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June 13, 2013

What You Need to Know

Mets Magic Bests Miller

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
It finally happened: A team finally scored four runs off of Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller, who was well on his way into the history books before the Mets slammed on the brakes.

Miller entered yesterday’s assignment at Citi Field riding a remarkable streak. He had pitched at least five innings and allowed no more than three runs in each of his first 13 major-league starts, a feat exceeded only twice and matched only twice more since 1916. Second only to Clayton Kershaw with a 1.91 ERA, the 22-year-old Miller was beginning to enter the Cy Young Award fray and to run away with the Rookie of the Year race, with only the recently promoted Yasiel Puig posing a credible threat.

And then, the Mets stepped in.

After two quick outs in the bottom of the first inning, David Wright doubled, Daniel Murphy singled him home, and Lucas Duda knocked in Murphy with a base hit of his own. Just minutes into the game, the Mets were halfway to the magic number of four.

Three frames later, Duda belted a solo shot to right center, putting the Mets ahead, 3-0, and Miller’s streak on the line. The Cardinals avenged that blast with a homer by Allen Craig in the top of the sixth. But in the home half of the inning, Wright, the first Met to cross the plate, also became the fourth, smacking a fateful gopher ball 427 feet to center field. Marlon Byrd added a big fly off of Seth Maness in the seventh, finishing off the scoring in the 5-1 Mets win.

That fourth run ensured that Miller—who made one start last September before transitioning back to manager Mike Matheny’s bullpen for the playoffs—would not equal the 16-start record of pitching five or more innings without permitting four runs held by Gary Peters (who debuted in 1963) and Steve Rogers (1973). His name will forever stay next to the two right-handers, Brandon Webb (2003) and Josh Johnson (2005-2006), that he equaled his previous time out. Both Webb and Johnson encountered serious arm trouble later in their careers—in Webb’s case six years later, in Johnson’s almost immediately and repeatedly—and Cardinals fans can only hope that the same injury bug won’t bite Miller.

Then again, Miller has defied the odds before. Ranked by Kevin Goldstein as the number-one prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system before Opening Day, 2012, Miller did not exactly justify the lofty evaluation with his first-half performance in the upper minors.

But suddenly, after getting shelled in Triple-A Memphis over the first two months of the 2012 campaign, Miller flipped the switch. In nine starts, from July 20 through August 31, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 66-to-4. And in the last seven of those starts, just as he did in his first 13 starts in the majors, he limited every opponent to no more than three runs.

Even as the Mets brought Miller’s 20-start (dating back to his days in Memphis) streak to an end, the right-hander attacked the zone. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 23 batters he faced, and he induced 16 whiffs on 96 pitches, an impressive clip that contributed to his 10-to-0 K:BB on Wednesday night.

The list of starters who, over the past 11 years, have allowed at least four runs while fanning 10, walking none, and working at least six innings is littered with the sorts of names with which a young hurler would love to be compared. That sort of outing has occurred 21 times since 2003, four times with Curt Schilling on the mound, thrice with Gio Gonzalez, and once each (among others) with Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, Max Scherzer, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, and John Smoltz.

Even in defeat, Miller was in good company. And if the same elbow and shoulder ailments that plagued Johnson and Webb stay away, Miller has proven himself talented enough to appear alongside those names time and time again.

Matchup of the Day
Matt Wieters has not quite developed into the superstar some foresaw him becoming, but of the damage that he has done at the major-league level, the brunt has come at the expense of left-handed pitchers. Wieters entered yesterday afternoon’s game against the Angels with an 820 career OPS versus lefties and only a 716 clip against righties, a split that has widened over the first two-plus months of the 2013 season, to 843 and 666. When a southpaw is on the mound, the switch-hitting Georgia Tech product is one of the top offensive catchers in the game; when a righty takes over, though, he is merely a tick above average.

That trend is not universal, however, and one lefty has turned it on its head. That lefty is the Red Sox’ Felix Doubront, against whom Wieters is 0-for-10 with a walk and seven strikeouts. Doubront is one of only four pitchers—Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, and Mariano Rivera are the others—who have faced Wieters at least 10 times and held him hitless, and his three colleagues in that club are all right-handed. Moreover, only seven pitchers can claim to have fanned the Orioles’ catcher at least seven times, and each of other six has had at least 26 plate appearances in which to amass the punchouts.

Doubront, who endured a rough patch at the beginning of May, but has otherwise been a stable back-of-the-rotation starter for the Red Sox, has generally attacked Wieters with hard stuff on the outer half and changeups aimed at the knees.

As you can see from the above plot, the 25-year-old Venezuelan has made no shortage of middle-middle location mistakes, but each of those high-risk pitches has gone unpunished by a hitter who generally feasts on them. The changeup approach for left-handers versus Wieters is unassailable, provided that they are well-located in the bottom third or below the zone, and Doubront has used that off-speed offering as well as his curveball to set up fastballs in deeper counts. Five of the head-to-head strikeouts between Doubront and Wieters have come on fastballs and sinkers; the changeup and curveball have produced one apiece.

All of that is bad news for Wieters. Here is some good news: The Doubront that he is likely to see on the mound this evening is not the same Doubront that has so thoroughly perplexed him in the past.

Both during his first two tours of the majors as a reliever, and when the Red Sox finally moved him into the starting rotation, Doubront threw his four-seam fastball and sinker in the low-to-mid 90s, sitting between 93 and 94 mph, and touching as high as 96. The matchup page linked above is littered with numbers in that range, and it is also the velocity at which Doubront sat when he whiffed double-digit Orioles in consecutive starts to end the 2012 season.

That was then. This is now—and, by now, I mean Doubront’s most recent start, a six-inning, three-run loss to the Angels on June 8:

Whether the culprit is lingering malaise from the shoulder inflammation that Doubront dealt with in spring training, a change in his mechanics, or some other unknown factor, the fact is, he simply doesn’t throw as hard as he did nine months ago. What once was Doubront’s average fastball is now his reach-back heater, and the 94-95 mph gas on which four of his strikeouts of Wieters came is no longer in the tank.

If the fastball velocity does not magically reappear tonight, look for Doubront to lean more heavily on movement, and to establish early on a cutter that he threw nearly nine percent of the time last spring but ditched almost entirely by September. The cutter is now back in Doubront’s arsenal—he has used it almost eight percent of the time so far in 2013—and the scant evidence available in Wieters’ hitter profile suggests that, for all of his success against left-handers, he can be tied up inside.

As Doubront evolves as a pitcher and Wieters matures as a hitter, the former may need to adjust as much as the latter to sustain his dominance. By planting under-the-hands cutters and low changeups in Wieters’ mind, Doubront might continue to enjoy swing-through success with his fastball, even though the cheddar is no longer as sharp it once was (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday
Good luck staying focused at work this afternoon…

  • The day’s slate begins with a matchup of National League Cy Young Award hopefuls, as the Mets and Cardinals wrap up a three-game set at Citi Field. Adam Wainwright, the owner of a 91-to-7 K:BB, gets the ball for the visitors looking to avenge a loss to Terry Collins’ club at Busch Stadium on May 16. Matt Harvey, who is seventh among qualifying starters with a 2.10 ERA, counters for the home team in search of his first win since May 17 (1:10 p.m. ET).
  • On the outside chance that the Wainwright-Harvey duel fizzles quickly or the much greater chance that it is washed away by rain, another intriguing battle kicks off in Chicago one hour later. The Reds will send Mat Latos to the Wrigley Field bump with a chance to earn a four-game sweep over the Cubs, a squad that the 25-year-old Latos has held to just one home run (by Alfonso Soriano) in 43 1/3 career innings. Cubs manager Dale Sveum will task Jeff Samardzija with dodging the Reds’ brooms, putting his faith in a 28-year-old who has scuffled a bit since tossing his first big-league shutout at U.S. Cellular Field on May 27. Samardzija held Dusty Baker’s lineup to one earned run in each of his two earlier assignments versus Cincinnati, a loss on April 24 and a no-decision on May 4 (2:20 p.m. ET).
  • And, in case you still haven’t had your pitching fill, the evening slate boasts Yu Darvish and Cliff Lee.

    The 26-year-old Darvish did not permit a home run in any of his first five starts this year, then served up nine in a six-game span between April 30 and May 27. He has reined in that problem so far in June, keeping the ball in the yard versus to the Royals in Arlington and against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. Tonight, he’ll welcome the Jays to Texas and try to cool the power-packed bat of Jose Bautista, who slugged three homers in Toronto’s series on the South Side of Chicago. Bautista is 0-for-9 lifetime with three strikeouts against Darvish (8:05 p.m. ET).

    Lee, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from a three-walk outing at Miller Park on June 7, which marked just the second time that he has issued that many free passes since last June 24. The Phillies’ loss in that contest snapped a six-game winning streak behind the 34-year-old lefty, who has a long résumé versus the Twins, but has never toed the rubber at Target Field. Lee amassed a 3.60 ERA over nine career starts at the Metrodome, and his first start at Minnesota’s new park will come against Kevin Correia (8:10 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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