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April 5, 2013

What You Need to Know

Showing No Re-Morse

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik spent most of the offseason searching for power bats that could supply a jolt to his lineup, which ranked dead last in the league with a 665 OPS in 2012. Along the way, he brought back Michael Morse—whom he had shipped out for Ryan Langerhans in 2009—from the Nationals. And, though most preferred Washington’s end of that three-way deal at the time, four days into the regular season, Zduriencik is looking mighty shrewd.

The first Mariner to four home runs last year was Jesus Montero, who reached that benchmark in the team’s 24th game. Morse, who hit 31 homers in 575 plate appearances for the Nationals in 2011 and nine in 66 trips to the box this spring, needed one-sixth that many, averaging a long ball per game in the opening series, which ended in a 2-2 split.

By going deep twice on Tuesday and once each on Wednesday and Thursday, Morse became the only Mariner besides Ken Griffey Jr. to accomplish the four-homers-in-the-first-four-games-of-a-season feat. Of course, Griffey, who led the Mariners (and the league) with 56 home runs in 1997, added a fifth shot in game five, so Morse will need to send one out of U.S. Cellular Field in tonight’s matchup with White Sox lefty Jose Quintana in order to keep pace (8:10 p.m. ET).

Morse might also need at least one more big fly to retain the major-league lead, because Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is hot on his trail. Davis, who smacked a career-high 33 homers last year, has resumed his power surge out of the gate, and he now has 10 taters to his name in his last 10 regular-season games. You read that correctly, and it’s a franchise record.

Moreover, thanks in large part to his three big flies, Davis drove in a league-high 11 runs over the Orioles’ first three contests, paving the way for Baltimore’s series win over the Rays. In doing so, he became only the second player in major-league history with at least three homers and 11 RBI in his team’s first three games, and accounted for more runs than 12 whole teams did in their opening series.

Next up for Davis and the Orioles: the home opener at Camden Yards, where the 27-year-old authored 22 of his 33 homers last year, and where he will face Twins righty Liam Hendriks on Friday. Davis could hardly ask for a more favorable opponent in his bid to extend his homer-per-game streak to 11, considering that Hendriks coughed up 17 gopher balls in 85 1/3 innings of work last year (3:05 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Zack Greinke will make his Chavez Ravine debut this evening against the Pirates, a familiar foe with which he tangled five times during his season and a half with the Brewers. In his most recent outing versus Pittsburgh, on July 13, 2012, the Brewers handed Greinke a 3-0, first-inning lead, only to watch their ace cough it up in a four-run fourth. Second baseman Neil Walker provided the heaviest blow in that Pirates rally—a three-run homer with two away in the inning—thereby earning today’s Matchup nod.

Many of the Pirates’ biggest bats struggled to solve Greinke in their meetings. Andrew McCutchen went 3-for-15; Garrett Jones went 2-for-15; and Pedro Alvarez went 1-for-10. Meanwhile, newcomer Russell Martin brought an 0-for-6 line with him from the Bronx. But Walker, who hit 14 homers in 530 plate appearances last year, fared much better, going 4-for-14 with three extra-base hits, two of which cleared a fence.

The 27-year-old Walker’s hitter profile reveals an intriguing element to his power, which in turn helps to explain his success against Greinke.

In particular, the switch-hitter’s preferred gopher-ball location against right-handed pitchers appears to be low and outside—a spot to which northpaws often throw with the specific aim of avoiding home runs when whiff-prone hitters, like Pedro Alvarez, are in the box. The fateful pitch to Walker last July, a 1-0 curveball that followed another bender off the outside edge, had a bit of hangtime, but the resulting big fly seems much more a product of Walker’s particular skill set than of Greinke’s location mistake.

As illustrated by the spray chart above, from TexasLeaguers.com, 11 of Walker’s 14 home runs last year—all 14 of which, by the way, came off of right-handed pitchers—landed well to the right of center field. Two of the remaining three went to dead-center field, and one sliced just inside the pole in the left-field corner. Thus, despite his odd location preference, and notwithstanding the July 13 homer, Walker’s left-handed power is primarily to his pull side.

Kevin Goldstein mentioned in his 2009 review of the Pirates farm system that Walker is “prone to chasing pitches both low and away,” perhaps in part because of struggles with pitch recognition. It’s interesting to note, then, that all six of the down-and-away home runs came on breaking pitches. And so, incidentally, did the solo shot that Greinke served up to Walker on May 15, 2011, which came on a 3-2 slider, the 11th delivery of an impressive at-bat.

If Greinke turns to his breaking pitches with Walker at the plate tonight, he would do well to keep them either below the knees or off the outside edge. That approach yielded this three-pitch strikeout in the at-bat immediately preceding the July 13 homer, and Walker’s profile shows that he was still vulnerable to it as recently as last year.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • After spending the entire 2012 season in the Rays bullpen, and cruising to the tune of a 1.50 ERA and 45-to-12 K:BB over 30 second-half innings, Wade Davis will return to the rotation for game one of the only interleague series on the weekend slate. Davis, who was acquired by the Royals along with James Shields, was worth only 0.7 WARP over 29 starts in 2011, his most recent year in the rotation, and one reason for his dominance in relief was a bump in his fastball velocity. The 27-year-old averaged 92 mph on his four-seam fastball as a starter in 2011, but saw that pace tick up to 94.48 mph in short bursts last year, with his secondary offerings enjoying a similar boost. Royals fans may want to keep an eye on the radar gun, both in the early innings—to see where Davis’s fastball begins—and in the later ones, to see how he holds up in his first start since September 25, 2011, this afternoon (Friday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
  • Few hitters scuffled more in their team’s opening series than B.J. Upton, who began his stint in Atlanta by going 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts in the three-game set against the Phillies. Upton will try to shake his early slump as the Braves welcome the Cubs, who are set to send Scott Feldman to the mound for his National League debut. The former Ranger has gotten the better of Upton in their past meetings, holding him to a 1-for-11 line with three walks and four strikeouts, so a strong outing from the Braves’ new center fielder would kill two birds with one stone. The home team will counter Feldman with Mike Minor, who will look to start 2013 the way he finished 2012, when he logged a 0.87 ERA and allowed only 13 hits in 31 September innings (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET). 
  • Dodgers fans were forced to wait a few extra days to see their team’s new, $147 million toy, but after nursing his inflamed elbow for a few weeks, Greinke is ready to begin earning his pay. The 29-year-old righty takes the ball in game one of a three-game tilt versus the Pirates, against Jonathan Sanchez, whose leash is likely to be short after a rocky spring. Sanchez issued 10 walks and hit two batters over 18 Grapefruit League innings, looking marginally better than he did during a disastrous, 8.07 ERA campaign with the Royals and Rockies, but only because it was nearly impossible for him to look worse. The ex-Giant has struck out 80 batters in 73 1/3 career frames against the Dodgers, and the Pirates can only hope that he left his persistent control woes behind in Florida (Friday, 10:10 p.m. ET).
  • The weekend docket includes rematches of both 2012 League Championship Series, as the Yankees travel to Detroit to take on the Tigers, while the Cardinals head to San Francisco to face the Giants. Max Scherzer, who is scheduled to toe the rubber in the middle match for Detroit, fanned 10 Yankees in just 5 1/3 innings in Game Four of the ALCS; he will square off with David Phelps. Ryan Vogelsong, who tossed seven innings of one-run ball each in Games Two and Six, gets the ball against Shelby Miller, as the Rookie of the Year hopeful makes his second major-league start. First pitch for both of those games is at 4:05 p.m. ET on Saturday.
  • The American League West favorites will go head-to-head for the first time in 2013 this weekend, and Sunday’s series finale pits aces Jered Weaver and Yu Darvish against each other. Darvish will find it difficult to improve on his debut, considering that he sent the first 26 Astros back to the dugout in order, and Weaver’s first outing—in which he held the Reds to one run over six innings—wasn’t too shabby, either. The two northpaws did not lock horns during Darvish’s rookie season, but since both of them are signed with their current teams through at least 2016, this duel should serve as an appetizer for many showdowns to come (Sunday, 8:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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