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May 1, 2013

What You Need to Know

Hooray for Hanleywood

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The Dodgers, who were tabbed by many as the pre-season favorites in the National League West and whose Opening Day payroll was a senior-circuit-high $216 million, entered their last game of April with a 12-13 record. But these weren’t the Dodgers that general manager Ned Colletti envisioned sending onto the field after his summer- and winter-long spending spree. These Dodgers needed nine starting pitchers and three shortstops to get through the first month.

Last night, for the first time this season, manager Don Mattingly had the pleasure of writing Hanley Ramirez’s name onto his lineup card at shortstop, the first step in a healing process that should effectively conclude about six weeks from now, when Zack Greinke’s broken collarbone is expected to be healed. Fellow right-hander Chad Billingsley, who underwent Tommy John surgery last month, won’t be back until next year, but once the Dodgers’ other injured starters make their way off of the disabled list, Mattingly should have ample rotation depth to endure the 2013 season without him.

Ramirez missed the first 25 games while nursing a torn ligament in his thumb, which he suffered in the World Baseball Classic championship game, and for which he required surgery on March 22. The Dodgers missed him dearly, as the mélange of Luis Cruz, Nick Punto, and Justin Sellers combined for a .171/.242/.220 triple-slash line and only two extra-base hits (a double and a homer), both of them by Sellers. The 29-year-old Ramirez is now three years removed from his last 4.0-plus WAR campaign, but he logged a 774 OPS after coming over from the Marlins last summer and should more than make up for any defensive shortcomings with the offensive upgrade that he immediately provides.

The fans at Dodger Stadium didn’t have to wait long for Ramirez to make his impact felt—he did so in his second and third trips to the plate on Tuesday night. After grounding out in the first inning, Ramirez drilled a solo shot to left field in the third, pushing the Dodgers’ early lead to a comfortable 5-1. An inning later, he smacked a double to the opposite field, which didn’t result in any additional runs, but did put Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa in a second-and-third, two-out bind.

Doing the math, it took Ramirez three at-bats to match the extra-base hit totals compiled by Cruz, Punto, and Sellers in 84. Ramirez told reporters after the game that the thumb still bothers him when he’s throwing, but he certainly looked no worse for the wear at the plate in the 6-2 Dodgers victory.   

And the Dodgers could hardly be more thrilled to have him back. In PECOTA’s mind, Mattingly’s squad needed merely to tread water in the absence of some of its key cogs in order to stay on track for its first division title since 2009. Tuesday’s win brought the Dodgers back to an even .500 on the season, and if the injury bug is done biting, Ramirez’s return portends much brighter days ahead. 

Matchup of the Day
Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio hasn’t even been in the big leagues for two full seasons, but Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier has already found time to collect seven hits against him, needing only 13 plate appearances to reach that total, the highest that any hitter can boast. In total, Ethier is 7-for-11 in his past encounters with Nicasio, which include a double, a home run, two walks, and two strikeouts, and they will meet for the sixth time in tonight’s middle match at Chavez Ravine.

The 26-year-old Nicasio’s last outing against the Dodgers, which came on June 2, 2012, ended badly for the northpaw, and not because Ethier notched a hit in their only showdown. Nicasio left that game with a knee injury, which eventually required microfracture surgery to remove loose bodies and repair the patella tendon, a tough break just months after he made a miraculous recovery from a fractured skull suffered when a line drive hit him in the head. He bounced back to earn a spot in Colorado’s Opening Day rotation, and though Nicasio’s 14-to-13 K:BB through five starts is worrisome, he appears to be trending upward after a five-inning, one-run effort at Chase Field his last time out.

Now, he’ll try to reverse his fortunes against Ethier, who is off to a pedestrian .244/.333/.400 start in the first year of a five-year, $85 million extension signed last June. Judging by the sequences and outcomes of their past meetings, the keys for Nicasio will be improved fastball command and better utilization of his secondary offerings, which include a slider and a changeup.

Six of Ethier’s seven hits against Nicasio have come off of the hard stuff, including a home run on an outer-third heater on July 16, 2011 and the three knocks that he has collected in their last three head-to-head encounters.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that—as evidenced by the chart from his Hitter Profile—Ethier is an outstanding fastball mistake hitter, and is especially dangerous in the thigh-high, outer-third area where Nicasio’s gopher ball crossed the zone. Ethier is prone to chasing fastballs above the letters and struggles to handle those that get under his hands, but pitchers who miss those targets typically pay the price.

The trouble for Nicasio is that his off-speed arsenal, which Kevin Goldstein noted was “unrefined” in 2010, remains a work in progress. He has thrown a four-seam fastball on 72 percent of his career offerings and 73 percent of the time this year, largely because his slider and changeup aren’t generating the desired results. Nicasio has missed the strike zone with more than 46 percent of his secondary pitches this year, and left-handed batters have swung and missed only once on the 28 sliders that they have seen.

Ethier’s two strikeouts versus Nicasio have come on an elevator fastball and a slider in the dirt. If he can work his way into two-strike counts, expect Nicasio to try to tempt the lefty-swinging Ethier with similar unhittable offerings again tonight. 

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Joe Mauer doesn’t often slump, but over the past nine games, the Twins catcher is just 3-for-33, and his fourth-inning single on Tuesday marked his first hit in nearly a week. The 30-year-old’s batting average has tumbled to .278 from .393 since the beginning of the slump, which dates back to April 20, the day after his birthday. He’ll try to shake it off in tonight’s matchup with Anibal Sanchez, who gets the ball for the Tigers in a duel with Scott Diamond (1:08 p.m. ET).
  • If you forgive a one-plus inning stretch on April 10, during which Homer Bailey was charged with seven runs, the right-hander has been one of the league’s most dominant starters, logging a 0.87 ERA over the remainder of his 32 innings of work. That damage was done by the Cardinals, most notably Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran, and Matt Adams, and tonight, Bailey will get a chance to avenge it in a rematch at Busch Stadium. Bailey, who turns 27 on May 3, has not served up a gopher ball outside of the three home runs drilled by the Cardinals in the fifth and sixth innings three weeks ago today. The home team will counter with Lance Lynn, who has lowered his ERA to 3.10 from 5.40 by permitting only one earned run over 14 innings in his last two starts (1:45 p.m. ET).
  • Cliff Lee has been a major leaguer for more than a decade, and during his time in The Show, he has made at least one appearance against 29 of the 30 teams. Tonight, he will cross the final opponent off his list—and, as you might expect, that opponent is the Indians, the team that promoted him to the majors in 2002 and with which he stayed until the middle of the 2009 season. The 34-year-old Lee has, for the most part, maintained his K:BB brilliance this year, amassing a 30-to-5 clip through 35 innings. He’s set to do battle with Trevor Bauer, whose path to the big-league rotation was cleared by Brett Myers’ ailing elbow, but whose work in the K:BB department has thus far been considerably less brilliant (7:05 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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