden a solid, young rotation to a World Series title before. With the right supporting cast, this rotation has the potential to pull off a similar feat in the coming years. — Chris Cwik
No. 5: Is a fantasy manager’s dream finally coming true in Colorado?
Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who's hot and who's not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Read the full report on the hottest and coldest MLB hitters. We’ve got a sample for you:
Oh, how we have waited for this one.
Aside from two hitless games, Colorado Rockies infielder Ryan McMahon has been tearing the cover off the ball, putting together a .324/.342/.784 line in 10 contests and landing in a tie atop the league homer standings (McMahon has only struck out six total times in these 10 games, too). He even had a 4-for-6 barrage on April 6, where he hit three home runs.
So what do we make of this? It seems like fantasy managers have wanted McMahon to break out as a dependable Colorado hitter for years, but he's still only 26. In his four previous seasons (he's never played a full MLB season) he's never shown anything close to this level of hitting prowess — save for one: 2019.
In 2019, McMahon delivered 24 home runs and 83 RBIs in 141 games. He's also showcased double-digit homer and stolen-base ability in the high minors, and fantasy managers love his triple-position eligibility.
Unfortunately, there's a glaring red flag with McMahon: He has been tethered to the dreaded home/road split that has haunted many a Rockies hitter. Look at his career numbers in Coors Field, and outside of those friendly, airy confines:
HOME: .274/.346/.531, .877 OPS
AWAY: .201/.288/.329, .617 OPS
Not great for his profile. So, while his hot start is to be celebrated and enjoyed, do not be surprised if McMahon suffers a cold spell that happens to coincide with a road trip. He should be rostered as long as he receives quality playing time (especially as part of a Rockies lineup that's weaker than it's ever been in recent seasons), but he's also someone to consider benching away from Coors. — Mo Castillo
No. 6: The benefits of being Bad-doo
The perennial crop of teams out of the running before the season even starts is a real problem with depressive effects on fan interest. But for that one very large door closing, several smaller doors usually open. Sometimes, they are flung open and a new star walks through.
The Rule 5 draft allows teams to pluck minor leaguers of a certain experience level — who have not yet made the 40-man roster — away from their competitors. The drama-accelerating catch? To keep the players, clubs must carry them on the major-league roster all season.
In a sport increasingly attuned to player development and — sometimes cynically — devoted to never exposing a young talent to the highest levels of competition until he is totally, completely, undoubtedly ready, Rule 5 players are forced to sink or swim.
And Akil Baddoo has been swimming like a fish.
The cellar-dwelling Tigers took the 22-year-old outfielder from the Twins organization, where he had last been seen in High-A ball in 2019. Coming off an injury and the pandemic-erased 2020 season, Baddoo showed up to spring training on fire and made the team, the first hurdle for Rule 5 picks. More surprisingly, when the competition narrowed and the real season started, his storybook start — well-documented by FanGraphs’ RJ McDaniel — only picked up steam with a grand slam and a walk-off knock against his former employers among his early highlights.
Baseball careers are movies that don’t tell you a runtime. For every Trevor Story, there are several flashy debut stars who fade into background roles or total obscurity — remember Will Middlebrooks? Shelley Duncan? Kennys Vargas?
Baddoo has seized an opportunity to step into the spotlight. Seeing it through to its conclusion — whether that be in June or 2040? Well, that’s why we watch. — Zach Crizer
No. 7: Have you thought about Johnny Cueto lately?
The first time I yelled at the TV this baseball season was when Gabe Kapler came out of the dugout in the ninth inning of a 3-1 Giants-Rockies game on Friday night.
Oh you had more exciting plans? You’ve gotten both doses of vaccine (and waited the requisite two weeks)? Well, you missed a powerhouse pitching performance with edge-of-your-seat drama down to the last out.
A few hours before that other game where Joe Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in Padres history, the Giants’ Johnny Cueto put on a show to transport you back to the summer of 2016. That season, Cueto led the league in complete games with five, and the feat has only gotten rarer since then. Between Musgrove and Lance Lynn, there have already been two complete games in 2021, but still, when a starter enters the ninth, that’s suddenly must-see TV. A triple and a sac fly drew Kapler to the mound and the 7,390 San Francisco faithful to their feet, and then … the manager walked back to the dugout alone, leaving his pitcher to try to finish what he started. A couple batters later, Kapler was back, pulling Cueto to a chorus of boos with one out left in the game. The out was secured, the Giants won their home opener. But Johnny Cueto threw 118 pitches and seems to think he could have thrown a couple more.
Now 35, Cueto is coming off a terrible 2020 and a Tommy John surgery-shortened 2019. Through a week-and-a-half of baseball, he has two of the top five slots for most pitches thrown in a single game this season and continues to boast a full-body repertoire for throwing batters off their rhythm.
You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like. — Hannah Keyser
No. 8: Dusty Baker’s proof of concept
On Monday night, new Tigers skipper A.J. Hinch will manage in Houston for the first time since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. His Astros lost to the Washington Nationals that night, but his job was not in question. Within a month, the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme had been revealed, and by spring he was both suspended and fired. Eventually, it became clear that his role in the scheme was mainly being walked over by his own clubhouse.
After jettisoning Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, the Astros represented the most difficult managerial assignment in recent memory. The tactical and evaluative qualities that once made Hinch a managerial prototype were a distant secondary consideration to the people skills and aura the new skipper would need to steer a talented but embattled (and, clearly, potentially nefarious) team through an unprecedented storm.
Yet when Dusty Baker was hired to take the helm, the impossible choice seemed obvious. Because of the pandemic, the Astros are only now starting to feel the wrath of enraged fans in stadiums around the country, but Baker’s steadying influence is already apparent. Managers are famously hard to evaluate, especially those who make their marks not on sortable leaderboards but in the invisible head spaces of their players. But in the most direct test of the generation, the profession’s most evolved veteran proved his immense value beyond a shadow of a doubt. — Zach Crizer
No. 9: The runner-on-second rule is, was, and always shall be bad
Oh, noooow you all hate the extra-inning runner-on-second rule!
Last year, in the face of trendy tickled amusement and surprising support, I was openly cantankerous about the abomination that has now transcended the harried, short season of 2020 to infect the ostensibly more normal 2021. And, yeah, this blurb is a little bit about shameless stunting for recognition. I have never said, “Well, OK, that was fun,” after a hard-fought game was decided by the plating of a player who didn’t even bat in the inning.
But beyond that, I think the rule’s suspicious holdover for this season presents an important opportunity. So often in contemporary discourse, we interact only with the genre of an opinion and not the actual specifics. Carefully considered sentiments are dismissed as a “slippery slope” in this view. Saying anything is, apparently, analogous to saying anything else if it can be presented with a parallel sentence structure.
With a CBA negotiation necessary to get to a 2022 season, we’re not actually in danger of any pandemic-measure rules accidentally becoming permanent — virtually everything will have to be signed off on anew. But we are in a modern golden age of considering what kind of rule changes could improve the entertainment value of the sport. Especially with the opportunity provided by a new CBA on the horizon, the rest of this season will be spent debating how to make baseball better: How to improve pace of play, increase action on the basepaths, and make scoring opportunities that are not home runs more appealing.
But I hope we can bear in mind that someone can want those things, be willing to stomach radical change to the game, and still think that starting extra innings with a runner on second base is a cheap cop-out. — Hannah Keyser
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