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May 13, 2013

What You Need to Know

Jays Power Up, Offense Powers Down

by Will Woods

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Weekend Takeaway
Well, my Little League coach was right: You can’t win games just trying to hit home runs. The Blue Jays did rout the Red Sox Sunday with five bombs, including two from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion’s league-leading 11th, and now lead the majors with 51 long balls in 39 games. But despite the power, Toronto sits 24th in baseball with just 3.74 runs per game, and has only three regulars with an OBP over .340.

Obviously, Jose Reyes’ injury has derailed the Blue Jay offense on every level—although his replacement, Munenori Kawasaki, is one of those three regulars getting on base—but the team has been working under the “swing hard in case you hit it” philosophy for years, dating back to the JP Ricciardi era. (For some reason, I always associate it with Aaron Hill.) In fact, going back to 2006, the Blue Jays have failed to rank higher in the AL in runs scored than they did in homers. Ricciardi took office in Toronto prior to the 2002 season, so this trend began about when his draft classes really started to impact the major-league level.

Year

HR

R

2012

5th

6th

2011

5th

5th

2010

1st

6th

2009

4th

6th

2008

10th

11th

2007

9th

10th

2006

4th

7th

2005

11th

5th

2004

13th

12th

2003

2nd

5th

Of course, you’d expect the top half of the table to look this way; the Jays invested in power at the expense of commodities like OBP and baserunning. But the runs scored ranking doesn’t trend upward relative to the Jays’ less powerful early 2000s. We’ve seen the theory incarnate in players like Hill, Vernon Wells, Rod Barajas, Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, and the crown jewel, J.P. Arencibia. I’m not saying Ricciardi had the wrong idea, but when you take into account that this team increased its payroll by $26 million going into 2007, the results just aren’t there.

Matchup of the Day
Remember when the Dodgers were awash in starting pitching? Well, Aaron Harang was shipped off to Colorado; Chad Billingsley had Tommy John surgery; Zack Greinke hit the DL; Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly, previously considered fail-safes, got involved with disastrous results; ditto Matt Magill; oh, and Skip Schumaker has been a bright spot.

It all adds up to a very big start for Josh Beckett. After appearing reinvigorated late in 2012 with the move to LA, Beckett turned in a disastrous spring training, and he hasn’t been much better in the regular season. The strikeout and walk rates remain relatively stable, but he’s getting hit all over the ballpark, allowing eight home runs already and more than a hit per inning. PECOTA was a Beckett backer this winter, but it doesn’t even have a percentile to reflect how poor he’s been to date.

Beckett and the Dodgers face the Nationals on Monday, and that means facing Bryce Harper. Harper is 0-for-3 with a strikeout off Beckett, and that may be the only number in the Dodgers’ favor here. Harper has been superhuman against righties (.366/.442/.780), and loves to reach out over the plate to get extension and drive the ball to all fields. Observe:

This is where Beckett appears vulnerable and needs to trust his stuff. He has always been a pitcher who likes establishing himself inside against lefties early in the count, throwing a four-seamer or cutter to 50 percent of lefties in first-pitch offerings since 2007. (His 0-0 count location chart is tough to parse, obviously, but he likes to come inside.) This year is a different story: The four-seam-plus-cutter frequency is down to 33 percent in 0-0 counts, and he’s starting lefties off just as often with the sinker (29 percent) and changeup (22 percent). The empirical evidence seems to back up what the numbers are telling us—Beckett doesn’t trust himself to attack hitters the way he’s always attacked them, and they’re burning him for his reticence. I’m interested to see how Beckett starts Harper off; if he tries to play around with softer stuff away, he may be playing right into Harper’s hands.

What to Watch for Monday

  • The Yankees play two this afternoon in Cleveland, and Vidal Nuno will make his first major-league start. Nuno is one of those out-of-nowhere guys who never gave anyone the slightest chance to cut him despite being drafted in the 48th round—he has kept runs off the board everywhere he’s been, both as a starter and reliever. The 5-foot-11 lefty doesn’t give scouts much to salivate about—he’ll top out at 90—but the minor-league numbers speak for themselves.

    Meanwhile, David Phelps, who will start game one tomorrow, is making one wonder if his surprise 2012 may have been fool’s gold. Ivan Nova, who was supposed to come off the DL Monday, felt a twinge while playing catch on Sunday, and he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence when healthy.
     
  • Monday’s battle between the Braves and Diamondbacks isn’t just a battle of playoff teams—it pits two young lefties who have grown up a little faster than most expected. PECOTA was not kind to Wade Miley after a breakout 2012 in which he made the All-Star team and won NL Rookie of the Year, Non-Bryce Harper Division. Miley was projected as essentially a league-average starter for 2013, but he’s taken a step forward even as his walk rate has returned to the realm of mortal men (3.6 BB/9 in 2013 vs. 1.7 in 2012).

    Meanwhile, Mike Minor remains one of my favorite pitchers by his sheer simplicity: He will spot his 90-mph four-seamer 60 percent of the time; the ball stays down not by its movement but his consistency; his walk rate, above average (2.8) in 2012, is down to an ungodly 1.6; if you’re left-handed, he’ll mix in a curveball and slider, and if you’re not, you get the changeup. He’s not Justin Verlander or even Matt Harvey, but he gets results because he has the balls to pitch like he is.

Will Woods is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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