Sports | May 11, 2021 8:01 am

Albert Pujols, Buster Posey and Donnie Stevenson: Around the Diamond in MLB Week 6

The biggest storylines from Week 6, including a Hall of Famer's unceremonious departure and more no-hitters

Albert Pujols
Former LA Angels first baseman Albert Pujols.
Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty

After A.J. Pollock and Matt Beaty did their best Bash Brothers impression last week for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a fresh set of weekly stars emerged this week in Major League Baseball. And we’ll get to them.

But we’d be doing a disservice if we did not pay tribute to the sensational play Atlanta pitcher Tyler Matzek made on the mound in the top of the seventh inning of a 6-1 win for the Braves over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday.

With no outs and a runner on first, Matzek got Odubel Herrera to hit a pitch on the ground that hopped up into the air as it headed toward the mound. Somewhat off balance, Matzek took a couple of steps to his left and was somehow able to snag the ball behind his back without looking before tossing the ball to second to initiate a double play for the Braves.

If a player could be awarded a Gold Glove off of one play alone, Matzek would be a winner. Now, onto four other baseball players who starred in MLB’s sixth week of play, along with a look at the biggest trend to emerge in the young season: no-hitters.

Will Albert Pujols Find a New Home?

Off to an amazing start in Los Angeles this season with 30 strikeouts and a major league-leading 10 home runs, Shohei Ohtani is accumulating Ks and HRs even faster than Babe Ruth did when he first joined the New York Yankees as a two-way player 101 years ago.

His teammate, Mike Trout, is off to an equally strong start, yet somehow the Angels still sit in last place in the AL West. In a bid to help remedy that situation, the organization attempted to do some addition by subtraction and unceremoniously designated future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols for assignment last week.

Hitting just .198 on the season (although five of his 17 hits have been home runs, to propel his career total to 667), 41-year-old Pujols was released without any fanfare other than a Zoom press conference. Though the former St. Louis Cardinal hasn’t been an All-Star since 2015, it was hardly a send-off befitting the three-time MVP and two-time World Series winner.

Pujols recently told USA Today he’d strongly considering going into Cooperstown with no cap insignia out of respect to the Angels and owner Arte Moreno. Given the way the team just treated Pujols, don’t be shocked if he has now changed his mind and will go in wearing a St. Louis cap. And also don’t be surprised if we see Pujols wearing another MLB hat before the season is out.

“He really believes — and if he believes, I believe — he’s got game left,” said Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, one of Pujols’s best friends. “I’ll be very interested to see if a club sees the fit because they’ll get a very determined Albert. He wants to be playing. They’ll get a very determined Albert. I would never underestimate him. He is one of the game’s great, winning, competitive players.”

Buster Posey Is Back and Better Than Ever

In order to preserve Buster Posey’s health, the San Francisco Giants have made it standard procedure to never start their 34-year-old catcher more than two games in a row this season.

The plan has been a huge success, as he’s hitting a remarkable .400 on the season with eight homers, a number which already represents his highest total since the 2017 campaign.

The 2012 National League MVP turning back the clock coincides with the Giants, who were not expected to be very good in 2021, getting off on the right foot and leading the NL West over the Padres and Dodgers.

Posey, who sat out last season due to COVID-19 concerns, posted a career-low .688 OPS over 114 games in 2019 after season-ending surgery on his right hip in August 2018. This season his OPS ranks second in the majors among players with at least 50 at-bats, trailing only Trout.

Now back to full strength, Posey has reclaimed his role as San Fran’s undisputed leader on the field and in the clubhouse, an occurrence that has not gone unnoticed by longtime teammate Brandon Belt.

“Honestly, he looks like the old Buster,” Belt said. “He looks healthy. I don’t know exactly how he feels, but he looks like he did back in the day. He looks like that leader that we’ve had for the past 10 years, when we were winning World Series a few years back. Obviously, it’s great to have him back.”

The Year of the No-Hitter

Following Joe Musgrove (April 9 at Rangers) and Carlos Rodón (April 14 vs. Cleveland), Baltimore Orioles ace John Means tossed a no-no against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on Wednesday afternoon of last week.

Not to be outdone by a fellow lefty, Wade Miley of the Reds matched Means with a no-no of his own against Cleveland on Friday of last week, the fourth official no-hitter of the 2020 season. (Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Atlanta on April 25 that doesn’t count as officially because it was in a shortened doubleheader game.)

“It’s so far-fetched,” 34-year-old Miley said after tossing Cincinnati’s 17th no-hitter and first since Homer Bailey in 2013. “I’m speechless. It still hasn’t sunk in.”

While there are a number of possible reasons for the recent surge in no-hitters, including MLB deadening the baseball prior to the season and the prevalence of the defensive shift, the biggest reason why pitchers are having so much success in 2021 is a lack of contact at the plate.

As of last week, MLB hitters had a .233 batting average with a .701 OPS and this season’s on-base percentage of .310 was the lowest since 1968. Also, batters were striking out 24.2% of the time.

In a recent appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast, former Red Sox and Cubs executive Theo Epstein, who now works for MLB as an advisor, pointed out that approximately one-quarter of at-bats in the league now end in a strikeout. That’s not the rate of Ks by elite pitchers like Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole — that’s the average. At around 25%, that rate compares pretty favorably and in some cases exceeds the best seasons ever put together by all-time aces like Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Dwight Gooden.

As long as the strikeout rate stays so high, expect the rate of no-hitters to remain elevated, too.

Remember the Name Huascar Ynoa

A largely unheralded prospect entering the season, Huascar Ynoa started the aforementioned win for the Braves over the Phillies on Sunday and allowed one run in six innings to push his record to 4-1 on the season and improve his ERA to 2.23 in 40 1/3 innings this season.

Just 22, the young righty has an above-average 28.4% strikeout rate and 5.8% walk rate on the season and threw 59 of his 92 pitches for strikes in the victory over Philadelphia. On the season, Ynoa has four quality starts and a 44:9 K:BB ratio in 2021. Even better, Ynoa has augmented his pitching production with a 1.267 OPS and two home runs, including a grand slam.

“I’ve been very impressed with his adaptability, how he takes things and adjusts and applies them,” said Atlanta manager Brian Snitker. “He’s a bright kid. He grabs things and he understands and the adjustments he’s made since we started in July last year is really cool to see. He’s such a good kid and he works hard and he studies. It’s good, because the guy’s got skills.”

Who is Donnie Stevenson?

Prior to the firing of former New York Mets hitting coach Chili Davis, star slugger Pete Alonso caused some confusion when he reportedly credited someone named Donnie Stevenson for helping the club to right the ship after a 5-4 win over Philadelphia on a go-ahead homer by Michael Conforto in the top of the ninth inning.

Though there was no mention of the team signing Stevenson to replace Davis as the team’s hitting coach, Alonso referred to him as a “nice new hire” in this postgame press conference. “Donnie’s been great helping the team,” Alonso said. “Donnie really helped us today.”

It actually makes sense Alonso was so complimentary of Stevenson because, as The Athletic found out, the 26-year-old is Stevenson.

Dressed in a hat and sunglasses and calling himself Stevenson, Alonso attended hitters’ meeting and told his teammates to stop over-thinking things at the plate. “The results of Alonso’s attempt to loosen up a tight club were impressive – the Mets scored four runs in seven innings against [Zach] Wheeler, matching the most he has allowed this season,” per The Athletic. “Two days later, after a 6-5 loss in St. Louis, the team fired hitting coach Chili Davis and assistant hitting coach Tom Slater. But the emergence of ‘Donnie’ had nothing to do with those moves.”

Davis and Slater won’t be back in New York, but it’s possible the Mets haven’t seen the last of Stevenson in Queens.

Note: All statistics and streaks current as of Monday evening, 5/10/2021.