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May 15, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Best Brew in Town

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
Another day, another clip for the highlight reel from Jean Segura—or, so it seems these days in Milwaukee, where the young shortstop is routinely stealing the show.

The Brewers are 16-21, and their extra-inning loss to the Pirates on Tuesday was their eighth defeat in 10 games. With the Cardinals already 8 ½ games up in the National League Central, the Brew Crew’s long odds are growing longer with every loss, and the team’s front office is eagerly looking ahead to future years.

Yet, despite their recent malaise, the Brewers still field the two current frontrunners for the senior-circuit batting title. Carlos Gomez, who in March inked a team-friendly three-year, $24 million extension, leads the National League at .368 and is likely to remain a Brewer through the 2016 season. Segura, whose 1-for-6 outing last night lowered his average to .358, is second, and general manager Doug Melvin would love nothing more than to lock him up, too.

According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Melvin began exploring the possibility of an extension for Segura back in April, but made little progress in those initial talks with the shortstop’s agent, Joe Klein. Segura, whom Mark Anderson ranked as the top 25-and-under talent in the organization this past offseason, is in his first full season, so arbitration is a long way off, and Klein is in no hurry to settle. The San Juan native’s torrid start has only increased Klein’s leverage.

Segura’s 1-for-6 effort in the 4-3 loss to the Pirates snapped a string of four consecutive multi-hit games, but even on a relatively disappointing night, he slugged his seventh home run. That alone would be enough to set Segura apart, considering that Troy Tulowitzki is the only shortstop who can boast a greater long-ball total, but it’s merely the tip of the iceberg for the five-star prospect, who rivaled Mike Trout in Kevin Goldstein’s look at the Angels system in 2011.

In addition to his unexpectedly impressive power, Segura has stolen 13 bases in 15 tries, showcasing speed to go with his pop and hitting ability. Toss in solid defensive fundamentals and the range and athleticism to handle shortstop, and you’ve got an exceptionally well-rounded player—a hard-to-find talent in the middle infield, from which Segura has already chipped in 2.1 WARP to the Brewers’ cause.

Unfortunately, the early surge makes Segura’s long-term value difficult to pin down. As Klein told Rosenthal, “Right now, I guess it’s in my court. But with a guy this young, it’s hard to figure out what the right numbers would be.” And it’s not just Segura’s youth and limited service time that pose challenges for his agent. He seems to be raising his price tag with each passing night.

Were Segura to maintain his early-season pace, he could end the year with a batting title, 30 home runs, 50 stolen bases, and above-average defensive metrics at a premium position. If you think you’ve heard numbers like that bandied about recently, it’s because you have—with regard to Trout, whose first full big-league season was essentially unparalleled. But Segura was never thought to have 30-homer thump, and his BABIP, which sat at .393 entering Tuesday’s game, suggests that luck has been on his side. Klein knows that his client’s value may never be higher; Melvin is equally aware that friendlier terms might become available down the road. Not surprisingly, an agreement is not close.

For now, the fans at Miller Park can only sit back and enjoy the ride. There are brighter days ahead. And since Segura is under team control through at least the 2018 season, whether or not he signs an extension, his skills will be on display in Milwaukee for most of the decade. 

Matchup of the Day
One of the keys to David Price’s dominance last year was his ability to handle opposite-handed batters, who managed only a .232/.295/.332 triple-slash line, including just 33 extra-base hits in 650 plate appearances. This year, Price has faced only 168 right-handed hitters, a touch over one-fourth of his 2012 total, and he has already served up 12 doubles and six homers, more than half of his 2012 allotment. Suddenly, instead of turning enemy righties into the equivalent of a team of mediocre backup catchers, Price is letting them rake like the 2012 version of Alex Rios (.304/.334/.516), with a .301/.345/.494 effort to date.

If Price is to rediscover his dominant form, he’ll need to shore up those concerns, and the results of his showdowns with Mike Napoli could provide a useful barometer for his progress. Napoli, who is in his first year with the Red Sox, already has 25 extra-base knocks under his Boston belt, good for a .281 TAv that puts him on track for a two-win campaign in the eyes of PECOTA. The 31-year-old first baseman has an up-and-down history with Price, with six hits and a home run to his credit in 21 plate appearances, but 11 strikeouts to go with them.

An excellent low and belt-high fastball hitter, Napoli is somewhat susceptible to breaking pitches below the zone and changeups down and away, but he has plenty of power to punish location mistakes. Price came away with a punchout in each of their first four encounters, and he has twice dealt Napoli a hat trick, in their first meeting, on May 12, 2010, and in their third, on June 1, 2011. All of those strikeouts came on fastballs and sinkers, most of them between 94-98 mph. In their first showdown, Price used his curveball to set up the hard stuff; in their fourth, he challenged Napoli with 15 consecutive mid-90s hardballs and blew the then Rangers catcher away.

Price’s preferred fastball location when facing righties is in the middle of the zone, height-wise, and as close to the outer boundary as possible, and it’s a spot that he has aimed for often with Napoli in the box. Napoli’s willingness to chase offerings beyond the outside black, as he did in this June 2011 strikeout, is a hole that Price is well-equipped to exploit. Earlier this year, on April 13, Napoli went 1-for-3 with a single against Price, but also went down hacking at letter-high gas. His hit came on a curveball, only the second one that he had seen from Price in their last eight head-to-head meetings, according to the data on the matchup page linked above.

Price fastball/sinker velocity has come down a few ticks from last year, when it reached 96.2-96.5 mph, and is now around 93.9-94.7 mph, per the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data. But, interestingly, while his fastball whiffs have come down, from 9.05 percent to 6.85 percent, his changeup is actually eliciting more swings and misses, up from 12.50 percent to 17.86 percent. Price, who uses the off-speed offerings almost exclusively against opposite-handed batters, has relied more and more on it over the past three-plus seasons, but has not been able to fool Napoli with the mid-80s pitch. Napoli is 2-for-3 in at-bats that have ended with the changeup, and has prevailed in many of the longer sequences in which Price employed it. One of those is the October 3, 2011 home run, the only extra-base hit Napoli has earned.

Interestingly, this year, Price has used the changeup primarily to keep hitters on their toes in unfavorable counts:

Always a fastball-oriented hurler, Price now seems determined to ensure that hitters cannot sit dead red, perhaps because of his diminishing velocity. The increase in his changeup whiff rate lends some credibility to this approach. But his overall strikeout rate, down from 24.5 percent last year to 21.3 percent in 2013—which would mark its lowest point since 2009—and the aforementioned split against right-handed batters suggests that if the velocity drop persists, more adjustments will be necessary.

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Price looked better in his last outing, when he dueled fellow 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, but he was still charged with four runs (two earned) over eight innings. The 27-year-old lefty has now allowed at least three runs in each of his last five starts, the longest such streak of his career, and he has permitted seven unearned runs to this point in the spring, after giving up only three in all of 2012. In his middle-match assignment versus the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, Price will square off with another ace, Jon Lester, who has righted his ship after a rocky 2012 while Price’s once-impenetrable one has taken on water. Lester fired a one-hit shutout against the Blue Jays on Friday to lower his ERA to 2.73 (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Ever since the calendar flipped to May, Dexter Fowler—owner of an outstanding .305/.411/.621 triple-slash line in April—has been a pumpkin. Fowler, who collected four hits in the last three days of April, is just 5-for-35 so far this month, and his OPS has plummeted from 1.016 to 868. In part because of their center fielder’s slump, the Rockies are just 5-7 in May after posting a 16-11 mark in the opening month, and they have tumbled down to third place after sitting atop the National League West as recently as May 8. Fowler will try to get going again in tonight’s matchup with Jeff Samardzija, who has failed to record a seventh-inning out in any of his last four starts (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Less than four weeks after a tiff with Carlos Quentin set off a brawl in which Zack Greinke’s collarbone was fractured, the first-year Dodger is ready to return to the mound. Greinke, who threw 80 pitches without incident in his lone rehab start for High-A Rancho Cucamonga, was declared good to go despite surrendering eight runs (three earned) over 4 1/3 innings in the hitter-friendly environs. He returns to a 1.59 ERA, compiled over 11 1/3 innings, and gets the ball in the series finale versus the Nationals, who will counter with Ross Detwiler (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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