5 fascinating MLB storylines right now

April 26th, 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) The Contreras brothers are at it again
One of the fun subplots of the 2022 All-Star Game -- that was the one at Dodger Stadium, the one when Albert Pujols said goodbye and Giancarlo Stanton won MVP -- was that two of the three National League catchers were brothers. They were in fact next to each other in the starting lineup, with the Cubs’ Willson Contreras making his third All-Star appearance and brother William, from the Braves, hitting right behind him. They were the first brothers to start in the ASG together since Roberto and Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1998.

Well, it sure looks like it’s going to happen again. Now both with different teams -- Willson with the Cardinals, William in the same division with the Brewers -- the Contreras brothers are easily the two best-hitting catchers in the NL. William is keeping the Brewers in first place with a .365 batting average and 22 RBIs (tied for second in the NL), and Willson is right behind him as one of the few productive hitters in the Cardinals lineup, with a .422 OBP. Also worth noting: Little brother (William) seems to have helped his big bro (Willson) with his pitch framing this year too; his numbers are much better.

This is particularly impressive considering each player had a tumultuous 2023: William was sent by the Braves to the Brewers as part of the three-team trade that brought Sean Murphy to Atlanta. And shortly after signing with the Cardinals, Willson was temporarily removed from the catcher position for … reasons that still aren’t entirely clear. It hasn’t slowed down either of them this year. You can fully expect them both back in the Midsummer Classic in Arlington, but they’ll have to do it four more times to match the six times the Alomars were selected in the same year.

2) The Cleveland Guardians are indestructible
Hey, Guardians fan! Close your eyes and pretend it’s October 2023. You just watched your team miss the playoffs and put up its worst record since 2012. Now, I’m going to tell you that by late April 2024:

  • Your team’s top free-agent addition over the offseason will have been Austin Hedges.
  • Shane Bieber is going to be lost for the season after only two starts.
  • Key pitchers Gavin Williams, Sam Hentges, James Karinchak, Eli Morgan and Trevor Stephan are also all on the IL.
  • José Ramírez will have an OBP of .271, even after going 3-for-4 with a grand slam on Thursday afternoon.

You would assume your team was toast! You would assume that the season, for all intents and purposes, is already over. Well, I have good news for you, you apparently-encased-in-ice-for-the-last-six-months Guardians fan: Your team is killing it. The Guardians have the best record in the American League (18-7 after beating Boston on Thursday), and they’re doing it, if you can believe this, with their offense.

While the rotation has mostly struggled -- none of Logan Allen, Tanner Bibee, Carlos Carrasco or Triston McKenzie has an ERA under 4.44 -- the offense has picked up Ramírez’s slack. Josh Naylor is off to a monster start, Steven Kwan is hitting .347 and they’ve gotten contributions from unlikely sources such as Estevan Florial, Gabriel Arias and David Fry. Add that to a bullpen with a 2.31 ERA that has helped the team go 3-0 in extra-inning games, and you’ve got a torrid start on your hands. See, October 2023 Guardians fan? Everything’s fine!

3) The other terrific Pirates pitching prospect
Paul Skenes is going to be in the big leagues at some point, and probably at some point pretty soon. But as exemplary as his stuff is, he may be pitching for a long time before he makes a hitter look like this:

Brice Turang is one of this season’s early breakout stars, and that still may be the highlight he’s remembered for most. Goodness gracious. That pitch was thrown by Jared Jones, the No. 56 MLB Pipeline prospect heading into the season and the Pirates prospect who is already up and, clearly, making otherwise excellent players look silly. He has made five starts for the Pirates already, and they’ve been the platonic ideal of what the Pirates could have hoped for: He’s got a 2.79 ERA, with 39 strikeouts and only four walks. (The only thing that has hurt him have been five homers in his 29 innings, and that’s not even that bad.)

Pirates fans, and really the rest of baseball, can’t wait to see their heralded pitching phenom. But the thing is that they already have one.

4) The divergent paths of two top prospects
On Opening Day last year, much-heralded rookies Anthony Volpe of the Yankees and Jordan Walker of the Cardinals were in the lineup from the get-go for two signature MLB franchises. For all the love showered on them, both got off to slow starts and by the end of April, the Cardinals had sent down Walker and the Yankees were staving off fans' complaints that they should do the same with Volpe. By the end of the year, though, each had established himself as a bona fide big league starter, with Walker ending up with a 114 OPS+ (higher than Elly De La Cruz, for what it’s worth) and Volpe winning an AL Gold Glove Award at shortstop. The sky was the limit for both of them in 2024.

But it turns out only one of them has built on last year’s momentum. Volpe has been fantastic for the Yankees, trading a little bit of power for increased plate discipline and contact; he’s hitting nearly 90 points higher than he did in 2023 while walking more and striking out less. (And the fielding remains Gold Glove worthy.)

Unfortunately, Walker, a former third baseman turned right fielder, has improved his fielding, but he hasn’t carried over his second-half surge at the plate, hitting only .155 with no homers and looking wholly lost in the box. (His ground-ball rate is an alarming 50 percent.) The Cardinals, with Lars Nootbaar back and healthy and no longer able to handle a dead spot in the order, on Wednesday sent Walker back down to Triple-A for the second time in two Aprils, hopefully to get more loft back in his swing. (Which is also why they sent him down last year.) These remain two electrifying talents, but no prospect’s path is ever linear. Volpe is improving, and Walker is taking a step backward -- for now. It turns out that baseball is really hard.

5) Fedde Fever?
All right, not much is going right on the South Side of Chicago right now, as the White Sox’s 3-22 start would attest. But the Five Fascinations is a happy place where we will find a way to look for hope and positivity in any situation, so: We bring you to .

You surely remember Fedde as the 2014 first-round Draft pick of the Nationals who never really worked out in Washington, an occasional member of the rotation during the difficult post-championship era. (He made 12 starts for the 2019 World Series title team but didn’t make it to the postseason roster.) His truly miserable 2022 season -- he went 6-13 with a 5.81 ERA in 27 starts -- could only get him a one-year deal with the NC Dinos of the KBO, and he turned it around immediately there, going 20-6 in 30 starts with a 2.00 ERA and a terrific 5.97 K/BB ratio. (He won both the KBO’s equivalent of the Cy Young and their MVP.)

The White Sox liked what they saw and signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract, and while little else has paid off for the White Sox this year, that surely has. Fedde has been their best player by far, putting up a 2.73 ERA in his five starts and averaging more than a strikeout per inning. It is certainly up in the air what the White Sox will have to offer teams during Trade Deadline season, but Fedde -- particularly with that extra year on his contract -- may well be their most desirable commodity.

Fun Series of the Weekend: Guardians at Braves

The best team in the American League this season vs. the best team in the National League? Sorry Cubs-Red Sox and Yankees-Brewers, but how could that not be the pick? We know what the Braves are capable of, but this will be a real opportunity for the Guardians to show they’re for real. Win two out of three from Atlanta on the road, and people won’t be able to help but stand up and take notice. It’s also a rematch of the 1995 World Series, if you’re into that sort of thing. That series, by the way, had a whopping 10 Hall of Famers involved: Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz for Atlanta, and Eddie Murray, Jim Thome and (an inactive and about to retire) Dave Winfield for Cleveland.