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April 19, 2013

What You Need to Know

Waking Sleeping Giants

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
When the Giants last finished a season with a rotation ERA north of 4.00 and outside of the league’s top 10, the year was 2008, Tim Lincecum was in his first full season, and the organization had not yet won its first world championship in San Francisco. If that streak is to live on through 2013, however, Bruce Bochy’s starting five already has work to do.

Following Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Brewers, in which Matt Cain was charged with seven earned runs over six innings of work and saw his ERA rise to 7.15, the Giants’ rotation ERA stands at 5.07. Barry Zito, who did not allow an earned run in either of his first two starts, coughed up nine in 2 2/3 frames in the series opener, bringing his ERA for the season to 4.86. Ryan Vogelsong’s seven-inning, three-run effort in the middle match pared his ERA down to 5.89. Tim Lincecum, who did not pitch at Miller Park, sports a 5.63 mark. Put that all together, and, were it not for Madison Bumgarner’s 1.77 ERA, the quintet’s aggregate figure would shoot up to 5.99, and the team’s record might be well south of 9-7.

Cain’s clunker, which helped the Brewers to complete a sweep of the Giants and began with a first-inning, two-run homer by Ryan Braun, came 11 days after a home loss to the Cardinals, when a prolonged fourth-inning rally sent him to the showers only 11 outs into the game. That nine-run dud marked his first outing with seven-plus runs allowed since July 9, 2010. Nearly three years later, the Giants’ ace has been knocked around badly twice in three games.

The 29-year-old right-hander’s arsenal appears to be intact, with no visible difference in velocity on his Brooks Baseball player card, but Cain’s command has not been crisp in the early going. Proof?

Without delving into details of pitch type and result, the chart above, from his Pitcher Profile, shows that a hefty plurality of Cain’s offerings have found the heart of the zone—and a significant number has settled in the zone immediately above it. Breaking pitches in those spots have predictably been punished, accounting for two doubles and a home run, and bloating Cain’s ERA far above the level one might expect from a pitcher whose K:BB stands at a robust 20-to-5.

The Giants have, in recent years, been anchored not only by the quality of their rotation, but also by the health of its members. Only twice last year did Bochy turn to a starter outside of the primary five—Eric Hacker on April 27 and Yusmeiro Petit on September 23—and while the two 2012 substitutes, along with prospects Chris Heston and Mike Kickham, are available in the upper minors, San Francisco has little in the way of proven organizational depth.

That means that general manager Brian Sabean’s investment in his rotation is as critical as that of any team’s. Bochy said as much after Thursday’s loss: “Our strength is our starters. They had a tough time here.” With less than one-tenth of the season in the books, the time for concern is not yet nigh. But if the rough going continues, particularly for Cain and Lincecum, the defending champions could face a prolonged stay in third place. 

Matchup of the Day
Carlos Gonzalez began to heat up in the Rockies’ series finale at Petco Park last week, and he braved the frigid conditions at Coors Field to go 8-for-14 with four extra-base hits to lead a sweep over the Mets. The first-place Rockies have now won five in a row, and they enter the weekend series against the Diamondbacks a perfect 6-0 at their home yard.

Gonzalez, whose 3-for-5 outing on Thursday raised his triple-slash line for the season to .400/.477/.745, has six more games to pad those numbers in the mile-high air before the Rockies travel to Phoenix next weekend.  To stay hot on Friday, though, he’ll need to solve a pitcher that has absolutely dominated him in their recent encounters.

That pitcher is Ian Kennedy, and while Gonzalez’s 4-for-23 (.174/.208/.391) overall line against him is bad enough, Kennedy has turned things up a notch the last several times that they have met. Since May 5, 2011, Gonzalez is 1-for-13 with a single versus Kennedy, and since his fourth at-bat on May 25, 2011, he is 0-for-7 with six strikeouts. A head-to-head history that began with a home run has, from the 27-year-old left fielder’s perspective, taken a drastic turn for the worse.

Five of those six strikeouts were of the swinging variety, and each of them came on a pitch out of the zone. Gonzalez’s hat trick on July 23, 2012, was the result of a fastball well off the outer edge, a chest-high heater set up by a changeup and two four-seamers inside, and a curveball in the dirt. In his fourth at-bat that day, which came after Kennedy had departed, Gonzalez smacked a home run off of lefty Mike Zagurski. His struggles were chiefly the doing of the 28-year-old right-hander, whose fastball velocity rarely exceeds 91 mph, but who wields one of the league’s most effective changeups to prevent hitters from sitting dead red.

The particular element of Kennedy’s pitching style or delivery that has so thoroughly baffled Gonzalez is difficult to pinpoint, but the University of Southern California product has done an excellent job of exposing his lack of discipline. Kennedy has thrown his curveball four percentage points more often to Gonzalez than to left-handed hitters as a whole—a logical strategy given that the former Diamondbacks prospect has shown a tendency to chase below the zone. And he has climbed the ladder effectively with his fastball, thereby taking advantage of another hole in Gonzalez’s approach. 

But the most significant piece of Kennedy’s success against Gonzalez may be his ability to get ahead in the count.

Only one (4.2 percent) of the 24 plate appearances between them has been resolved on one pitch, and only four (16.7 percent) of the remaining 23 showdowns have ended with the second. Those numbers paint a striking contrast with Gonzalez’s career rates (entering Thursday’s game), as shown by the table below:

Count

Career PA (% of Total)

AVG

OPS

First Pitch

310 (12.6)

.429

1.183

1-0

176 (7.2)

.343

958

0-1

233 (9.5)

.389

1.012

Two Strike

1,105 (45.1)

.182

562

Total

2,450 (100)

.301

881

The gap between the volume of Gonzalez’s career plate appearances resolved on two or fewer pitches and the volume of those against Kennedy that have ended that quickly is about eight percentage points—a difference that becomes critical when you consider Gonzalez’s outstanding early-count results. Whether the first pitch is a ball or a strike is irrelevant: In fact, Gonzalez has fared better on 0-1 offerings than on 1-0 pitches. But if a pitcher is able to slip a second strike past him, the tables turn in a hurry—and, crucially, 14 of his 24 plate appearances versus Kennedy have reached a two-strike count.

Thus, if Gonzalez is to reverse his downward trend against Kennedy, the key could be jumping on hittable, early-count strikes. He is 7-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs on first and second pitches this year.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Wednesday’s duel between Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez may have been the best of the season, but if tonight’s docket in Queens lives up to the hype, it could usurp that title. Through three starts, opponents are batting just .088/.160/.147 off of Mets right-hander Matt Harvey, who carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his last outing, before serving up a home run to Justin Morneau. Stephen Strasburg was nearly as dominant in two of his three starts to date, but endured a six-run hiccup at Great American Ball Park on April 7 that bloated his OPS against to a whopping 593. With two of the highest-velocity fastballs in the majors and secondary pitches to spare, the young northpaws are well-equipped to put on a show at Citi Field (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Vance Worley’s first three starts in Minnesota haven’t gone as planned, as opponents have teed-off the right-hander to the tune of a .410/.446/.492 triple-slash line, in which the batting average represents the worst allowed by any starter with at least three outings under his belt. The former Phillie will try to trim it in tonight’s series opener at U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox will counter with Jake Peavy. Unlike Worley, Peavy has picked up where he left off last year, amassing a 24-to-1 K:BB over 18 1/3 innings (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • Scott Kazmir is back—for real, this time. After producing one of the best spring-training stories in recent seasons, Kazmir succumbed to the injury bug before he could make his 2013 debut, landing on the disabled list with a rib-cage strain on April 2. Now, he’s finally ready for his first big-league assignment since April 3, 2011, when a 1 2/3-inning shelling at the hands of the Royals seemed likely to mark the end of his big-league career. The 29-year-old—yes, he’s still south of 30—lefty gets to ease back into The Show in a date with the Astros at Minute Maid Park, where Bo Porter’s team is 1-5 this season. The Astros have lost five in a row and will need to provide more support for their own starter, Phil Humber, who carries an 0-3 ledger despite having compiled a 2.89 ERA, because the offense has given him only one run to work with across the three games (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Dodgers were expecting big things from Adrian Gonzalez in his first full season at Chavez Ravine, and so far, they have gotten them. Gonzalez comes into the weekend second in the National League with a  .407 batting average, which is, in part, the result of a .426 BABIP, but also a direct consequence of his decreased strikeout rate. After punching out at a 16.1 percent clip last season, the 30-year-old first baseman has only gone down whiffing or looking on 9.1 percent (three) of his 2013 plate appearances, a decrease that—if sustained—could make him a surprise batting-title contender. Gonzalez will get a blast back to the recent past when the Dodgers visit the Orioles in the lone Interleague series on the slate. He is a .318/.385/.409 career hitter in Baltimore and owns a 5-for-11 line against Sunday starter Jake Arrieta, but he has never cleared a fence at Camden Yards (Sunday, 1:35 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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