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May 20, 2013

What You Need to Know

Cy of Relief

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano, who came off the disabled list in time for the ongoing series against the Mariners, issued this warning to other teams after the third game of four:

A couple of hours earlier, the Tribe put a six-run (five earned) hurting on Felix Hernandez, who had permitted only five total runs over his previous six starts. That was far more support than Cleveland starter Justin Masterson—who fired a four-hitter versus the Yankees last week—needed, as the righty extended his scoreless streak to 19 innings and fanned 11 in the 6-0 Indians win.

Hernandez, who entered Sunday’s assignment with a 1.53 ERA, had allowed only 20 extra-base hits to the 246 batters he had faced. The red-hot Indians notched five in 26 plate appearances—four of them doubles, the fifth a three-run homer by Michael Brantley. And if King Felix is down in the dumps after his first clunker since April 11, Pestano’s tweet might provide a bit of consolation.

Terry Francona’s offense, which led the league with a 793 OPS coming into Sunday’s contest, has done its best work against the most decorated pitchers to cross its path this season. As MLB.com beat writer Zack Meisel pointed out, Cy Young Award winners—both recent, like R.A. Dickey and David Price, and more distant, like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee—have all struggled to escape the Tribe’s wrath unscathed. Together, they have been touched up for 42 runs in 41 2/3 innings of work, and the Indians are 7-1 this season when facing a pitcher with at least one such honor under his belt.

Of course, the Indians haven’t merely honed their swings and eyes for opposing aces: They’ve been quite good regardless of the hurler toeing the rubber in recent weeks. Francona’s squad has won 17 of its last 21 games, the franchise’s most successful stretch since its near-pennant-winning 2007 campaign, which still represents its most recent playoff appearance and division title. Considered a .500 team by PECOTA, even in light of general manager Chris Antonetti’s winter moves, the Indians on Saturday moved into first place for the first time this season. They had not held the perch alone since June 23 of last year.

And with the Tigers coming to town on Tuesday for a quick two-game series, the Indians will get an almost-immediate opportunity to pad their one-game lead. Cleveland’s 24-17 start has led PECOTA to reconsider its post-season hopes, even though the system remains cynical of their ability to ward off Jim Leyland’s team for long.

Justin Verlander, who needed 110 pitches to complete five innings of four-run ball versus the Indians on May 11, is among the Cy Young Award owners who have met their match when taking on the Tribe. He’ll get the ball looking to avenge that defeat on Wednesday, and if the Indians are to sustain their recent surge, they’ll need to deliver on Pestano’s Antoine Dodson-inspired threat.

Matchup of the Day
You might have noticed that, unlike in most WYNTK columns, the subhead above is not linked to a matchup page. That’s because there is very little head-to-head data between Athletics hitters and Rangers pitcher Josh Lindblom, who will make his first major-league start this evening after transitioning from the bullpen.

Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News wrote in late March about the Rangers’ decision to convert Lindblom, a starter in the Dodgers’ farm system who moved to relief work as he rose up the ladder. Lindblom was shipped to the Phillies in the Shane Victorino trade last summer, and then on to the Rangers in the Michael Young swap in December. All 101 of his big-league appearances have come out of the bullpen.

But, after watching Lindblom author a 2.08 ERA over eight games (seven starts) for Triple-A Round Rock, the Rangers have decided to give him a whirl in place of the injured Alexi Ogando. As Fraley wrote, Lindblom’s four-pitch mix intrigued general manager Jon Daniels and the team’s evaluators, even though the righty essentially was a fastball-slider pitcher in his relief days, as shown by the data on his Brooks Baseball card.

Kevin Goldstein covered Lindblom in his look at the Dodgers’ farm system in 2010, shortly after the organization converted him into a reliever, the role in which he served for Purdue University. In that writeup, Goldstein mentioned that it was a logical decision, in part because the righty’s changeup “lag[ged] behind his other pitches,” an issue that would be mitigated in short bursts and with situational managing. And the concern is evident in Lindblom’s major-league splits to date: He has limited opposing righties to a .209/.299/.365 triple-slash line, but lefties have teed-off at a .261/.370/.496 clip.

Has Lindblom rectified the problem? To the extent that his splits at Round Rock paint an accurate picture, the answer is affirmative. So far this season, righties are hitting .188 and lefties are batting .155. But it’s important to keep in mind that the sample is fewer than 100 batters of each handedness faced, and the 25-year-old has a lot of proving left to do.

His first opportunity to show improvement against opposite-handed batters comes in tonight’s series opener versus the Athletics, whose manager, Bob Melvin, will stack his lineup with them. If John Jaso, who sat out Sunday’s game with a minor leg ailment, is able to play, Melvin could put up to six left-handed hitters into his order, including switch-hitters Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie. One of the two righties, Yoenis Cespedes, smacked a homer off of Lindblom last year.

The Rangers faced myriad question marks about their rotation leading up to the regular season, but they have answered most of them by turning in a 3.54 ERA from the starting squad so far (before Derek Holland’s outing on Sunday). If Lindblom shows that he can adequately supplant Ogando, those who are still skeptical will have one less reason left to doubt (8:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Mariners righty Hisashi Iwakuma, who ranks seventh among qualifying starters with a 1.84 ERA, hasn’t been quite as dominant away from Safeco Field as he has been in Seattle’s home yard, but he still has compiled a 2.45 ERA despite allowing six homers over 33 innings in his five road outings. The 32-year-old Tokyo native, who held the Yankees to a pair of solo shots over seven innings in his most recent start, now faces another tough test from the power-packed Indians in one of two matinees on today’s slate. Iwakuma carries a 55-to-8 K:BB into this afternoon’s duel with Scott Kazmir (12:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • Monday’s other afternoon tilt features the Rays debut of right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired by Tampa Bay in the deal that sent James Shields to Kansas City. Odorizzi made two starts for the Royals in 2012, amassing a 4.91 ERA over 7 1/3 innings, and the 23-year-old fanned 47 batters over 44 2/3 innings in his first eight starts for Triple-A Durham this spring. Ranked by Jason Parks as the fifth-best prospect in the Rays’ system following the trade, Odorizzi has a mid-rotation ceiling, and he’ll try to continue his ascent toward that end in a matchup with the Blue Jays and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (1:07 p.m. ET).
     
  • The success of rookie southpaw Tony Cingrani helped the Reds to overcome the early-season loss of Johnny Cueto, but manager Dusty Baker will be thrilled to welcome back his ace, who missed more than a month with a shoulder strain, this evening. Last year, Cueto became the first Reds pitcher to post an ERA below 2.80 over 30 or more starts since Great American Ball Park opened in 2003. He’ll make his return in a much-friendlier setting, Citi Field, and take on a Mets lineup that entered play on Sunday with a 686 team OPS versus right-handed pitching, the fifth-worst mark in the league. Terry Collins will counter with Shaun Marcum, who is still trying to settle into his new home in Queens, and sports a 6.75 ERA after his first 21 1/3 innings in a Mets uniform (7:10 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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