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May 31, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Bronx is Burning

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
“I’m not stupid.”

That was Dillon Gee’s response to a reporter who asked, in the wake of his win over the Yankees last night, whether his job had been imperiled by the spate of clunkers that preceded it. Gee carried a 6.34 ERA into the outing, and he had allowed at least eight hits in each of his three previous starts, including two home runs by opposing pitchers.

A popular breakout candidate on lists published during spring training, Gee seemed to turn a corner last June, when he logged a 3.90 ERA and struck out 32 batters over 32 1/3 innings. But, just two starts into July, he was forced onto the disabled list with a blood clot in his throwing shoulder and underwent season-ending surgery to replace the ailing artery. Despite the lack of a track record of pitchers recovering from similar types of procedures, optimistic Mets fans and fantasy players hungry for sleeper advice set their sights on Gee, wondering if he could pick up where he left off nine months earlier.

And then, they watched the 27-year-old turn into a veritable piñata.

Coming into last night’s game, Gee’s strikeout rate had tumbled from 21 percent in 2012 to 15.9 percent in 2013. His walk rate had simultaneously climbed from 6.3 percent to 7.3 percent. He was inducing fewer ground balls and popups, and more liners and fly balls, the latter of which were leaving the yard at a greater clip than they did in 2012. Gee’s .365 BABIP indicated that the skid wasn’t entirely his fault, but the decline in peripherals alone had rendered him a replacement-level pitcher.

Until last night, that is.

Facing a Yankees lineup still without many of its regulars, Gee pounded the strike zone with all of his offerings, shoving them past every hitter not named Robinson Cano.

A combined 77.8 percent (28 of 36) of Gee’s changeups, curveballs, and sliders went for strikes, and he elicited 16 swings and misses on just 88 total pitches. That sky-high whiff rate yielded a career-high 12 strikeouts for Gee, making him only the sixth pitcher since 1916 to punch out a dozen while kicking and dealing fewer than 90 times. (In case you’re wondering, the existing quintet was quite the hodgepodge, running the control gamut from Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling to Jonathan Sanchez. Mark Guthrie and Matt Perisho rounded out the group.)

The only blemish on Gee’s 7 1/3-inning, four-hit line was Cano’s one-out solo blast in the third inning, which came with the Mets up, 2-0, on a two-run shot by Marlon Byrd in the top of the second. Gee threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 26 batters who dug in, showcasing the robust command that led many to believe he was on the verge of emerging as a rotation fixture in Queens.

After leading the Mets to a four-game, home-and-home sweep of the Yankees, Gee appears to have earned a longer leash from manager Terry Collins, who preached positivity amid the team’s recent lull. The Mets—who had lost six in a row, seven of eight, and 13 of 16 before Sunday’s win over the Braves—have now won five straight. And the rotation, whose only reliable stalwart before this week had been second-year wunderkind Matt Harvey, has unexpectedly driven the recent surge.

Over the last three games of the four-game set, the Mets struck out 34 Yankees batters without issuing a walk. The three starters, Jeremy Hefner, Harvey, and Gee, accounted for 27 of those 34 punchouts. And, if you stretch the timeline back to Sunday’s 4-2 victory over the Braves, in which Shaun Marcum fanned 12 Atlanta hitters without handing out a free pass, the rotation compiled a collective 43-to-1 K:BB during its most recent turn.

Marcum, who is still searching for his first win as a member of the Mets, will get the ball this evening in Miami with a chance to prolong the incredible run. Considering that Mike Redmond’s crew has drawn only 130 walks in 54 games, the second-lowest total in the National League, he could hardly ask for a more favorable matchup (7:10 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Mauer don’t like each other. Well, maybe they do—but their respective baseball skills suggest that they won’t ever be the best of friends.

Mauer leads the American League with a .418 batting average on balls in play. But Iwakuma isn’t keen on allowing hits: Opponents are batting only .220 against the righty when they hit the ball in fair territory and fail to leave the yard, the second-lowest clip in the junior circuit this year.

One factor behind Mauer’s outstanding BABIP is that he is among the best hitters in the majors when it comes to squaring up the ball; his 28.3 percent line-drive rate ranks second in the American League. But Iwakuma isn’t keen on allowing line drives, either: Of the balls put in play against him in 2013, only 13.7 percent have fit into that category, the lowest clip permitted by any qualifying starting pitcher.

Instead of allowing line drives, Iwakuma excels at inducing popups; he has done so at an 11.3 percent rate so far in 2013, the 22nd-highest mark in the league. But Mauer doesn’t particularly enjoy popping the ball up—in fact, he has done so only twice in the last two-plus years. The catcher’s 1.0 percent pop-up clip is the third-lowest in the majors since Opening Day, 2011.

When these two meet up at Target Field this evening, something will have to give.

Last year, Iwakuma’s first stateside campaign, the 32-year-old held Mauer to a 1-for-6 showing—including a single, a strikeout, and a double-play ball—over two games. The hit came on a splitter left up in the zone. Iwakuma earned the twin killing with a well-placed sinker that dotted the knees on the outside black, and he notched the three-pitch strikeout by capitalizing on the element of surprise. The Tokyo native had not thrown his curveball in any of his first four head-to-head showdowns with Mauer, but with the count at 0-2 after a pair of low-90s heaters, Iwakuma slipped in a backdoor bender that froze the hometown hero for strike three.

Considering that Mauer had little firsthand experience from which to develop a plan, it makes sense that Iwakuma’s curveball caught him off guard. As the above table, from Iwakuma’s Brooks Baseball card, shows, the right-hander does not often use the curveball against opposite-handed batters, and when he does, it’s typically a get-me-over offering early in the count. His preferred put-away pitch is far and away the splitter, and the curveball is essentially an afterthought in two-strike situations.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, expect Iwakuma to turn back to his bread-and-butter splitter if Mauer falls behind in the count. Pitchers with strong command of the offering, particularly the ability to place it below the zone, have enjoyed success against Mauer over the years.

Additionally, the 2009 American League MVP struggled with fastballs on the outer third in 2012, after many seasons of punishing hard stuff anywhere in the zone. If the hole still exists, Iwakuma—who has excellent 4.0 percent walk rate attests to his excellent control—is well equipped to try to exploit it (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Angels picked up a win behind Jered Weaver on Wednesday, when their ace tossed six innings of one-run ball in his first start off the shelf, and tonight, another member of their Opening Day rotation will return to the mound. Tommy Hanson, who has been out since early May while coping with the death of his step-brother, gets the ball in game one of a three-game home series versus the Astros, in which visiting skipper Bo Porter will counter with Dallas Keuchel. The 26-year-old Hanson amassed a 3.86 ERA over five starts before leaving the team, but with a 17-to-9 K:BB and six homers allowed, his FIP stands at a bloated 5.70 (Friday, 10:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • After watching Alex Colome fan seven Marlins over 5 2/3 innings in his major-league debut, the Rays will dig back into the well on Saturday and recall Chris Archer to take the bump against the Indians. Archer flashed impressive stuff over six games (four starts) last year, recording 36 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings, and he has collected 52 punchouts over 50 innings for Triple-A Durham this spring. With David Price on the disabled list and Alex Cobb unavailable due to a cut finger, Archer will be thrown into the fire and asked to shut down one of the league’s most potent lineups in a matchup with fellow right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET).
  • If you’re looking for the weekend’s best on-paper duel, the middle match at Busch Stadium might end your search. Adam Wainwright, the only National League starter with a double-digit (12.33) K:BB, is set to square off with Madison Bumgarner, whose ERA has ticked up from 1.55 to 3.12 over his last five trips to the mound. Bumgarner, who has issued at least two walks in each start over that span, equaling the longest such streak of his career (May 7-30, 2011), will try to regain his typically strong control while searching for his second win since April 19. The Giants are just 2-5 in the lefty’s seven most recent starts; the Cardinals, meanwhile, have won eight of Wainwright’s last 10 (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • Rick Porcello has never been known as a strikeout artist, but this month, the sinkerballer has missed plenty of bats. The 24-year-old, who set a career high with 11 strikeouts over eight innings in a no-decision against the Pirates earlier this week, has collected at least six punchouts in four of his last five starts. That run will be challenged this weekend, though, as Porcello is scheduled to take on an Orioles lineup that has fanned only 337 times all season, the third-lowest total in the majors. He’ll look to sustain his whiffing ways while locking horns with Kevin Gausman, who sports an 11.00 ERA through his first two big-league contests, in the series finale at Camden Yards (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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