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April Fun Index: Jazz, Vladito, and...Curt Casali?

Taking a quick look at some of the things we (“I”) enjoyed most about the opening month of Major League Baseball.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Miami Marlins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of very generic ways to start a recap of the first month of Major League Baseball. I could talk about what a whirlwind it’s been. Or the fact that it’s been quite a ride. I could throw in a video of Maximus Decimus Meridius demanding to know whether or not you were entertained (okay fine, here). This is all to say that I’ve had a very difficult time finding the wording to properly underscore just how much of a blast this first month of baseball has been.

I’m only talking about five things in this space to close out April, however. I figure I only have a certain number of words before my excitement-manifesting-itself-into-incoherence starts to really wear and leads you to close the tab. Some things had to be left out. Like the fact that the Oakland Athletics won 12 straight games after starting 0-6. Like the fact that Nicholas Castellanos came out mashing the baseball, was suspended for being assaulted by Yadier Molina, and came back in exactly the same form in which he left.

Or like the fact that Curt Casali had never caught a shutout in his Major League career—which goes back to 2014—only to catch five consecutive clean sheets for the upstart San Francisco Giants. With five different starting pitchers! Or Rule-5 pick Akil Baddoo absolutely showing out for Detroit, despite still being mired in the same stagnating rebuild.

Elite pitchers have been elite: Jacob deGrom (poor guy), Tyler Glasnow, Corbin Burnes, and Gerrit Cole have all been masterful. Yermín Mercedes has been one of baseball’s best stories early in the year. There have been some pleasantly surprising teams (Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh [!]), while virtually everyone else spent much of the month hating their rooting interest at any given point.

In any case, here are the things I found most enjoyable, engaging, absurd, thought-provoking, or any combination of those for the month of April.

Fun Thing #1: Jazz Chisholm’s Breakout

Despite landing on the Injured List this week, the Jazz Chisholm breakout left him as one of the league’s top rookies. To date, he ranks first among rookies in WAR (1.1), is second in wRC+ (154), and is fifth in ISO (.261). He’s also barreling pitches at a 20 percent rate, putting him in the 95th percentile early on among all players. His crowning achievement for the month was turning around a 100 MPH fastball from Jacob deGrom and putting it over the fence—in an 0-2 count no less! Over at Baseball Prospectus, Shakeia Taylor had an absolutely incredible writeup on the connection between Jazz & jazz and what his presence as a whole could mean for the sport. A snippet:

Jazz embodies all of the things we love about the sport, here and now, in the present. Jazz Ball 2.0 is in a lot of ways baseball 1.0, and returning to its roots might do it some good with fans. Letting the game evolve naturally might strike all the right chords. The saying goes, “friends don’t let friends clap on the one and the three” and Major League Baseball needs to find its rhythm. No one cares how long a song is as long as it’s got a good groove. The backbeat is the soul of it all. It’s there on its own. You just have to get out of the way.

I cannot strongly enough recommend reading anything that Shake puts out there. And without even reading that whole piece, five minutes of watching Jazz Chisholm play baseball and it’s extremely clear A. What makes him so magnetic as a player and B. Why baseball needs the injection of energy that he brings to the table.

Fun Thing #2: Padres-Dodgers

MLB: San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to cancel the remainder of the NL West slate (San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado) for both Los Angeles and San Diego, would anybody 1. notice or 2. complain? The two squads have squared off seven times thus far, as so many interdivision opponents already have (the difference being that watching these two play in perpetuity has been Actually Fun whereas, like, Chicago & Milwaukee less so). In those seven matchups, the outcomes currently favor the Padres 4-3, with a pair of one-run games, a two-run result, and a three-run result among the seven. They’ve been close, but more importantly, they’ve been absolutely riveting—in the most unironic use of the word—for April baseball.

The most recent matchup between the two was an 8-7 result, but it was a game in which the Padres had to score seven unanswered to win in the 11th. Trailing 7-1, they scored two in the seventh, two in the eight, and two in the ninth. Tim Hill escaped a based-loaded jam in the 10th, and Fernando Tatís, Jr. knocked in the eventual game-winning run on a sac fly.

But woven throughout those seven games, close as they’ve been, we have also gotten some memorable individual moments—a largely unfamiliar concept for April baseball. Whether it’s Tatís, Jr. covering an eye after homering off Trevor Bauer only to then do the Bauer strut across home plate after doing it again in the same game—actually it’s mostly those two things. But you’ve also got the extremely clutch double play turned by Jake Cronenworth and a game-ending diving catch from Mookie Betts during the first series in San Diego.

As obnoxious as it can be watching some division opponents face each other seemingly 90 times a season, this is a playoff baseball level of intensity that we can all continue to appreciate as the season wears on.

Fun Thing #3: Vlad Jr.’s Power

MLB: Washington Nationals at Toronto Blue Jays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t find I typically enjoy “violent delights,” but in a baseball context it’s one of the most beautiful thing the sport has to offer. When a hitter with power makes hard, flyball contact and sends a ball into Earth’s outer orbit, well, we really do get some aesthetically pleasing “violent ends.” Hello, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

In my Toronto Blue Jays season preview, one of the small notes I made for Guerrero, Jr. in order to experience the genuine breakout we’ve been waiting for was to elevate the baseball. This, given that he made groundball contact almost 55 percent of the time in 2020. He, uh, listened.

There are a multitude of factors that have contributed to Vladito emerging as one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball, and our fearless leader Kenny Kelly has a great writeup on his development and subsequent rise. Simply put, it comes down to this: he’s commanding the zone—both in terms of pitch selection and location—and he’s elevating. His GB% has dropped to just a shade over 42 percent and he’s strikeout out less than 16 percent of the time, while walking at a rate closer to 18 percent. The results feature seven home runs (including a three homer game against Washington, two of which came off of Max Scherzer), a .321 ISO, and a wRC+ of 218. His average exit velocity is north of 94 MPH.

I fully plan to investigate how the son stacks up against his father later this year, but while Vlad, Jr. isn’t showing the same aptitude at making contact as his old man, he doesn’t have to. That increased strike zone awareness has made him far more patient, limiting his overall Swing% and, in turn, the K% (even if the Contact% isn’t necessarily following suit). By changing up his approach, Vlad, Jr. is absolutely tearing the cover off of the baseball on a consistent basis. A true power hitter who isn’t up there hacking wildly? In this economy league?

Fun Thing #4: Anthony Rizzo & Freddie Freeman

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs are not a particular good baseball team. The Atlanta Braves have performed below expectations. But we’ve had two very enjoyable instances in which the respective first baseman for each club has come together to provide hilarity in games that were otherwise already decided.

Back on April 19th, Atlanta beat the Cubs 13-4. By the fourth inning, the game was already out of hand, but the Cubs caught Freddie Freeman in a rundown. The ensuing pickle between second and third featured a mic’d up Anthony Rizzo belting “Frederick” as he attempted to tag out his first base counterpart. It’s kind of a you-had-to-be-there moment, but a fun one nonetheless.

More recently, the two teams squared off again, this time in Atlanta. In another one that was decided early, also in favor of the Braves, Anthony Rizzo stepped onto specifically asked to be on the bump for the Cubs in the seventh inning and:

Rizzo struck out Freeman who was previously 4-for-4 on the night. It was an endearing and hilarious moment between two genuinely likeable players in a game that was otherwise incredibly uninteresting at that point. It gave Freeman his only out of the night and allowed Rizzo to record his first career strikeout while maintaining his career ERA of 0.00. At least the latter is having fun in what could be his last year in Chicago.

Fun Thing #5: Joe Musgrove & Carlos Rodón No-Hitters

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I’m now over 1500 words in here and have not even remotely alluded to the fact that we got a pair of no-hitters that were historic and heart-warming for two entirely different reasons.

The first came on April 9th. Making his second start for the San Diego Padres, Joe Musgrove faced just one more than the minimum in striking out 10 and holding the Texas Rangers without a hit. Obviously the most significant part of that is the fact that the Padres had never had a no-hitter thrown in their history to that point, only for a hometown kid to come in and do it for them. That aspect of it was great to see, and the only way it could have been topped was had it been in San Diego.

But while that is, of course, the marquee outcome of the year for Musgrove, it really speaks to his upside as a starter. Always that guy who seemed right on the cusp of something in Pittsburgh, Musgrove has been incredible since returning home to Southern California. He’s striking out almost 13 hitters per nine, walking only 1.55, and features a 1.24 ERA & 2.43 FIP on the year. The underlying stuff looks great, too. He’s got a GB% just a touch over 50 and CSW% of 36.5, with a chase rate that ranks in the 97th percentile. He’s giving up a fair amount of hard contact, but when he’s generating that kind of deception for opposing hitters and getting the ball on the ground, it doesn’t matter nearly as much. He’s in the midst of a breakout for an already strong San Diego starting five.

Rodón’s no-hitter wasn’t quite such a long time coming for his organization, as it was the second in as many years for the Chicago White Sox, after Lucas Giolito accomplished the feat in 2020. But it was remarkable in its own right, for very different reasons.

A top pitching prospect in baseball early in his career, the stuff has always been there for Rodón, but the health has not been. After starting 28 games in 2016, it’s been a smattering of injuries—shoulder surgery, Tommy John, etc.—and inconsistencies with command and the home run ball. But after returning to the Sox on a one-year pact, Rodón is very much living up to his upside.

The no-hitter itself very nearly proved to be more than that. Just five days after Musgrove twirled his, Rodón came just two outs shy of a perfect game. He grazed the foot of Cleveland catcher Roberto Pérez with one out in the ninth before recording the final two to seal the no-hit bid. It was an outing that featured seven strikeouts, near-100 MPH fastballs in the ninth inning, and this play from José Abreu. After so many struggles and so many injuries, Rodón has pitched to a 0.47 ERA, a 2.98 FIP, and the second-highest strikeout rate of his career (11.37 per nine). He’s throwing the fastball harder than ever and a true breakout from him would be the asset that the White Sox sorely need in their rotation.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.