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June 14, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Royal Rotation Surprise

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
The Royals arrived in Tampa Bay early on Thursday morning leading the American League in ERA. Yes, you read that correctly: After finishing 10th in the junior circuit and 22nd in the majors with a 4.30 mark as a pitching staff last year, the Royals raced to first in the former and fifth in the latter by paring that figure down to 3.45 over the season’s first 63 games.

Their weekend opponents, the Rays, have gone in the other direction. Buoyed by a deep rotation and a dominant bullpen, Joe Maddon’s club paced the entire league with a 3.19 ERA in 2012, marking the first time that an American League squad had done so since the Blue Jays amassed a 3.49 team ERA in 2008. But as of Thursday morning, Tampa Bay had dropped down the leaderboard to about where Kansas City finished last season, ninth in the junior circuit and 21st overall, with a 4.26 aggregate clip. As R.J. Anderson wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Rays are still treading water in the hotly contested East division, but they’re doing it with a much different formula than the one that led them to the playoffs in 2008, 2010, and 2011.

Thursday’s opener, the first of four games between the teams at Tropicana Field, brought more of the same.

Ervin Santana, who came over to Kansas City in an offseason salary-dump trade with the Angels, tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball, and a throwing error by Miguel Tejada helped the Rays push across their lone tally. Juan Gutierrez cleaned up the remaining four outs, and, together, the two right-handers ticked the Royals’ ERA for the season down to 3.40. Santana, who is striking out batters at a career-high 20.5 percent pace and walking them at a career-low 3.9 percent rate, trimmed his own ERA to 2.74; he is making his 5.16 finish in Anaheim last year a more distant memory with each passing start.

Jeremy Hellickson, on the other hand, is among the Rays hurlers whose fates have turned sour. After perennially outperforming his peripherals, thanks in large part to 80-plus percent strand rates, Hellickson has—at least over the first two-and-a-half months—fallen victim to the regression monster he was able to dodge in his first two full big-league seasons. The 26-year-old’s left-on-base percentage had plummeted to 64.5 percent over his first 13 starts of the 2013 season, and it kept tumbling on Thursday night.

For five innings, Hellickson matched Santana goose egg for goose egg. He faced the minimum through four and 16 batters through five, and the teams entered the sixth locked in a scoreless tie. But suddenly, the wheels came off.

Elliot Johnson singled. Alcides Escobar doubled. Alex Gordon singled. Hellickson uncorked a wild pitch. After Eric Hosmer flied out, Salvador Perez singled and Billy Butler followed suit. Lorenzo Cain struck out, but David Lough picked him up with a single. Miguel Tejada kept the line moving with a double, and Johnson—the former Ray, and the 10th batter of the inning—delivered the deathblow, a three-run blast that put the Royals ahead, 8-0. Before Hellickson, who was relieved by ex-Royals prospect Jake Odorizzi, hit the showers, all seven of the Royals that had reached base in the inning had come around to score.

The visitors tacked on two more runs—one in the seventh inning on a solo homer by Eric Hosmer, one in the eighth on a double by Cain and a single by Lough—and left for their hotel with a 10-1 rout. Since manager Ned Yost, believed by many to be on the hot seat just a couple of weeks ago, turned to the team’s analytics department for lineup help, the Royals have won eight of nine. And since the team hired George Brett to be its hitting coach on May 30, the Royals are 9-4.

Don’t be fooled, though: It’s the pitching staff, which has held opponents to no more than three runs in each of the team’s last 12 games, that deserves the bulk of the credit.

In the home clubhouse, meanwhile, Maddon put the overall struggles of his arms on the starters’ inability to work deep into games. He told reporters, “We can’t do it this way,” admitting that the middle-relief corps has been taxed during a stretch that has seen Tampa Bay cough up five or more runs in 10 of 26 games. David Price is on the mend, and the Rays are just five games out in the East, but as R.J. Anderson wrote in late May, Maddon’s squad must rediscover its lost identity to remain a contender down the stretch.

The Royals are two games under .500, 5 ½ behind the first-place Tigers, and still a long shot to reach the postseason, but the rebuilt and revitalized pitching staff is a significant step in the right direction. Luis Mendoza will try to extend their three-runs-or-less streak to 13 in a duel with Matt Moore tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez took a step forward between 2011 and 2012, raising his TAv from .244 to .267 and his value from 1.2 wins to 2.3, but between 2012 and 2013, he has taken a giant leap. The 27-year-old, who in March inked a three-year, $24 million extension that will keep him in Milwaukee through 2016, is off to a tremendous, .326/.366/.594 (.324 TAv) start, which has brought Ron Roenicke’s club 2.5 WARP just 63 games into the season.

Gomez remains as aggressive a hitter as he ever has been, drawing walks in only 4.3 percent of his plate appearances, but he is striking out at a career-low pace, and squaring up the balls that he puts into play much more often than he did in the past. The right-handed hitter’s line-drive rate has ticked up from 16.6 percent in 2012 to 18.3 percent in 2013, his popups are down from 12.8 percent to 6.8 percent, and he is hitting the ball on the ground a bit more often, which enables him to take advantage of his speed. Gomez has hit 10 of his 11 home runs at Miller Park, but he hit eight of 19 on the road in 2012, and the persistent increase in power can no longer be written off as a fluke or mirage.

Those searching for anything fluky in Gomez’s numbers must instead turn to his recent onslaught of triples—he has hit five of them this month, more than all but six other major leaguers have authored all season. Gomez and his teammate Jean Segura, who has broken out simultaneously and already has 10 home runs to his name, are tied for the big-league lead with eight three-baggers. The center fielder’s pace almost assuredly will cool, but it’s beginning to look as though his bat as a whole may not.

Of course, if any pitcher has proven capable of slowing Gomez down, it’s Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo, who happens to be on tap for the Brewers this evening. In 12 head-to-head plate appearances, Gomez is just 1-for-12 versus Arroyo with a single, three strikeouts, and—surprise, surprise—no walks. The 36-year-old Arroyo, now a crafty pitcher who relies on his excellent control and array of specialty stuff, has given Gomez fits with a rather unorthodox approach.

There’s a lot of yellow and a good amount of blue on the plot above, copied from the afore-linked matchup page, on which the numbers tell us that Arroyo has thrown either a changeup or a curveball on a whopping 67 percent of his deliveries to Gomez.

That’s less shocking when you acknowledge that Arroyo, in general, is a soft-ball pitcher who has used his off-speed stuff more than 56 percent of the time in 2013, but it’s a stunning proportion nonetheless. Arroyo has thrown a first-pitch changeup in six of his 12 meetings with Gomez, compared to a 17 percent first-pitch changeup clip for his career against right-handed batters. And, even more remarkably, he once dared to throw Gomez five consecutive curveballs, a strategy that stifled the then-still-mediocre hitter and yielded a strikeout.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Arroyo’s insistence on feeding Gomez soft stuff and spin is that Gomez is not a hitter who thrives on fastballs: He never has been and is not now. Admittedly, Arroyo’s heater—which tops out south of 90 mph—is slower than most of those Gomez has seen this season and throughout his career, but that is the case for every hitter that digs in against Arroyo, and his fastball usage generally is higher.

The other interesting element in the above plot is that most of the changeups and curveballs that Arroyo has thrown to Gomez could be considered hangers, pitches that many hitters would love to punish. Until this year, though, Gomez had been almost exclusively a low-ball hitter, regardless of pitch type. And while Gomez still is dangerous at knee-high locations, one of the biggest improvements in his offensive profile is his newfound ability to square up pitches at the belt and the letters, something he struggled to do with any sort of consistency as recently as 2012.

If those two months of data reflect a genuine improvement, then Gomez now seems much better equipped to handle the secondary offerings that, to most hitters, Arroyo would consider location mistakes. Given Gomez’s penchant for clobbering knee-high deliveries, Arroyo is likely to stick to the belt-and-up approach that has served him well in their past encounters, forcing Gomez to beat his soft stuff high and away. Control and unpredictable sequencing remain Arroyo’s greatest strengths as a pitcher, but if Gomez has eliminated the holes that previously existed in his swing, he’ll have the opportunity tonight to turn their head-to-head track record around (7:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Angels are paying $9.6 million of Vernon Wells’ $21 million salary this season, and for the next three days, they will be paying him to play for the enemy. Wells and Yankees, who acquired the right-handed-hitting outfielder in late March, are in Anaheim for a three-game series, and Wells is almost certain to be in the lineup for the opener against left-hander C.J. Wilson. The 34-year-old Wells has cooled off markedly after a surprisingly torrid start, falling into an 11-for-85 (.129/.149/.165) rut that dates back to May 16, but he has drilled a couple of home runs among four total hits in 19 at-bats versus the ex-Ranger Wilson. Andy Pettitte, who picked up the 250th win of his career on June 8 in Seattle, gets the ball for the visitors (Friday, 10:05 p.m. ET).
  • A bout of shoulder stiffness led Anibal Sanchez, who underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in June of 2007, to shut himself down last weekend and skip a scheduled start for the first time since the 2009 season. Fortunately for the Tigers, minor-league veteran Jose Alvarez did a reasonable impression of Sanchez to defeat the Indians, and Sanchez’s shoulder is now back to full strength. The right-hander is in the midst of a career year, with a 1.80 FIP and 2.3 WARP already under his belt, and he tossed a one-hit shutout against the Twins on May 24, recording 12 strikeouts along the way. An encore may be too much to ask, but Sanchez will aim for similar result in the middle match at Target Field, where home manager Ron Gardenhire is set to counter with Samuel Deduno (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • Gerrit Cole did not quite pull off the Jason Jennings special in his major-league debut, but he drove in as many runs as he allowed in a 6 1/3-inning win over the Giants. The 22-year-old right-hander’s next assignment will come in the series finale versus the Dodgers, Cole’s home club during his three years at UCLA. He notched only two strikeouts against the Giants, despite showing electric stuff—a disparity that followed Cole on his way up the organizational ladder, as he managed only 47 punchouts in 68 frames for Triple-A Indianapolis before earning the promotion.

    Cole will try to improve his whiff rate against Don Mattingly’s lineup, in which Zack Greinke will occupy the number-nine spot, fresh off the Dodgers’ dust-up with the Diamondbacks. Greinke’s beaning at the hands of Ian Kennedy incited the brawl, and the resulting suspensions were announced on Friday. The 29-year-old right-hander blanked the Pirates over 6 1/3 innings on April 5, his first start as a member of the Dodgers, but he has been charged with nine earned runs in 12 2/3 career frames at PNC Park (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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