Evolving Altuve, fan favorite Mullins some of baseball's best storylines

April 19th, 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 marvel that is Jose Altuve
Look: I understand that there is a certain subsection of the greater baseball populace that is never going to let Altuve be free of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, despite the fact that an investigation found no evidence he was a part of it. It’s a shame, because Altuve is one of baseball’s true originals -- living proof that this is a sport where stars can come in all shapes and sizes.

The Astros may have gotten off to a miserable start in 2024, but Altuve is enjoying one of the best starts of his already Hall of Fame-worthy career less than a month before his 34th birthday. He’s leading the Majors in batting average (at .388!) and hits, while leading the AL in doubles and total bases. He already has five homers, which, it must be said, matches his total in 152 games back in 2013. One of the best aspects of Altuve’s start is that, well into his 30s, he has actually combined the two different Altuves we’ve seen throughout his career: the version who won three batting titles and the more recent version, who strikes out more but hits for more power.

This current Altuve does both. He also has the highest walk rate of his career, the lowest ground-ball rate, the highest fly-ball rate and, by far, the highest pull rate. This is the best version of Altuve we’ve seen yet. If you haven’t been appreciating what he’s doing, you still have time to get back on board. Altuve’s recent extension keeps him in Houston through 2029, and the way he’s been going, he may make a serious run at 3,000 hits during that time.

2) Cedric Mullins, the Orioles lifer
Another fun aspect of Altuve is that he spans a whole narrative arc of his franchise’s history. In each of his first three seasons, the Astros lost at least 106 games. When you’ve lost that much at the beginning of a career, you’ve earned the wins that come your way when your team figures it out. Fans love guys like that. Other historical examples include Bernie Williams with the Yankees and Anthony Rizzo with the Cubs.

We may have ourselves another great one in Baltimore in Cedric Mullins. The Orioles lost 115 games in Mullins’ rookie season in 2018 -- though Mullins was only around for 45 of them -- and 108 in 2019 and 110 in 2021. By ’21, though, Mullins was the Orioles’ best player, putting together a 30-30 season and playing a terrific center field. (It is not easy to finish ninth in MVP voting for a 110-loss team, but Mullins did it.) Even with all the hot prospects making their way through the Orioles system, Mullins’ play made it clear that he’d be sticking around.

Mullins, ironically, had the worst season of his career in 2023, the year the Orioles finally broke through (winning 101 games and the AL East). But he has been in peak form this year, slugging a career-high .552 and providing arguably the team’s two most sterling highlights in the early going. The catch he made in the first inning of Monday’s win over the Twins was called “impossible,” and even that felt like underselling it. And then, on Wednesday, Mullins finished off a stirring sweep of those Twins with a walk-off homer. When the Orioles were losing 333 games over Mullins’ first three seasons, he had to wonder if he’d ever get the opportunity to play in front of rowdy Camden Yards crowds cheering on one of the best teams in baseball. Few deserve the opportunity to do so more.

3) Wait, so just how fast can a baseball game be?

As someone who gets to watch baseball all day and considers that the platonic ideal of how a human being should spend their time on this Earth, I am never in much of a hurry for a game to be over. But I am also a human being who needs sleep occasionally, like the rest of you, which is why the undeniable success of the pitch clock and the pace-of-game initiatives has been so welcome. When you’re dropping the average game time by 20-plus minutes over one season, you’re doing something right. What I was curious about, though: How quickly would a game pass, under the new rules, if someone threw a “Maddux,” (a shutout in under 100 pitches) and his own team didn’t score many runs, either?

We found out on Wednesday night when Tanner Houck, who had never tossed a shutout in his career, threw MLB’s first Maddux of the season in a 2-0 Red Sox win over the Guardians. (It was the third such performance under the new rules; Framber Valdez -- in his no-hitter -- and Domingo Germán -- in his perfect game -- accomplished the feat last year). The game lasted only one hour, 49 minutes, which is nearly half as long as Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. (Good movie, by the way.) That’s the shortest game on record since Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game in 2010 and the eighth-shortest game this century.

It nearly was even shorter. New Guardians manager Stephen Vogt made two pitching changes, which cost some time, and a Triston Casas foul ball down the right-field line that could have been a homer led to a booth review that took up a few minutes. The record this century is one hour, 39 minutes on April 16, 2005, a 2-1 White Sox win over the Mariners. I think that mark is within reach.

4) Mason Miller is only the tip of the A’s bullpen iceberg
The A’s have been a little feistier than many expected them to be heading into the season, and their showcase player has been closer Mason Miller, who none other than the Pitching Ninja himself called “the most electric pitcher in baseball.” (His Baseball Savant page looks like a heat index in the Sahara.) But for all his dominance, he’s not the only guy killing it in the A’s bullpen. They currently have a 2.58 bullpen ERA, the third-best in baseball, only a year after having the 28th-best (5.20). (The worst bullpen ERA in baseball right now, by the way? Shockingly, it’s the Rays, with a 6.23 mark.)

Miller has received notice for being an unlikely flamethrower, considering he was planning to be an accountant not very long ago, but many of the other guys in the ’pen have come out of nowhere as well. Austin Adams (6 2/3 scoreless innings) is a 32-year-old journeyman, Kyle Muller (2.03 ERA in 13 1/3 innings) was the forgotten guy in the big Sean Murphy trade, Michael Kelly (two relief wins and a 2.53 ERA) was a 31-year-old waiver claim last November and Lucas Erceg (2.35 ERA in nine appearances) has overcome battles with alcoholism and depression. One of the quickest ways to improve your team is to get lucky with spare bullpen pieces, and the A’s have certainly done so. Miller is the final boss, but the A’s are packed with guys who are nearly as much trouble to deal with as he is.

5) The modern-day Whiteyballers
Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, who reached three World Series with the Cardinals in the 1980s and won one in 1982, died on Tuesday at the age of 92. (I spoke about him on “MLB Now” with Brian Kenny.) While Herzog loved the three-run homer as much as anyone -- he always said he patterned his strategy after his ballpark and his rosters rather than out of some dogmatic philosophy -- he will forever be associated with small ball, with stolen bases, triples into the gap, terrific defense and the sacrifice fly. Baseball has changed quite a bit since Whitey managed -- though it should be remembered that he was more obsessed with OBP during his time than most of his contemporaries -- and it can be difficult to find those sort of Whiteyball players we saw during his time.

They’re out there, though, the guys who run fast, steal bases, play good defense, don’t hit homers but don’t strike out much. The Brewers’ Brice Turang (MLB’s current steals leader) immediately comes to mind, and the Cardinals themselves actually have a couple of young players who may fit the mold, in shortstop Masyn Winn (who has probably been the Cards’ best position player so far) and speedy center fielder Victor Scott II. Other guys? The Nationals’ Lane Thomas and two Padres: Ha-Seong Kim and rookie Jackson Merrill.

My favorite player season that could only exist on a Whiteyball team was Tom Herr’s 1985, when the Cardinals second baseman knocked in 110 runs despite hitting only eight homers. That’s difficult to do! (He also stole 31 bases, of course.) Of the 263 players who have had at least 110 RBIs in a season this century, the one with the fewest homers was Ryan Zimmerman, who had 20 for the Nationals in 2006. Of the top 10 current RBI leaders in the Majors, two have three homers (Marcus Semien and Spencer Steer), and everyone else has at least four. People will still steal bases and hit triples and play great defense. But no one’s getting 110 RBIs on eight homers again.

Fun Series of the Weekend: Rangers at Braves
The Braves have been oddly quiet for a team that was considered a preseason favorite and is off to a 12-5 start, haven’t they? Perhaps it’s the relatively slow start for Ronald Acuña Jr. The reigning NL MVP finally hit his first homer on Wednesday, although he has stolen eight bases and has a .400 OBP, so it’s not like he has fallen off the planet. Still, the Braves are just motoring along, beating everyone in their path without much fanfare.

Perhaps having the defending champs in town will shake that up a bit. The Rangers have been spinning their wheels out of the starting gate, but fortunately for them, everyone else in their division has, too. But if they’re churned up by the Braves’ buzzsaw the way the rest of baseball has been, well … are you ready for the first-place Los Angeles Angels?