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May 17, 2013

What You Need to Know

Going the Wrong Ray

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Performance variations from season to season are common in baseball—given the extent to which batted-ball luck and other uncontrollable factors can impact the game—and they can seem especially glaring during the late-spring months, when sample sizes are still small and a few bad apples can turn a sweet stat line sour.

Matt Cain, who allowed 21 home runs in 219 1/3 innings in 2012, has already watched 13 balls sail over an outfield fence in 56 1/3 frames this year. Jay Bruce, who authored 34 bombs in 155 games last year, has just three to his name through his first 40 games of 2013. The Indians, whose 705 team OPS last year was 22nd in the majors, now sit atop the leaderboard with a 791 clip to date. But few turnarounds, positive or negative, can rival the complete 180 executed by the Rays bullpen, which last year was one of the most reliable and dominant units in the league.

Joe Maddon’s relievers, led by closer Fernando Rodney, held firm in 50 of their 58 save opportunities in 2012, an unmatched 86 percent conversion rate that paved the way for their 90-win season. On Thursday, Tampa Bay fell to 20-20, when Rodney—handed a two-run advantage and asked to record the final three outs—bumped the Rays’ blown-save tally for the season up to seven and their conversion clip down to an American League-low 50 percent.

The 36-year-old Rodney, who showed surprisingly excellent control in 2012, en route to a 76-to-15 K:BB and a record-setting 0.60 ERA, has already issued 15 walks this year through only 16 appearances. Four of them came last night: Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Daniel Nava in a span of four batters, and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia after the damage was already done. That damage came on a three-run double by Will Middlebrooks, which came on a two-strike offering, plated all three of the runners Rodney had walked, and thus turned a near-victory into a painful defeat.

To make matters worse, Rodney isn’t alone. Jake McGee, who in 2012 (5.2 percent walk rate, 34.4 percent strikeout rate) was to the junior circuit what Aroldis Chapman (8.3, 44.2) was to the senior, suddenly can’t find the strike zone, either. The 26-year-old southpaw has issued 10 free passes in 14 2/3 innings after handing out only 11 of them in 55 1/3 frames in 2012. Together, McGee and Rodney have accounted for six of the team’s seven blown saves.

With Wade Davis, a right-handed force in the middle innings last summer, now starting for the Royals, and J.P. Howell signed away by the Dodgers, the only holdover contributing the same caliber of performance that he provided last year is Joel Peralta. The veteran righty picked up his 10th hold of the year in last night’s game, minutes before Rodney’s implosion, but even with Peralta chipping in 18 1/3 innings of 1.96 ERA work, the group’s aggregate 4.67 mark is the worst in the American League.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox won a game in which they trailed heading into the ninth inning for the first time in nearly nine months—a win that manager John Farrell said his scuffling team badly needed—and, by doing so, moved to within a game of the first-place Yankees. The Rays, who for the second time in 10 days lost a game they were a strike away from winning, are mired in fourth.

In a crowded, tight division race, a few close games over the course of a season, saved or blown by the bullpen, either fortuitously or with sustainable performance, can make all the difference. The 2012 Rays, buoyed by one of the league’s best relief corps, came within three games of a playoff berth and won two more regular-season games than the pennant-winning Tigers. The 2013 Rays, now three games out in the wild card and without their ace for at least two weeks, may need better late-inning pitching just to keep up.

Matchup of the Day
Among players who have logged at least 100 plate appearances this season, no American League hitter has done more damage to right-handed pitchers than the Orioles’ Chris Davis, who enters tonight’s game with a .341/.454/.716 triple-slash line and 19 extra-base hits. The 27-year-old Davis put his power on display regularly last year, when he drilled 33 homers in 515 at-bats, and while he has exceeded that pace in the first quarter of the 2013 campaign, his other improvements might be even more intriguing.

After striking out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances in 2012 and walking in only 6.6 percent of them, Davis has cut the former rate down to 24.7 percent while hiking the latter to 13.6 percent. Those strides have, at least for the moment, turned him into a well-rounded hitter whose calling card is still his power, but whose plate discipline must be respected, too. Coming into this weekend’s series against the Rays, Davis leads all big-league hitters with a .378 TAv. Jeremy Hellickson, who has been tabbed by Joe Maddon to pitch game one at Camden Yards, gets the first crack at slowing him down.

Davis and Hellickson first met on May 11, 2012, and over the course of the season, they got to know each other well. The American League East counterparts locked horns 15 times last year and three more this past April, for a total of 18 head-to-head plate appearances, all of which are tracked on the matchup page linked above. The difference between the first nine and the last could hardly be starker:

 

Hits

Extra-base Hits

Strikeouts

First 9 PA

1

0

6

Last 9 PA

7

3

1

What changed? Not Hellickson’s approach, which has no discernible pattern besides adjustments driven by Davis’ results.

The right-hander, who has been hampered by the long ball in the first month-plus of this season, softballed Davis in many of their first nine encounters, sometimes pitching backward, other times sticking with his curve and changeup even in deep counts, and, in either case, almost invariably emerging as the victor. He earned a strikeout with a backward sequence in their first meeting on August 4, 2012, which marked the fifth consecutive showdown in which Davis had either taken or flailed at a third strike.

Since then, it has been all Davis, almost every time.

Hellickson went back to his vaunted changeup in their ensuing encounter, but Davis waited out four of them before collecting a single on a knee-high fastball. In the next one, Hellickson tried the curveball, and Davis jumped on it for a first-pitch single. Could pitching forward do the trick? Nope, double. Back to the changeup? Nope, single. Hellickson finally did retire Davis in their last two head-to-head plate appearances of 2012, but as soon as the calendar flipped to 2013, Davis regained the upper hand.

The left-handed slugger went 3-for-3 versus Hellickson on April 3, 2013, collecting a home run on a fastball, and a double and a single on curveballs, the former a seemingly well-located first pitch. Now, it’s back to the drawing board for Hellickson, who was charged with five runs that day and has allowed at least three in each of his last four trips to the mound, the longest such streak of his career.

Hellickson won’t easily find soft spots in Davis’ current swing, and fastballs up in the zone, once a weakness for the whiff-prone slugger, might now—if you trust the small, early-season sample—be a strength. Hellickson’s changeup, as usual, may be his best weapon, particularly if he can locate it down and away. That last part will be the key, and Hellickson knows all too well what can happen if he misses up and to the right of Jose Molina’s target with Davis in the box.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Chris Sale needed only 98 pitches to one-hit the Angels on May 12, and tonight, he’ll get another stab at Mike Scioscia’s lineup, this time at Angel Stadium. Mike Trout, who collected the lone Angels knock in that 3-0 defeat, has since smacked two home runs, and he now looks much more like the 2012 version of himself than he did during the season’s first month. Apart from a clunker in Cleveland on April 13, Sale has shown few signs of regression after his breakout campaign, and the 24-year-old lefty has worked at least seven innings in each of his last five trips to the mound, lowering his ERA to 2.88 along the way. Scioscia will counter with C.J. Wilson in game two of four in Anaheim (10:05 p.m. ET).
  • Remember when, during the dog days of the 2012 season, Kris Medlen couldn’t seem to miss the zone? Well, in his most recent outing at AT&T Park, he had all kinds of trouble finding it. Medlen issued a career-high five walks and served up three home runs to the Giants, sending his ERA up to 3.44 and skyrocketing his FIP to 4.71. The 27-year-old has been a replacement-level pitcher to date, falling well short of his two-plus WARP PECOTA projection, and he’ll try to turn things around in a home matchup with the Dodgers on Saturday evening. Matt Kemp, who has notched only four extra-base hits in 115 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers this year, is just 1-for-7 with four strikeouts in his past encounters with Medlen (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • As far as slumps go, no major-league regular can match the rut into which Ryan Howard has fallen over the past week. The Phillies first baseman is just 2-for-26 with 11 strikeouts since a pinch-hit appearance at AT&T Park on May 8, and his OPS has tumbled from 826 to 717 over that disastrous span. He’ll try to climb out of the hole during this weekend’s three-game set with the Reds, in which Homer Bailey is set to pitch the series finale. The 27-year-old right-hander shook off a pair of duds to toss a complete-game six-hitter versus the Marlins on Tuesday, and he held the Phillies to two hits over eight innings of 10-strikeout ball on April 16. Manager Charlie Manuel will hand the ball to unbeaten rookie Jonathan Pettibone in the matinee (Sunday, 1:35 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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