J-Rod, Glasnow, Royals among this week's Fascinating 5

May 24th, 2024

There’s always something fascinating going on in baseball, and there’s always something new. Every Friday morning throughout the season, heading into the weekend, inspired by Zack 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 fascinations to [email protected], or just yell at me about mine.

1. When’s going to get hot?

I was at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, introducing my 12-year-old son to the joys of singing “YMCA” while the grounds crew raked the infield. We saw Juan Soto hit two homers (and the scorching-hot Aaron Judge hit another) in the Yankees’ 7-3 victory over the Mariners, a matchup of two first-place teams with some old-school postseason history. The Mariners are the current leaders of the chaotic American League West, taking (slight) advantage while the Rangers and Astros try to get their ducks back in a row. Seattle hasn't looked particularly impressive yet. Its rotation has been fine rather than spectacular, and despite being three games over .500, the club has a negative run differential. It is trying to get the motor running as well.

Which brings me to Rodríguez. He was my preseason pick for AL MVP, and it was a very reasonable one: He’s a transcendent young star who, during his face-meltingly incredible August last season, single-handedly yanked the Mariners back into playoff contention. He’s only 23 years old, he’s a true five-tool player, he’s the center of the franchise and he’s magnetic to watch. So it’s particularly noteworthy that the Mariners are in first place despite his pretty miserable start. I watched him go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Wednesday despite apparently using a glow-in-the-dark bat or something. He went 0-for-4 with two more strikeouts on Thursday afternoon, lowering his average to .257. Even worse, he’s slugging .312, a full 190 points lower than he put up in his Rookie of the Year season two years ago. In 51 games, Rodríguez has only two homers and five doubles.

Everything is off with him this year: the strikeout rate is way up, the walk rate is way down and his isolated power is a stunning .056. The major issue might be that he’s no longer pulling the ball: He has an 18.8 pull percentage, down from 29.7 percent last year. He’s Julio Rodríguez, so you know he’ll get hot eventually. (Right?) The difference this year, unlike last year, is when that happens, the Mariners won’t have to be dragged back into the race; they’re already in the thick of it.

2. Seriously, the Royals aren’t going anywhere.

You can admit it: You figured the Royals would have faded by now. It’s not that you didn’t think they were improved, because their rotation looked better, Bobby Witt Jr. is emerging as a legitimate superstar, and the organization seems to have finally gotten everyone on the same page. Baby steps forward were reasonable: Maybe fourth place, maybe third, maybe even approaching .500. Good for you, Royals! Well, Kansas City will see your placid condescension and raise you … a six-game win streak that has them with the fifth-best record in baseball. The Royals are only a half-game behind the Dodgers!

This leads to two obvious questions: How are they doing this, and can they keep it up? The first one is easy: The Royals are good at everything. For all the talk of Kansas City's pitching, the club has the fifth-best starting-pitching ERA in baseball, led by Seth Lugo, who probably should be your AL Cy Young favorite right now. They are third in baseball in runs scored as well. Witt is the superstar, but don’t look past the throwback year Salvador Perez is having. His .551 slugging percentage matches Witt’s, and he’s getting on base at a .401 clip.

The question is whether they can keep it up. You’d have to think Lugo and Perez would take some sort of a step back, but that rotation is solid throughout, and the bullpen has had some surprises as well. (You probably don’t know who John Schreiber is, but he has been essentially unhittable this year.) The only downside is that Kansas City picked a bad year to break through in the AL Central, as the time when you could capture this division with 85 or so wins has passed. But the Royals have made it clear: They aren’t going anywhere.

3. is an innings eater.

When the Dodgers traded for Glasnow and subsequently signed him to a five-year, $136.56 million contract extension, the general consensus was that it was a good trade and a good deal but one that came with obvious limitations, namely that Glasnow wouldn’t pitch very often. For his entire Rays career, Glasnow was a fantastic pitcher but one who inevitably would get hurt: You’d have to handle him with kid gloves and accept the positive (he’s a great pitcher) along with the negative (you can’t count on him to pitch a full season, like, ever). The Dodgers accepted this bargain, quite reasonably.

It turns out that Los Angeles is getting everything out of Glasnow. He’s 6-3 with a 3.09 ERA in his first 11 starts, but what’s most impressive is that he has made all those starts with little to no drama. Glasnow is second in the Majors in innings pitched, only two-thirds of an inning behind perpetual innings-eater Zack Wheeler, who only passed him on Thursday afternoon. Glasnow's 67 innings are the fourth most he has thrown in a season in his nine-year career. He’s just 19 innings short of 2021, 44 behind '18 and 53 behind '23. All that usage hasn’t diminished his effectiveness: He leads the Majors in strikeouts. The Dodgers thought they were getting Tyler Glasnow; they might have gotten vintage Max Scherzer.

4. When do we start worrying about the Rangers?

Because the Rangers were all over the place last season before recovering to win the World Series, there is a sense that any early issues they might have this year will ultimately resolve themselves. There’s just too much talent here. They’ll figure it out. But red flags keep piling up on this team. Texas lost again to the scorching Phillies on Thursday afternoon, its fourth in a row and ninth of its last 11. And the Rangers' All-Stars-on-the-injured-list rotation added another member this week when Jon Gray (who has been their best pitcher this season) hit the 15-day IL with a right groin strain. (That list includes Gray, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Cody Bradford, Nathan Eovaldi and Tyler Mahle. That’s ridiculous.) Remember José Ureña, the guy who never quite got it figured out with the Marlins? The rotation now features him. (And he hasn’t been half bad!)

So much that was supposed to work out for the Rangers this year hasn’t. The rookie outfield of Evan Carter and Wyatt Langford has not worked out. Corey Seager has only recently started hitting. Those starters on the IL look further away from returns than they were supposed to be at this point. Texas, at its best and healthiest, was thought possibly better than the team that won the World Series. But if it weren’t for the aforementioned AL West problems, the club might be buried. The Rangers still have time to get on track, but they’re getting further away from being whole, not closer.

5. Of course it was the Cardinals who ended the Orioles’ sweepless streak.

Just last week I made a whole big thing out of the Orioles’ 105-series sweepless streak just in time for the Cardinals -- a very wobbly team that hadn’t swept a series all season -- to take three straight from them at Busch Stadium. Baseball is a very weird sport sometimes.

It’s worth asking if this might signal a turning of fortunes for St. Louis. The first month and a half of its season was a catastrophe, with the proud franchise responding to last year’s last-place finish with … another last-place start. The season was in danger of getting away from the Cardinals. Not all of that has been resolved just yet -- they are still three games under .500 -- but there have been signs of life. Since it lost to the Brewers on May 11, St. Louis is 8-2, including that Baltimore sweep, highlighted by Lars Nootbaar turning a potential game-tying extra-base hit into a key double play.

St. Louis' resurgence has coincided with Nootbaar being back in the lineup regularly. Injuries have consistently kept him from realizing the potential many saw in him, particularly during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, when he suddenly became one of the most famous baseball players in the world. With the Cardinals' outfield looking nothing like it was expected to this season, the team needs Nootbaar -- and his good vibes -- to help get this team back in the race.

Fun Series of the Weekend: Brewers at Red Sox

The Red Sox picked a terrific week to sweep a division foe on the road. They took all three games at the Trop against the Rays, zooming past Tampa Bay for third place in the division, climbing above .500 and sneaking within half a game of the last Wild Card spot … all at the same time the Yankees were splitting a series at home with the Mariners and the Orioles were getting swept in St. Louis.

Boston will take all this positive momentum to Fenway against the Brewers, who are slipping amid a difficult road trip, losing two of three in both Houston and Miami. Milwaukee was also helped out by a division rival, in their case the Cubs, having a rough week, though it should probably be noted that the Brewers are 6-1 against the Cardinals and 22-20 against everybody else -- hardly the sort of thing that distinguishes a first-place team. Milwaukee has a huge four-game set with the Cubs right after this series. The team will have to slow down the hot Red Sox for the vibes to feel great heading into it.