Welcome to the first-ever edition of Gnats of the Week! It’s a new series where I list the nastiest gnats of each week, ranked in order of expectations, effectiveness and overall gnattitude.
What is a gnat, you ask? Good question. Gnats are the little guys, the washed-up utilitymen, unheralded prospects and unproven entities who seem to come out of nowhere to make their mark on a game. If you watch a lot of baseball (and if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet on it), then you know that this happens pretty much every day.
These players are delightful stories, unless, of course, they’re playing your team. Then they’re most daggum irritating thing you’ve ever seen. That’s what makes them gnats; a truly beautiful phenomenon.
Without further ado, here are the gnat nominees for the first week-plus of the 2021 season.
Third Runner-Up: Taylor Widener
6 IP, W, 0 R, 3 H, 5 K vs. Padres on Sunday
Any time you take one of the league’s best offenses the previous year and add two ace-caliber starting pitchers in one offseason, expectations are going to be pretty high. That is certainly the case for the Padres this season, who did just about everything they could to build a roster that can compete with the juggernaut Dodgers out West. And after winning their first three games against the offensively-challenged Diamondbacks last weekend (powered by shutdown performances from new acquisitions Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove), Padres faithful was raring for a sweep to get their campaign to the 2021 World Series rolling.
Enter Taylor Widener, a former top-100 prospect who nearly dropped off the national radar entirely after a disastrous 2019 in the minors (he finished with an 8.10 ERA over 100 IP with Arizona’s Triple-A affiliate). He got a decent cup of up coffee in the D-Backs’ bullpen in 2020, posting a 4.50 ERA in 12 relief appearances. It was assumed by many that his days as a starter were behind him, but Widener managed to earn a tentative spot in the rotation out of Spring Training, and he took the hill for the series finale against the Padres on Sunday hoping to hold on to it in his first MLB start.
He did that and then some, hurling six shutout innings against Manny Machado, Fernando Tatís Jr. & co. with just three hits allowed. His only real spot of trouble came in the second inning, when he gave up a double and a single to Eric Hosmer and Tommy Pham, but proceeded to K the side around an intentional walk. He earned the first win of the year for Arizona and robbed San Diego of a four-game sweep in the process. That’s what I call gnatting things up.
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) April 5, 2021
Second Runner-Up: Christian Vazquez
11-24 (.458), 2 HR, 4 RBI, 5 XBH, 2 SB vs. Rays & Orioles
Truth be told, the only reason Vazquez isn’t higher here is due to the competition faced. The 30-year-old Red Sox catcher had a breakout season in 2019, but he still entered this season as a .262 career hitter with just one season of >1.0 WAR. If he keeps this up, however, that’s gonna change real soon.
On Sunday, Vazquez went 3-4 with a double in an eight-run loss to the Orioles. The next day, he added two more hits and two runs scored in a big blowout of the defending pennant-winner Rays. Then on Tuesday, he sent fans into a frenzy with a massively clutch 383 ft. blast to left to tie the game in the ninth on an an 0-2 pitch from Diego Castillo (the Sox would go on to win 6-5 in 12 innings). If anyone found this ball yet, please let us know:
THIS IS WHAT WE CALL 𝐂𝐋𝐔𝐓𝐂𝐇: pic.twitter.com/mVanA1SwPF
— Red Sox (@RedSox) April 7, 2021
Afterwards, he celebrated like any of us would in such a situation, which is to say by riding a shopping cart through the dugout in glee.
Oh, and then he went ahead and hit another bomb over the monster to help sweep the Rays on Wednesday before going 3-5 in a revenge match against the Orioles Thursday. If he doesn’t cool down soon, Vazquez may lose his gnat status permanently. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
First Runner-Up: Tyler Naquin
7-22 (.318), 5 HR, 6 BB, 14 RBI vs. Cardinals, Pirates & DBacks
TYLER FREAKIN’ NAQUIN! Who saw this coming? In the four years since he finished third in the A.L. ROY balloting for Cleveland in 2016, Naquin has been a below-average Major League hitter, batting .262 with an 84 OPS+. He moved south down I-75 to Cincinnati this year on a minor league deal with the expectation that he could compete for a roster spot as a lefty bench bat, which he earned with a 1.042 OPS in Spring Training. But once Jesse Winker left Saturday’s game due to illness, he was thrust into a larger role, and boy was he ready.
Naquin recorded five RBIs against the division favorite Cardinals last weekend, then absolutely let loose on the poor Pirates. He finished with two homers and seven RBIs in Tuesday’s win, and followed it with dingers in his next two games as well. So if you’re wondering how a 29-year-old backup outfielder can wind up leading MLB in home runs and RBIs through the first week+ of the season… that’s how.
If you don’t believe those numbers (I’m not even sure I do), check out his utterly absurd Savant page:
Yeah, that’ll get it done against anyone. Way to represent the gnat population proudly, Tyler.
GNAT OF THE WEEK: Yermín Mercedes
5-5, R, 2B, 4 RBI vs. Angels last Friday
It all started when a man named Yermín showed Mike Trout what a real star looks like.
Okay, it may be cheating to pull from a game that happened last week, but this is is the first GOTW of the season, and I just can’t resist the Yerminator. We all know his story by now, but it is truly absurd that anyone — much less a former Rule 5 draft pick rookie — could start a season 8-8 in today’s game is utterly insane (the last time it was done by anyone was in 1900, when MLB pitching looked like this).
Imagine going 5-5 in your first game, then stepping up the next afternoon and doing this in your next AB:
Throw in the fact that it happened in the first week of the season, to literally start his career, against Trout and the Angels, and it’s just too glorious to pass up. Folks, we may never see another gnat like this. Welcome to show Yermín, may your legend never stop growing.
If you’d like to make a submission for next week’s edition, hit me up on Twitter (@twynstagram). There’s always more room on the gnatmobile.
(Photos by Gerry Angus, Leslie Plaza Johnson & Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)