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April 10, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Whiff of Trouble

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
From control issues to injuries, Brandon Morrow has endured plenty of stumbles in in his young major-league career, but his ability to miss bats has seldom wavered. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a vicious slider, the 28-year-old right-hander entered Tuesday’s date with the Tigers coming off of a strong debut against the Indians, in which he fanned eight batters in six innings while permitting only one run.

Then, this happened:

Before yesterday’s debacle, in which he coughed up five runs on nine hits and two walks over just 3 2/3 innings, Morrow had failed to strike out a batter only thrice in 93 career starts. The most recent of those came on June 11 of last year, when a strained oblique forced him to depart after facing only one batter. About two weeks earlier, the Rangers chased Morrow after two-thirds of an inning, milking 44 pitches out of the righty, whose velocity was down a couple of ticks. And, for Morrow’s third zero-strikeout outing, you’d have to rewind all the way back to July 10, 2009, when the UC-Berkeley product was still a member of the Mariners with a less-refined arsenal than he sports today.

But the zero in the strikeouts column was merely the second-most worrisome bagel from Morrow’s shellacking at the hands of Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers. The column of zeros under “Whiffs” in the table above was of much greater concern. Morrow, who induced 16 swings and misses from the Tribe last week, could not coax even one from Jim Leyland’s lineup, and the frustration mounted with every wasted 0-2 count.

The orange-shaded squares above indicate the pitches that Morrow threw in two-strike situations. The plethora of throwaway balls, which often cost Morrow his count leverage, was troubling enough, but the two-strike offerings that found the middle of the plate were ultimately his undoing. Pitches that normally would have missed opponents’ bats instead badly missed catcher J.P. Arencibia’s targets, and the Tigers took full advantage of those mistakes to send Morrow to the showers with his team in a 5-1 hole.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays’ own bats scuffled against Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers’ bullpen. Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera, who hit first and second in the order, delivered five hits in nine at-bats, but their teammates down below went 3-for-24, thwarting any chance of a rally in the 7-3 defeat.

As Morrow’s ERA ballooned to 5.59—still considerably better than the 8.44 and 10.13 collars worn, respectively, by newcomers R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle—the Blue Jays fell to 2-5, the same record that the Marlins owned seven games into last season. Buehrle will try to right both his ship and the team’s when he duels Rick Porcello this afternoon (1:08 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Troy Tulowitzki, a right-handed hitter, has compiled a .297 career TAv against left-handed pitchers. Barry Zito, who throws left-handed, has allowed opposing righties to compile a .291 TAv against him. So, it would stand to reason that the Rockies shortstop might have an extensive track record of success versus the Giants’ number-four starter.

But, in one of the countless examples of baseball’s unpredictability, Tulowitzki is just 6-for-41 in his 43 previous meetings with Zito, and only one of the six hits—a home run—went for extra-bases. The resulting 382 OPS is the 28-year-old’s worst against any pitcher that he has faced at least 35 times. And, on the flipside, no active hitter with at least 35 plate appearances against Zito has come away with a poorer OPS than Tulowitzki’s 382. The two that have (Orlando Cabrera and Cristian Guzman) are both still of playing age, but have been deemed unqualified to continue their major-league careers.

Tulowitzki, however, has eight years remaining on his contract with the Rockies, and abundant talent to justify the $144 million that he is still owed. There is no reason, beyond injuries and the vagaries of relatively small-sample matchup data, that he shouldn’t be able to climb out of this hole. His first opportunity to do so comes tonight—and, in order to seize it, he’ll need to be prepared for a diet high on soft stuff and low on cheese.

As the afore-linked matchup page, which has data on 35 of Tulowitzki’s 43 encounters with Zito, shows, the left-hander has started each of their last nine showdowns with an off-speed offering, employing an assortment of changeups, curveballs, and sliders. In fact, in their most recent meeting, on April 9, 2012, Zito threw just three fastballs and sinkers in 14 total offerings (21 percent), compared to an aggregate 37 percent usage rate against right-handed batters, according to his Pitcher Profile.

Zito’s insistence on starting and sticking with his secondary pitches when Tulowitzki is in the box dates back to the sixth inning of a 10-2 Giants victory on September 15, 2009. In that at-bat—which came with the bases empty, two outs, and the Giants already leading, 7-1—Tulowitzki unloaded on a belt-high, first-pitch fastball, sending the 87-mph delivery well over 400 feet to left-center field. It was and still is, as mentioned earlier, the only time that Tulowitzki found a way to torch Zito for more than one base.

But the motivation behind Zito’s soft-stuff diet for Tulowitzki actually lies even deeper than that. The two-time All-Star hasn’t even notched a single off of one of Zito’s secondary offerings since September 25, 2008. Back then, Zito could still threaten 90 mph with his heater and produce three-pitch strikeouts—like this good morning, good afternoon, and good night effort—with the four-seamer alone. Now that the pitch sits in the mid-80s and rarely cracks 87 mph, though Zito’s emphasis is on command and sequencing—a recipe that leaves talented hitters that have yet to solve his breaking stuff fortunate to see even one or two fastballs per game.

Tulowitzki, meanwhile, has occasionally proven vulnerable to left-handed spin:

The red patches, both in and below the zone, demonstrate Tulowitzki’s ability to punish curves and sliders, but the blue spots around them serve as evidence of his inconsistency. The plot on the matchup page shows that Zito has made no shortage of up-in-the-zone mistakes to Tulowitzki; and yet, each time, he has escaped unscathed. It might take only one blow off of a bender for Tulowitzki to shake Zito’s confidence and force the lefty to alter his approach. But until he delivers it, the four-seamers figure to continue being few and far between.

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • The last time Matt Moore pitched in Arlington, the date was September 30, 2011, and the occasion was Game One of the American League Division Series. In that outing, Moore tossed seven shutout innings, scattered two hits and two walks, struck out six, and sent his hype meter through the Texas sky. The 23-year-old southpaw did not return to Arlington in 2012, but after posting a 3.01 ERA in 14 second-half starts and blanking the Indians for six innings in his 2013 debut, he seems poised to deliver a worthy encore. Moore will take on Derek Holland in the series finale (2:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • Jordan Zimmermann notched only one strikeout in his first start of the season, a six-inning, one-run victory over the Marlins that marked just the eighth time in 82 career trips to the mound that the righty had departed with more walks than strikeouts. The righty dealt with a “dead arm” early in spring training but appeared to have fully recovered long before Opening Day, and his fastball had its familiar 94-96 mph bite, even though it induced only two whiffs on 51 tries. All of that portends more whiffs in tonight’s date with the White Sox, the lone Interleague contest on the docket, where Zimmermann will square off with Gavin Floyd (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • It lasted 820 games and nearly 10 years, but the Red Sox’ home sellout streak is expected to end tonight, when the three-game set with the Orioles resumes after Tuesday’s hiatus. As Boston Globe beat writer Peter Abraham pointed out, many of Boston’s key players have never taken the Fenway Park field in a game for which the full-house threshold was not met. And thus, Ryan Dempster, who is tabbed to make his home debut this evening, will not get the treatment that all of his current rotation-mates enjoyed. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter will counter with Jake Arrieta, who coughed up five runs in as many innings against the Twins on April 5 (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Our own R.J. Anderson cast the spotlight on Eric Stults earlier this week, explaining how the left-hander’s craftiness has enabled him to find success with the Padres after disappointing stints in Triple-A and across the Pacific.  After fanning seven Mets in five frames in his 2013 debut, Stults gets to try his luck against the Dodgers, who will activate Chad Billingsley from the disabled list to oppose him. Stults, who was picked by the Dodgers in the 15th round of the 2002 draft and spent parts of four seasons in Los Angeles before embarking on his journey, held Don Mattingly’s squad to one run in six innings of work in a no-decision last September 4. The Padres are 9-2 in Stults’ last 11 starts, but he’ll need to find an answer for Carl Crawford, who has begun his first full campaign in Chavez Ravine with an 11-for-24 surge (10:10 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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