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May 10, 2013

What You Need to Know

Turn Back the Clock Night

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Scott Kazmir is hitting the mid-90s with his fastball. The Indians are among the American League’s leaders in home runs. Mark Reynolds, who has hit more long balls than any other player in the junior circuit, is batting over .275. What is this, 2007?

No, a quick check of the calendar confirms that it is, in fact, May 2013. And no, the radar gun at Progressive Field wasn't deceiving the fans in attendance or those watching the Indians’ 9-2 victory over the Athletics on television. Kazmir, two-year hiatus and all, really was touching 96 mph with his fastball on Thursday afternoon. And the visiting A’s, like many of the teams the 29-year-old lefty faced during his heyday in Tampa Bay, could do nothing with it.

Three weeks ago, the Astros shelled Kazmir to the tune of six runs in just 3 1/3 innings, an inauspicious beginning to his attempted renaissance. He allowed only two runs in each of his two subsequent starts, but those came against the Royals and Twins, middle-of-the-pack offenses that offered only a tempered harbinger of sustained effectiveness. On Thursday, though, Kazmir took on the league’s highest-scoring lineup, which, prior to yesterday afternoon, had compiled the top OPS in the majors against opposing lefties (836). The Athletics entered the series finale in Cleveland with a .386 team on-base percentage versus southpaws, 22 points better than that of the next-best American League team (the Tigers) in 2013 and better than all but 10 individual hitters fared last season.

And Kazmir, who essentially employed a three-pitch arsenal, permitted only five Oakland hitters to reach base over his six innings on the hill. A Josh Donaldson home run represented the only blemish on his overall line.

Along the way, Kazmir elicited 19 whiffs, 13 of them on the hard stuff, which he used early and often. Blessed for the second consecutive start with the sort of velocity he hadn’t enjoyed in years, Kazmir fired first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 23 batters he faced, jumping ahead time and time again. And with his changeup and slider both working well, too, Kazmir became the first Indians starter to record 10 strikeouts without issuing a walk since Cliff Lee did it on June 7, 2005.

Backed by homers from Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher, and the aforementioned Reynolds, Kazmir notched strikes with 72 of his 103 deliveries, accomplishing the 10-to-0 K:BB feat for the first time since May 26, 2008. It was also his first double-digit-strikeout effort since August 26, 2009, the last time he took the mound as a member of the Rays.

Kazmir has come a long way since April 3, 2011, when a 1 2/3-inning, five-run clunker marked the end of his disastrous stint with the Angels. He has even come a long way over the past 20 days, from that dud in Houston, where his fastball sat around 91 mph and never threatened 95.

First-year Indians manager Terry Francona, who was on the losing end of many of Kazmir’s best performances as a Ray, told reporters after the game, “I think he’s kind of at peace where he’s at and enjoying it.” The Tribe—which has looked far and wide for rotation help, from the Ubaldo Jimenez trade to Brett Myers’ return to starting, in recent years—appears to have found it in the least likely place. And with Kazmir capping a four-game sweep of the Athletics to extend Cleveland’s surge to 10 wins in 11 games, the Indians are most certainly enjoying it, too.

Matchup of the Day
There aren’t many pitchers and hitters that could team up to produce 17 plate appearances without a walk or a strikeout, but Braves sinkerballer Tim Hudson and Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval have done just that in their past encounters. Hudson, one of the league’s best hurlers when it comes to inducing weak ground-ball contact, has taken full advantage of Sandoval’s aggressive approach, yielding only two hits, both singles, in 17 at-bats.

Each of the first five meetings between Hudson and Sandoval resulted in a ground ball, and each of the most recent three have, too. The 37-year-old Hudson has limited the Giants to two or fewer earned runs over seven or more innings in each of his last six starts against them, and his success in neutralizing Sandoval is a big reason why. With a 52.8 percent ground-ball rate through seven starts, Hudson is using the same bag of tricks that has served him well since his debut for the Athletics in 1999. And if the Giants are to deal him a defeat for the first time since April 8, 2006, they’ll likely need the Panda to alter his approach.

A glance at the afore-linked matchup page reveals that Hudson hasn’t done anything fancy to roll Sandoval over—a steady diet of sinkers, cutters, and splitters, with a few curveballs sprinkled in for show, has kept the 26-year-old at bay. Sandoval’s free-swinging tendencies leave him vulnerable to off-speed offerings just off the outside edge, and pitchers like Hudson, who command their splitters (or changeups) well can exploit his willingness to chase. Sinkers and cutters have not generally flustered Sandoval, but Hudson’s ability to locate and mix his moving fastballs has enabled him to avoid the barrel of Sandoval’s bat.

If Sandoval is to turn his fortunes against Hudson, he’ll need to hope for early mistakes or become more selective. Only five of the 17 showdowns between them have lasted longer than three pitches, helping the veteran right-hander to contain his pitch count and last deep into his outings against the Giants. Sandoval will try to make the necessary adjustments in game two of four at AT&T Park, where the home team will go with Matt Cain (10:15 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • After a rough outing against the Pirates on April 28, Shelby Miller bounced right back to hold the Brewers to just one run over six innings in a victory on May 3, lowering his ERA to 1.96 in the process. The 22-year-old right-hander, who made one start among six total appearances last year, has lived up to his lofty billing in virtually every regard, amassing a 38-to-11 K:BB and permitting only three home runs over 36 2/3 innings of work. He’ll carry a 2.91 FIP into tonight’s series opener versus the Rockies, who are 14-7 when facing a right-handed starting pitcher this season and will counter with Jon Garland (8:15 p.m. ET).
  • Yu Darvish nearly went 27 up, 27 down when he took on the Astros on Opening Day, and the second-year ace will get his second look at manager Bo Porter’s lineup in this weekend’s middle match. Darvish equaled his 14-strikeout effort from that 8 2/3-inning showing in his most recent assignment, a seven-frame outing versus the Red Sox, and he leads the league with a remarkable 72 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. The Astros have struck out more times (343) than any other offense in baseball, so Saturday’s date at Minute Maid Park could actually help Darvish to pad his already dazzling punchout rate, which currently stands at 40.5 percent. His opposite number, Erik Bedard, has whiffed 22.9 percent of the batters that he’s faced to date, but the lefty enters their showdown with a bloated 7.36 ERA (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • After smacking only one home run in all of April, Kipnis is beginning to heat up. The Indians’ second baseman went 1-for-4 with a two-run shot in yesterday’s 9-2 win over the Athletics, giving him three big flies in the last six games, and his OPS has climbed up to 685 after sitting at 535 on May 1. Kipnis is 4-for-16 with a homer against Rick Porcello, who gets the ball for the Tigers in Sunday’s series finale. The Indians will send Zach McAllister, who blanked the A’s for 7 2/3 innings on Tuesday, to the hill for the matinee (Sunday, 1:08 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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