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June 10, 2013

What You Need to Know

Not on the Shin-Soo Choo Train

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
And then there was one. One team, that is, that has made it this far into the season without needing to augment its Opening Day starting rotation with a prospect or scrap-heap addition. That club is the Braves, who enjoy a comfortable lead in the National League East in part because one of Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, or Julio Teheran has taken the ball in each of their 63 games.

The Braves were left as the last team standing when the Tigers scratched Anibal Sanchez from Sunday’s series finale against the Indians. Like Atlanta, Detroit had thrived on the success and durability of its five starters, all of whom rank in the top 16 in the league in FIP, and four of whom have earned a spot in the top seven. With a porous defense and a lineup that is more star-studded than deep, the Tigers are as reliant on their starting pitchers as any contender. And, nearly 40 percent of the way through the season, not one of them has disappointed.

Not one of the six, that is, because minor-league veteran Jose Alvarez stepped admirably into Sanchez’s shoes. The Tigers felt confident investing $80 million over five years in Sanchez this past offseason—among other reasons—because the right-hander had not missed a scheduled start since 2009. Sanchez underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder on August 21, 2007, and he spent more than three months on the disabled list with a strain in that same shoulder not long after returning to the mound, but since then, he had been wholly reliable. The stiffness that cropped up in the shoulder over the weekend is expected to subside with a few extra days of rest. And, on the off chance that the injury bug bites again, Sunday’s victory suggests that manager Jim Leyland may not need to sweat.

Alvarez was promoted from Triple-A Toledo for Sunday’s game because Drew Smyly, who normally would be in line for a spot assignment or a longer-term rotation role, was not sufficiently stretched out. Signed as a minor-league free agent over the winter after consecutive mediocre campaigns for the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate in Jacksonville, Alvarez showed significant improvement in his first dozen starts. He struck out 76 batters in 74 1/3 innings while walking only 15, and he allowed only four home runs while keeping both left- and right-handed batters in check. Thus, after seven-plus years of minor-league bus rides, the 24-year-old Venezuelan unexpectedly earned his first taste of The Show.

The task was not easy. The Indians, who had dropped the first two games of the series, were third in the majors with a 782 aggregate OPS versus left-handed pitchers, and they led the circuit with 27 team home runs. With no chance, sans an injury, of facing a lefty starter in the series, Terry Francona’s squad might have seen the absence of Sanchez and the insertion of Alvarez as a welcome break that could help it snap its six-game skid. But no break was in the offing.

Alvarez no-hit the Tribe for 4 2/3 innings, and a solo homer off the bat of Ryan Raburn ended up being the only blemish on his six-frame line. He threw 56 of 93 pitches for strikes, permitted two singles in addition to the long ball, doled out one walk, and struck out seven. Alvarez pitched effectively off a low-90s fastball, complemented with a slider for all hitters and a changeup reserved primarily for enemy righties. The latter, which was of the circle-change variety, came in with a double-digit velocity differential from his fastball, and Alvarez enhanced its deception with good arm speed. Nick Swisher, who struck out flailing at the offering in the first inning, was among those impressed.

Alvarez was sent back to Toledo immediately after the game, but he made a strong first impression on Leyland, who credited the young southpaw’s mound presence and resilience in the wake of Raburn’s long ball. Leyland called Alvarez “a nice piece to the puzzle,” one that could resurface if another member of the fab five goes down.

Other likely contenders, such as the Nationals and Orioles, have struggled at times this season to field a trustworthy fifth starter, and while the O’s are 35-28, the offensively starved Nats needed a doubleheader sweep on Sunday just to climb back to .500. Clubs for which starting pitching is paramount almost always must have a sixth or seventh option ready to step in.

For the still-healthy Braves, that could be rehabbing righty Brandon Beachy. For the Pirates, who have lost Jeanmar Gomez and Wandy Rodriguez, that might be top prospect Gerrit Cole. For the Giants—who got only two starts from non-regulars during the entire 2012 season, and have already needed three in place of Ryan Vogelsong—that now is Chad Gaudin.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, where question marks surrounding the team’s young pitchers led general manager Dave Dombrowski to pull the trigger on the Sanchez-Omar Infante trade last July, rotation depth is quickly becoming a strength. The Tigers’ fourth straight win, which also marked the Indians’ seventh straight loss, gave them a 5 ½-game division lead and reinforced their status as the overwhelming Central favorites, with the sort of odds that only a spate of injuries or a bizarre collapse could threaten.

That the sweep came on the strength of their sixth starter’s shoulder makes the former pitfall less likely. After enduring a neck-and-neck battle with the White Sox that lasted into the final week of the 2012 season, this year’s Tigers appear to have the depth to cruise to their third consecutive division crown.

Matchup of the Day
Two National League Central newcomers will match wits at the outset when the Reds visit the Cubs this evening, as likely leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo digs in against right-hander Scott Feldman. Choo, who was acquired from the Indians in the three-way trade that sent Trevor Bauer to Cleveland, has cooled off from his red-hot start and has logged only one home run since May 15. Feldman, meanwhile, scuffled early in his first season in Chicago, but has amassed a 2.35 ERA and a 40-to-8 K:BB over his last seven assignments.

In addition to momentum, Feldman will also have history on his side tonight. He held Choo to one hit (a single) in 11 at-bats during their junior-circuit days, issuing one walk and notching two strikeouts in their 12 head-to-head encounters. The small sample size notwithstanding, Feldman has limited Choo to a 245 OPS, the latter’s lowest against any right-handed pitcher that he has faced at least 10 times.

And containing Choo is no easy feat for a righty. The 30-year-old outfielder has always demonstrated outstanding plate discipline, and his career triple-slash line versus opposite-handed hurlers is a robust .309/.408/.523. This year, buoyed in part by the hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ball Park, that line has surged to .338/.485/.623, and it includes 12 doubles, a triple, and 10 homers in 198 plate appearances.

Feldman, though, is not an easy nut for left-handed hitters to crack. He is showing virtually no platoon weakness in his first season as a National Leaguer, ceding a 650 OPS to righties and a 638 mark to lefties, and Choo can attest as well as anyone to the former Ranger’s effectiveness.

Very few of the offerings that Feldman throws are straight, and while he employs his sinker 46.37 percent of the time to fellow righties, the cutter is his primary weapon against lefties, according to the data in his Brooks Baseball profile. Feldman also leans heavily on his curveball, mainly because his changeup, the pitch most often mastered by hurlers who excel versus opposite-handed hitters, is more of a show-me offering than a bat-misser.

Given their respective head-to-head résumés, Feldman hasn’t needed to deviate from that approach when facing Choo, and the plot above confirms that suspicion. Feldman has pounded the Korean import with cutters on the inner third of the plate and curveballs away, while sprinkling in a handful of knee-high sinkers and changeups. He is not the first right-handed pitcher to learn that Choo likes to extend his arms and thrives on outer-half pitches, but he has used that information as effectively as anyone.

Choo’s lone hit off of Feldman came on a hanging curveball last September 1, and he drew an umpire-aided walk that same day. Feldman regained the upper hand in their most recent meeting, on May 24 of this year—when Choo went 0-for-3 with a pair of groundouts and a strikeout—but home runs by Joey Votto and Ryan Hanigan did the righty in. He’ll try to keep the leadoff man off base again, as he locks horns with Homer Bailey in game one of four at Wrigley Field (8:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • It’s “The Newcomer” against “The Comeback Kid”—well, in terms of the holy trinity pitching club members about whom Bret Sayre wrote in his fantasy column last Friday. Alex Cobb and the Rays are preparing to host John Lackey and the Red Sox in a three-game series at Tropicana Field, and both of Monday’s starting pitchers have outperformed expectations over the season’s first two months. Cobb, who blanked the Tigers for 7 2/3 innings in his most recent outing, ranks ninth among qualifying starters with a 2.39 ERA. Lackey, who would rank 21st if he had enough innings to qualify, is in the midst of a career-best year after missing the entire 2012 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery. If both sustain their recent performances, this could be the duel of the night (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Speaking of holy trinity pitchers, “The Repeater,” Doug Fister, is also on the bump today, scheduled for a date with the Royals. Fister has walked no more than one batter in eight consecutive starts, a feat that numerous pitchers have accomplished, but one that not many have managed to attain while still striking out nearly a batter per inning. Fister has 49 strikeouts over 50 frames during this walk-stingy span, and the last pitcher to simultaneously fan batters at that high a clip is Madison Bumgarner, who whiffed 65 over 62 1/3 innings from June 4 through July 24, 2011. The 29-year-old right-hander is just 2-3 with a 3.97 ERA in eight games (seven starts) versus the Royals, who will counter with Jeremy Guthrie in the series opener (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • After proving surprisingly effective in 2012 and over the first seven starts of his 2013 season, Wade Miley has come upon hard times. The 26-year-old left-hander picked up a win over the Cardinals on June 5, but he allowed 11 hits in 6 2/3 innings. He was dealt a loss in each of his previous four starts, permitting seven runs in three of them, and his two most recent clunkers were engineered by the juggernaut lineups of the Padres and Cubs. As a result of all that, Miley’s ERA is up to 4.92, and he now faces a duel with Clayton Kershaw, during which he’ll need to contend with Puigmania. From monster homers to head-first slides to laser throws, rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig has seemingly stolen the show in Los Angeles every night (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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