The Thursday Takeaway
While just about every aspect of baseball has a sense of mystery (how do hitters hit a curving 90 mph ball with a two inch-wide stick of lumber?), the mere concept of a knuckleball may be the hardest to understand. Save for the knuckler, every pitch relies on spin to twist and turn. Naturally, by not spinning, the knuckleball breaks more, and in more unpredictable manners, than its peers.
The knuckleball conundrum isn’t just a hot topic of debate among physicists—it can drastically change the trajectories of whole franchises. The very same knuckler that made R.A. Dickey a Cy Young winner for the Mets led to an ERA over 4.00 in Toronto, while also robbing the Blue Jays of a prospect who would become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
For all we don’t know about the knuckleball, though, there is one thing we know for certain after last night’s action. When the knuckler doesn’t knuckle, bad things happen. Orioles left fielder Trey Mancini was kind enough to show us exactly what I mean by "bad things."
Yes, the victim of this home run is Boston knuckleballer Stephen Wright, whose primary weapon of choice simply wasn’t fooling anyone on Wednesday evening. After Mancini’s first-inning three-run shot (preceded by an RBI double from Manny Machado), Jonathan Schoop stepped to the plate, was thrown a knuckler that looked more like 70 mph batting practice pitch than anything else, and, well, more bad things happened.
Unfortunately for Wright and the Red Sox, the Orioles weren’t done. Just two pitches into the second inning, Adam Jones hit a third home run for Baltimore …
… and Chris Davis did the same a batter later to extend the lead to 8-0 with just one away in the second inning.
Wright was pulled with an ugly line of eight runs allowed over just 1 1/3 frames. While the Red Sox did knock in five runs of their own, it was still a 12-5 blowout. In a showcase of offense, Mancini probably deserves the player of the game award, especially after going deep for a second time later in the contest.
It was an eventful afternoon in the Bronx, both for good and bad reasons, with the Yankees battling the Rays for the fifth time in this young season. Spring training ace Jordan Montgomery made his big-league debut as New York’s fifth starter and proved his gaudy March stats weren’t a total mirage with a solid pitching performance. While Montgomery was held to just 4 2/3 innings, he struck out seven while allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits and two walks in an 8-4 win. The two earned runs came on a Rickie Weeks home run in the first inning, but the righty looked, at the very least, like a serviceable back-end starter.
Although Montgomery’s repertoire is rather unspectacular, he does bring an awfully interesting feature to each game with his unique delivery and sky-high arm slot.
Couple that pitching motion with Montgomery’s 6-foot-6 frame and you get a towering vertical release point which was a full four inches higher than any pitcher in baseball this season (interestingly, no. 2 on the list was Blake Snell, who started for Tampa Bay on Wednesday). This allows Montgomery to generate remarkable plane on his pitches, something that should aide in inducing ground balls, limiting home runs, and netting a few more whiffs than you may expect from his stuff.
While we’re on the topic of tall rookies, let’s take a moment to appreciate Aaron Judge’s third home run over his past three games—this one a monstrous 437-foot two-run shot off the batter’s eye in center field.
Judge has been on fire of late and could be turning into the power-hitting outfielder the Yankees sorely need, especially if Brett Gardner hits the disabled list after a nasty collision with Weeks that knocked them both out of the game.
For just about everything a hitter can do, there’s a certain player who embodies this action, above all else, while on the field. Billy Hamilton steals bases, Jose Altuve gets hits, Joey Votto walks, Mike Trout does everything, and Giancarlo Stanton hits home runs. That last guy, Stanton, had somehow gone homer-less over his first seven games of the season. Luckily, the changed when the powerful slugger hit his first dinger of the season in typical Giancarlo fashion.
Stanton seemed to enjoy the whole hitting home runs thing, because he went yard again in his next at-bat.
Every Stanton four-bagger is beautiful in its own way, but it’s fun to compare just how different these two home runs were. His first shot, a soaring fly ball, hung in the air for 6.6 seconds and peaked at a height of 144 feet. Stanton’s second, a scalded line drive, took just 3.7 seconds to leave the ballpark and had an apex of merely 48 feet. To make things even more fun, the latter ended up in the Marlins’ pool, though that didn’t deter eager fans from tracking down a souvenir.
Not to be outdone, Ender Inciarte also hit his first two home runs of the season, putting him one dinger shy of his 2016 total. Hopefully Inciarte can catch fire after the big night, as he began the season in a mini-slump. If the center fielder can manage a league-average output on offense, while continuing to provide elite defense, Inciarte could have another excellent season on tap. Speaking of that defense, the 26-year-old showed off his glove in Wednesday’s win as well.
While they weren’t as pretty as Stanton’s, the two dingers helped the Braves to sneak past the Marlins for a 5-4 win.
Although Wednesday’s games were largely dominated by offense, there was one good old pitcher’s duel in Cleveland. Derek Holland—somehow only 30 years old—took the hill for the White Sox, looking to build upon his strong 2017 debut. The southpaw did exactly that, limiting the Indians to zero hits and three walks through five innings. Although the no-hit bid was broken up by a leadoff double by Francisco Lindor in the bottom of the sixth, Holland finished up the frame and exited the game with six shutout innings to his name.
Taking the hill for the Indians was Danny Salazar, who had an impressive day himself. Despite ceding two runs in the second inning, Salazar quickly settled down and cruised through the sixth inning, showing his typical swing-and-miss stuff all night. The strikeout artist finished with 11 Ks, four hits, two walks, and two runs allowed over six frames of work, rebounding nicely from a rough start to the season.
Defensive Play of the Day
We may have ranked Andrew Benintendi as our no. 3 prospect in baseball because of the enormous upside in his bat, but he flashed some impressive athleticism and defensive talent while robbing ‘Beef’ Welington Castillo of a hit in center field.
What to Watch on Thursday
Although we won’t be seeing a battle of aces in Chicago, Thursday’s Cubs vs. Dodgers matchup will be a must-watch event, with two of baseball’s best teams going at it. Hyun-jin Ryu will start for the Cubs, while Brett Anderson is slated to pitch for Los Angeles. You can tune in at 2:20 pm ET.
If you’re looking for a pitching matchup full of talent, then direct your attention to the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and the Rockies’ Jon Gray, who will be facing off at 10:15 pm ET. Be sure to also keep an eye on aces Yu Darvish and Ricky Nolasco (?!) as well—they’re scheduled to pitch at 3:37 pm ET for the Rangers and Angels, respectively. Hey, you might even see Mike Trout do some Mike Trout things.
There may not be a ton of potential pitcher’s duels around baseball, but there are plenty of intriguing arms taking the hill for their respective teams on Thursday. Among them are Robert Gsellman, Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Luis Severino—there’s sure to be a blowup or two, but you might just catch a gem from a couple of these high-upside arms.