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April 26, 2013

What You Need to Know

Muscle and Braun

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Shortly after allowing four runs in five innings in his regular-season debut, Jarrod Parker told reporters, “I didn’t have anything to go to. I’m not going to be very successful when that happens.” Unfortunately for the Athletics, it seems to be happening again and again.

Parker’s 5 1/3-inning, six-run clunker in last night’s 10-2 loss to the Orioles marked his fourth poor effort in five starts and bloated his ERA to 8.10. He has coughed up 37 hits and issued 13 walks in 23 1/3 total innings, resulting in an unsightly .366 batting average against and a 2.14 WHIP. The A’s could hardly have foreseen such a stumble from a 24-year-old coming off of a strong first year in the majors. Parker compiled a 3.47 ERA in 29 starts in 2012, and his 3.38 FIP suggested that the success was not a mirage. Meanwhile, the gradual improvement in his K:BB, which peaked at 27-to-6 in an excellent September, made Parker a popular breakout candidate before Opening Day.

But instead of breaking out, Parker has broken down, and following an eight-run debacle versus the Tigers on April 14, the ninth-overall pick in the 2007 draft was at a loss to explain his struggles. His manager, Bob Melvin, also called them “puzzling.”  And, after he seemingly turned the corner in a six-inning, one-run outing against the Rays on April 20, Thursday’s dud brought Parker right back to square one.

Parker has a history of arm trouble, including Tommy John surgery on October 28, 2009, but he has not landed on the disabled list since that procedure. And a glance at Parker’s Brooks Baseball card reveals that his stuff, at least from a velocity standpoint, is essentially the same as it was last year. One significant difference for Parker has been a difficulty inducing whiffs with his fastball; opponents swung at and missed at 6.46 percent of them in 2012, but have done so only 3.03 percent of the time this year, prior to last night’s game. Considering that the right-hander’s best off-speed pitch is his changeup, his ability to keep hitters off-balance by mixing those two offerings is critical to his success. 

With their playoff odds at around two-in-five through one-sixth of the season, the Athletics can’t afford to wait long for Parker to right his ship if they are to make another Cinderella run. Dan Straily, who debuted last year, is waiting in the wings with a 0.96 ERA through three starts for Triple-A Sacramento. Parker said after Thursday’s defeat that he intends to study his mechanics on film before taking the mound in the middle match of a three-game home tilt with the Angels next Tuesday night. If his struggles continue, Melvin and general manager Billy Beane may have little choice but to make a temporary switch.

Matchup of the Day
Josh Beckett is not the same pitcher that he was five years ago, and Ryan Braun, who was in his first full major-league season when the two last matched wits, is not the same hitter. The Dodgers’ right-hander can only hope that means the results on Friday night will be different, too.

The only previous meeting between Braun and Beckett took place at Fenway Park on May 18, 2008, when Beckett allowed four home runs but nonetheless outdueled Carlos Villanueva in an eventual 11-7 Red Sox win. Braun accounted for two of those four big flies, and both of them came on thigh-high curveballs left over the plate, which he flicked over the Green Monster in the first and sixth inning. Beckett seemed determined to attack 2007 Rookie of the Year with his bender, using it on the first two pitches of each of Braun’s first two plate appearances, the second of which resulted in a lineout. Unfortunately for Beckett, as you can see from the plot afore-linked matchup page, none of the curveballs was executed particularly well.

The two gopher balls (first, second) essentially reached the hitting zone in the same spot—an undesirable spot against any hitter, but especially one with Braun’s penchant for punishing mistakes.

The 29-year-old has made a habit of obliterating middle of the zone curveballs from opposing right-handers, and if Beckett is to avoid Braun’s wrath tonight, he must execute the pitch far better than he did when they first squared off. Braun, meanwhile, ought to be prepared for a revised approach.

The Beckett that Braun saw in 2008 still fired his four-seam fastball and sinker in the mid-90s and relied heavily on the curveball against like-handed batters, albeit not to the extreme extent to which he leaned on the pitch in the small sample versus Braun. Beckett’s changeup and cutter were, at that point, virtually nonexistent.

Now, Beckett’s fastball is a more pedestrian low-90s offering, which he must enhance with movement and command instead of blowing hitters away. Aside from the downtick in velocity, the increase in cutter usage is the biggest difference between the Beckett of 2008 and the Beckett of 2013. If he plans to deploy the pitch against Braun, the obvious location—based on the Miami product’s Hitter Profile chart would be low and away.

Beckett enters tonight’s assignment with a 4.68 ERA, even though his K:BB stands at a solid 20-to-6 through 25 innings of work. The culprit: home runs, six of them in total, and two in his most recent start, a 5 2/3-inning, six-run dud at Camden Yards. Beckett has not pitched at home since April 3, when he was charged with five runs (three earned) in six innings in a loss to the Giants (10:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Pitchers haven’t had much luck keeping Reds leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo from reaching base in recent days, but Gio Gonzalez did on Thursday (0-for-3, walk), when he permitted only one hit in eight innings of one-run work against Cincinnati. Before the series opener at Nationals Park, Choo had reached base in 24 of his previous 36 plate appearances, collecting 13 hits, eight walks, and six plunkings. The task of snapping his on-base streak, which is up to 22 games this season and 35 dating back to last year, now falls on the right shoulder of Jordan Zimmermann, who will tangle with Homer Bailey in game two (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Kris Medlen struggled during spring training, and then issued six walks while recording only four strikeouts in his first two regular-season starts. Since then, though, last year’s breakout darling has posted an 11-to-1 K:BB over 13 innings, resembling much more closely the pitcher that did not issue more than two walks in any of his 12 starts in 2012. The 27-year-old’s next assignment comes at Comerica Park against the Tigers, who will hope that Rick Porcello can put his recent all-time clunker behind him. Porcello coughed up nine runs to the Angels in one-third of an inning on April 20, four of them on a Mike Trout grand slam, and watched his ERA soar to 11.08 (Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET).
  • Jason Vargas, who was traded to the Angels by the Mariners in exchange for Kendrys Morales this past offseason, hasn’t fared especially well in his new digs, coughing up 14 runs on 34 hits in 21 2/3 innings with an even 10-to-10 K:BB. The 30-year-old lefty will bring a 5.82 ERA and 2.03 WHIP, both driven in part by a bloated .386 BABIP, back to Safeco Field this weekend, where he’s set to go toe-to-toe with Hisashi Iwakuma in the series finale. The second-year Japanese import has excelled in the early going, compiling a 29-to-5 K:BB and a 1.99 ERA over his first five starts (Sunday, 4:10 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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