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April 11, 2013

What You Need to Know

No Relief for Relievers

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington spent the past offseason continuing a team-wide retooling plan that he put in motion last summer, with the mega-trade that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers. Part of the plan involved overhauling a porous bullpen, which blew an American League-high 22 saves in 2012 under manager Bobby Valentine, so that first-year skipper John Farrell could feel confident in the relief corps’ ability to hold late leads.

Cherington brought in former Ranger Koji Uehara in free agency and obtained Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates in a late-December swap, adding those two northpaws to a mix that already included a healthy Andrew Bailey and an under-the-radar weapon in Junichi Tazawa, who quietly posted a 45-to-5 K:BB last year. When starter Ryan Dempster, another newcomer, needed 93 pitches to complete five innings yesterday, Farrell turned to Uehara, Tazawa, and Bailey, and watched them deliver a hitless inning each, with five combined strikeouts.

With the middle innings aptly bridged, it was up to Hanrahan to protect a 5-3 edge in a game that had twice been delayed by rain. The 31-year-old righty had converted his first three save opportunities of the season, the most recent of which came in Monday’s 3-1 victory over Baltimore. But while Hanrahan nailed down the door in that one, he served up a home run to Adam Jones along the way—and that big fly ultimately proved to be a harbinger of bad things to come.

Hanrahan had his prized high-90s velocity on Wednesday night, as evidenced by the readings in the table above from Brooks Baseball, but, as that table also shows, his command and control left a lot to be desired. Of the 18 fastballs that Hanrahan threw, only half went for strikes, and only one of those strikes came by way of a swing and miss.

Six pitches in, Hanrahan hung a slider…

…and Chris Davis smacked it for a leadoff home run. The two-run lead was halved, but Hanrahan recovered to strike out Matt Wieters and induce a popup from J.J. Hardy. Then, he came within a strike of retiring Ryan Flaherty to end the game, only to watch Flaherty slap a 2-2 fastball into left field for a two-out single.

Of the next four pitches, three were not close, and Nolan Reimold laid off the one that was to draw a quick free pass. Hanrahan bounced back to jump ahead of Nate McLouth, 1-2, but he could not finish off the Baltimore left fielder, in part because home-plate umpire Cory Blaser’s strike zone tightened. Suddenly, the bases were loaded, and a full-scale meltdown was fast approaching.

It came on the very first pitch to Manny Machado, an offering so wild that it did not even appear on the PITCHf/x plot. And it continued on the next pitch, which did show up on the plot, but wound up in the second row of the Green Monster seats, as Machado gave the visitors an 8-5 lead they would not relinquish.

Ninth-inning meltdowns are frustrating regardless of the circumstances in which they occur. The Red Sox, for the first time in 820 home games (counting playoff contests) failed to sell out Fenway Park, and the 30,862 fans who did pay for admission were likely less expectant than those who flocked to the yard during the team’s mid- to late-2000s peak. Nonetheless, Hanrahan’s disastrous outing elicited a chorus of boos, with which even the first-year Bostonian could only sympathize

The blown save and loss brought back nightmares from Alfredo Aceves’ stint as the closer in 2012. Aceves imploded in two of his first four save chances last season in spectacular fashion, allowing three runs to the Tigers on April 8 and five to the Yankees on April 21, while failing to record an out in both tries. To Hanrahan’s credit, he retired two batters and was twice a strike away from finishing the inning, though in his mind, and in those of his teammates and the fans in attendance, that may have only amplified the frustration.

As Hanrahan said after the game, a closer can go from goat to hero in one day, and the Red Sox will seek redemption in tonight’s rubber match. Their starting pitcher? None other than Alfredo Aceves, who takes John Lackey’s place in the rotation and faces Chris Tillman (7:10 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Fifteen hitters with at least 25 career plate appearances against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez have failed in their quest to compile even a 600 OPS, so Nelson Cruz shouldn’t feel too bad about his 723 mark heading into tonight’s showdown. The Rangers’ right fielder is hitless in his last nine at-bats versus Hernandez, though, so the onus is on Cruz to tip the scales back in his own favor.

The 0-for-9 line only begins to tell the recent history between the 32-year-old slugger and the 27-year-old righty, because the details are positively gory. Cruz has struck out in his last four trips to the plate against Hernandez and in six of the nine total, and the other three have all resulted in ground balls, one of which was a first-pitch double play. In fact, Cruz has hit just one Hernandez offering out of the infield since September 28, 2010, and his most recent extra-base knock came nine days before that, on a poorly placed fastball right in his upstairs wheelhouse.

Since then, Hernandez has stopped making mistakes, and Cruz has struggled to keep up with a constantly changing approach (no pun intended, to be sure, given the next sentence). Hernandez’s preferred strikeout pitch in their recent encounters has been the changeup, but that didn’t stop him from recording a pair of fastball whiffs on July 14, 2012. And, interestingly, although Cruz has proven extremely susceptible to sliders darting down and away, Hernandez has used that weakness to gain count leverage (first pitch), rather than to finish him off.

Cruz should be prepared for more first-pitch sliders in tonight’s game, but he can’t necessarily sit on that offering, because Hernandez has been equally willing to open with his heater. Perhaps even more than his electric stuff, Hernandez’s ability to throw any pitch in any count makes facing him a tall order. And, given the outcomes of their recent meetings, in Cruz’s eyes, it can only be getting taller.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Dan Haren’s Nationals debut didn’t exactly go according to plan, as the righty served up four homers in what amounted to a four-inning batting practice session. Some of that damage can be forgiven, considering that the outing took place in the unfriendly confines of Great American Ball Park, but Haren—who has thrived, in the past, on sequencing—needs to do a better job of mixing in his secondary offerings, after throwing only 10 combined curves and splitters in 78 pitches on April 5. White Sox third baseman Jeff Keppinger, who started the season in an 0-for-19 hole but has since gotten off the schneid, owns an 8-for-16 career line with two doubles and a home run against Haren (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Yankees sent Zach McAllister, who once ranked as their ninth-best prospect, to the Indians as the player to be named later in the Austin Kearns trade in 2010. Now, 25-year-old northpaw, who earned his spot in the rotation early on in spring training, will take on his first professional employer in his second start of the year. McAllister held the Rays to two earned runs (four total) in six innings last Friday, but was charged with the loss in a 4-0 shutout spun by Matt Moore and company. Tonight, he will take on Phil Hughes, who blanked the Tribe for eight innings last June 26 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • After entering yesterday’s game just 5-for-22 (albeit with nine walks) to start the year, Albert Pujols turned in a 4-for-4 effort, doing his part in an 11-5 loss in which few of his teammates did theirs. Pujols will try to stay hot this evening and help the Halos avoid a sweep at the hands of the Athletics, who will send A.J. Griffin to the mound against Jason Vargas. The first baseman went 1-for-3 in Griffin’s lone career start versus Mike Scioscia’s squad, but the 24-year-old righty walked off the mound with eight shutout innings under his belt in that 4-1 A’s victory last September 12 (10:05 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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