Breakout Dodgers star, catchers raking among baseball's best storylines

May 10th, 2024

There’s always something fascinating going on in the world of baseball -- and there’s always something new. Every Friday morning throughout the season, heading into the weekend, inspired by Zach Lowe’s terrific “10 Things I Like” NBA column for ESPN, we present the Five Fascinations, five fun things going on in the baseball world. Also, we’d like to shout out the always excellent Ben Clemens at FanGraphs, another progenitor of a similar format. Submit your personal fascinations to [email protected], or just yell at me about mine.

1) Oh, look, the Dodgers have another potential star
On a visit to Los Angeles this week, I stopped by Dodger Stadium on Wednesday afternoon to catch the Dodgers (the hottest team in baseball) against the Marlins. During what was a relatively sleepy getaway game, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, not that it stopped the crowd from going nuts every time he came to the plate. Instead, the main star in a 3-1 Dodgers victory was someone who, presumably, not that many people paid specifically to see: Dodgers starter .

Stone, a fifth-round pick in the shortened 2020 Draft, had electrified the Dodgers brass with his Minor League performance in 2022, putting up a dominant 1.48 ERA in 26 appearances (25 starts) over three levels. But he was much wobblier in 2023, a year when the Dodgers could have really used him, notching a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A Oklahoma City and getting knocked around in four big league starts (1-1, 9.00 ERA in eight games, including four starts). The Dodgers still put him in the rotation to begin the 2024 season, but after he was rocked for five runs in three innings by the Cubs in an 8-1 loss in his second start, you wondered when he was finally going to turn the corner. Consider the corner turned. The 25-year-old hasn’t given up more than two runs in a start since, and he has been particularly excellent in his last three starts, allowing just three earned runs in 20 innings. (All three runs were on solo homers.)

The Dodgers have had a full rotation’s worth of starters on the injured list, but they are slowly getting healthier. Walker Buehler is back, and Bobby Miller and Clayton Kershaw are on their way. Now, the emergence of Stone means L.A. is beginning to resemble a fully operational machine in the lineup and the rotation. That’s the funny thing about Stone pitching so well: When Kershaw and Miller are back, he may still be fighting to hold onto a rotation slot. The Dodgers have won seven in a row. But they’re about to be even better.

2) joins the ranks of slugging catchers
Has anybody noticed that catchers are smashing the ball this year? Of MLB’s top 20 hitters in OPS entering Thursday, a full quarter of them were catchers: the Cardinals’ Willson Contreras (now out with a forearm fracture sustained behind the plate), his brother William Contreras of the Brewers, the Royals’ Salvador Perez, the Dodgers’ Will Smith and, perhaps the most surprising slugger, the Twins’ Jeffers. The days of catch-and-throw-and-try-not-to-hit-into-a-double-play catchers are behind us: These guys are raking.

Jeffers, who crushed his eighth homer of the season Thursday, is actually having the best season out of all of them. Entering Friday, Jeffers’ 1.020 OPS ranked behind only Ohtani, Marcell Ozuna and Juan Soto. Jeffers is also batting over .306 and is tied with the Tigers' Spencer Torkelson with an AL-leading 12 doubles, and the Twins have kept him in the lineup at DH when he isn’t catching.

Jeffers was good for the Twins last year, too, with an .859 OPS and 14 homers in 96 games, giving Minnesota a superior offensive option to Christian Vázquez, who has a .573 OPS since signing a three-year deal with the club in December 2022. The 26-year-old Jeffers is under team control for two more years after this one, which means the Twins now have a middle-of-the-order masher, at a premium defensive position, for the foreseeable future. He hasn’t just replaced Vázquez: He’s about to be an All-Star.

3) There’s still magic in 's bat
When Stanton homers, it can feel like a seismic event in ways both good and bad: It’s violent and shakes the earth, and it, well, doesn’t tend to happen as often as it seems in the popular imagination. Stanton, who is still signed through the 2027 season, has famously battled injuries throughout his tenure as a Yankee, but last year was no question the most alarming of any of those seasons: His .191/.275/.420 slash line at age 33 was barely playable, regardless of contract. That contract nevertheless will earn you a lot of patience, and early on in 2024, that patience, willful or otherwise, is being rewarded.

Stanton homered in consecutive wins over a rapidly sinking Astros team this week, giving him eight on the season and 410 for his career. Stanton is still not getting on base enough, but as we’ve seen, no one, maybe not even his teammate Aaron Judge, can quite launch a baseball like he still can. Stanton’s first homer against Houston sizzled off his bat at 118.8 mph, and he topped that with a 119.9 mph blast on Wednesday, when he, Judge and Juan Soto all homered in the same game for the first time.

That was a tantalizing look at what the Yankees could have if Stanton, Judge and Soto all get going at the same time. The Yankees have been better than many thought they would be without Gerrit Cole, but let’s not confuse them with underdogs: This team still has Soto/Judge/Stanton in its batting order. (As my colleague Mike Petriello has pointed out, that could be a Hall of Fame threesome.) The Yankees don’t need Stanton to be the MVP he once was. But when you see what he did this week against the Astros, it’s no wonder why they, and we, still dream he can.

4) returns, just in time
There is a general sense, for as impressive as the Brewers’ start has been, that a fall down the standings -- or at least out of first place in the NL Central -- is pending. This is a team that has traditionally relied on pitching, yet its current rotation behind ace Freddy Peralta features Colin Rea, Bryce Wilson, Joe Ross and Tobias Myers. The lineup is still raking (fifth in MLB in OPS, tied for eighth in runs per game), but is that sustainable? The trick for the Brewers to keep pace with the Cubs may be to continue to mash, which is why the return of Yelich this week may be so vital.

Until this week, Yelich hadn’t played since April 12 due to a recurrence of the back issues that have plagued him since his Marlins days. That interrupted his best start in years, as he put up a .333/.422/.744 slash line through 11 games. That start was particularly encouraging because that looks like a line from the version of Yelich who produced a 1.000 OPS in 2018 (and won the NL MVP Award) and then a 1.100 OPS in 2019 (when he finished second). That Yelich both got on base and hit for power.

The Yelich of the last few years certainly hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been the superstar the Brewers thought they had when they extended him through the 2028 season at superstar money. The Brewers are short a lot of players who were around for most of the past few years, players who were able to make up for Yelich’s lower production. Those players are gone now. Milwaukee would love it, now that he’s back, to be that MVP again. Wouldn’t it be great to see this Yelich once more?

5) Those Nats are feisty!
The National League Wild Card race is going to be quite something this year. Whoever doesn’t win the NL East between the Phillies and Braves is going to get one spot, but the other two seem wildly up in the air. The leading contenders are whoever falls short of the NL Central title between the Cubs and Brewers for the second spot … and total chaos for the third spot. No other team is over .500, which means the third spot, heading into Thursday, was a three-way tie between the Padres, Mets and Nationals, all right there at .500.

Many Nats fans hoped they’d see some improvement this year, but it’s fair to say few saw a Wild Card run happening. There’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors here -- the Nats have been outscored by eight runs -- but as we learned from the 2023 D-backs, all you have to do is get in the tournament. So how are the Nats doing it? Their rotation has been better than anyone could have reasonably expected, with youngsters MacKenzie Gore and Mitchell Parker holding up well early and veteran addition Trevor Williams, of all people, starting out 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA. (Williams had a 5.55 ERA in 30 starts for the Nats last year.) But what’s most exciting is this lineup. CJ Abrams has emerged as a full-on star at the age of 23, hitting for more power than he ever has; he may well end up with a 30-30 season. But check out some of these other guys you might not even know:

Luis García Jr: .321, 7 SB, .865 OPS
Jacob Young: .301, .372 OBP, 12 SB
Ildemaro Vargas: .403 OBP
Jesse Winker: 4 HR, .367 OBP
Nick Senzel: 5 HR

That’s a lot more difficult a lineup for pitchers to face that anyone anticipated. The Nats looked particularly feisty in a two-game series split with the first-place Orioles this week, shutting them out (behind the apparently now-immortal Williams) on Tuesday and falling just short in an epic 12-inning clash on Wednesday. The Nats are the toughest opponent they’ve been since they won the 2019 World Series. And that might be just enough to keep them afloat in the NL Wild Card race.

Fun Series of the Weekend: D-backs at Orioles
All apologies to the debut of top pitching prospect Paul Skenes, which will definitely be Saturday’s must-watch game, but this is a fascinating series at this juncture of the season. The Orioles are having some bullpen issues that are making it harder to stave off the red-hot Yankees -- I have Orioles fans already texting me if I think Mason Miller is available -- but the more fascinating team here is probably Arizona. The D-backs have outscored their opponents this season, unlike their pennant-winning team of 2023, but they’re still two games under .500 and already 7 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. A sweep against the Reds may get them going, but that momentum, such as it is, could get stomped quickly by the juggernaut Orioles. This is a particularly pivotal stretch for the D-backs; get swept this weekend and a team that considers itself a World Series contender again could fall right back to fourth place.