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June 5, 2013

What You Need to Know

Hollywood's New Hero

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
Down 5-2 in the bottom of the fifth inning of last night’s game, the Dodgers needed a jolt. They got one from Yasiel Puig—in the form of a 443-foot, three-run homer that knotted the score.

Up 7-6 in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Dodgers needed insurance. They got it from Yasiel Puig—in the form of a two-run blast that rendered irrelevant the solo shot that the embattled Carlos Quentin would hit moments later.

Puig, a Cuban import who inked a seven-year, $42 million contract on June 27, 2012, ranked as the Dodgers’ top prospect on Jason Parks’ list heading into the season. With “lumberjack” strength, a “linebacker” build, and the arm to profile well in right field, the 22-year-old wasn’t expected to need much time in the minors before he would be ready to flash his tools at the highest level.

A .313/.383/.599 showing at Double-A Chattanooga, combined with injuries to Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, accelerated further the already speedy timetable. But if the first two days of Puig’s major-league career are any indication, he is undoubtedly ready to roll.

The two-homer outing on Tuesday night came on the heels of a 2-for-4 series opener, which ended on a fly-ball, 9-3 double play. A play made possible by Puig’s impressive arm, which unfurled the throw that nabbed Chris Denorfia for advancing a smidge too far away from first base.

In the history of an organization that has developed and promoted a league-record 16 Rookies of the Year, including the likes of Jackie Robinson and Frank Howard, no newcomer had gone deep twice in either of his first two games. That is, until Puig did on Tuesday night, when he also became the first player to produce a two-homer, five-RBI showing that quickly since Dino Restelli did it for the Pirates in 1949.

The Dodgers’ 9-7 victory, which bumped their record to 25-32 and moved them to within half a game of the fourth-place Padres, came in a game in which Hanley Ramirez—after his second stint on the disabled list this season—joined Puig in the lineup. Crawford and Kemp are absent, but especially in light of the latter’s slump, manager Don Mattingly’s offense may look no less imposing than it did a couple of days ago, with Puig at the top and Ramirez hitting cleanup. That’s big news for a club that won consecutive games for just the second time since May 14-15—and one that can’t afford to sink much further in the standings if it is going to mount a comeback when the disabled list finally thins.

Puig was charged with a throwing error and committed a base-running blunder, failing to score on a ground ball with the Padres’ infield playing back, but he did more than enough to compensate. The homers came off of Clayton Richard and Tyson Ross, but he will soon have opportunities to prove his readiness against superior competition. Crawford and Kemp will eventually return, creating a glut with at least four outfielders for no more than three spots, but Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti will cross that bridge when they come to it.

On Tuesday, the only words that mattered in Los Angeles were “Viva Puig!” And the show will go on in Wednesday’s series finale, in which Puig is likely to be the first Dodgers batter to dig in against Padres starter Jason Marquis (10:10 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
After a brief spurt during which it appeared that Josh Hamilton might be coming out of his early-season slump, the first-year Angels outfielder has slipped right back into a 7-for-39 (.179) ditch. And if history is any guide, he won’t be pleased to see Matt Garza on the rubber this evening.

In 20 head-to-head plate appearances, Garza has limited Hamilton to a pair of singles in 18 at-bats, issuing a couple of walks and recording eight strikeouts along the way. The 29-year-old right-hander will be making his fourth start since coming off the disabled list on May 21, and he has fanned a batter per inning through 16 frames, posting a 3.38 ERA in dates with the Pirates, Reds, and Diamondbacks.

The 311 OPS to which Garza has held Hamilton represents the 32-year-old slugger’s third-worst mark among all pitchers he has faced at least 15 times. Only Zack Greinke (132) and Clay Buchholz (200) have fared better in that department than Garza, whose pitch selection against Hamilton seems well honed to take advantage of the former first-overall pick’s aggressive and indiscriminate approach.

As you can see from the plot above, Garza has employed a four-pitch mix versus Hamilton, relying most heavily on his fastball, sinker, and curveball. But while most of the curves have found the strike zone, most of the fastballs and sinkers have not. Hamilton has been willing, over the years, to expand the strike zone high and wide, and Garza has capitalized on his free-swinging tendencies by getting him to chase. Case in point: this strikeout on September 26, 2009, in which none of the four fastballs and sinkers were remotely close to the strike zone, yet nonetheless induced three swings.

The second plot on the matchup page reveals another element of Garza’s strategy when Hamilton is in the box. Hamilton, whose 56.2 percent swing rate is the second-highest in the American League in 2013 (trailing only Adam Jones), seldom sees a breaking ball he doesn’t like. Garza has tried to exploit that aggressiveness by starting nearly 40 percent of Hamilton’s plate appearances against him with the bender, a far greater clip than his typical first-pitch-curveball usage. And although both of Hamilton’s hits off of Garza came on the curve, it has also enabled Garza to pitch backward effectively, as he did to elicit this popup on a high fastball.

The lopsided results in their past meetings put the onus on Hamilton to adjust, and Garza is likely to test his discipline again this evening. If he doesn’t, it might be another long night at the office for a hitter that has endured plenty of them this season (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Let’s play Name that Upton. Here are their #arbitraryendpoints stats since May 18:

    Upton

    Average

    XBH (HR)

    Walks

    Strikeouts

    Upton 1

    .200

    3 (3)

    2

    16

    Upton 2

    .194

    1 (0)

    6

    25


    The links in the table will reveal their identities, but as you might have guessed by the inclusion of the game, the younger Upton, who was one of the league’s most potent hitters during the season’s first month, has fallen into a major lull, struggling even to match the output of his scuffling older brother. Justin Upton’s slump hasn’t hindered the Braves—Fredi Gonzalez’s team is 13-4 over the 17-game span—but they would certainly benefit from his getting back on track. Meanwhile, B.J. Upton, who has homered twice in the last three games, is slowly working his way toward respectability.

    Things don't figure to be easy for the righty-swinging brothers tonight, though, because Pirates lefty Wandy Rodriguez has clamped down on opposite-handed opponents to the tune of a .233/.272/.406 triple-slash line and a 42-to-9 K:BB this season. The Uptons are a combined 4-for-21 with two long balls lifetime versus the 34-year-old, who has permitted more than three runs in a start only once in 2013 (12:10 p.m. ET).
  • On the heels of arguably his finest outing of the season, a 7 1/3-inning, one-run masterpiece against the Red Sox, in which he struck out 10 without walking a batter, CC Sabathia will take on his former team, the Indians, at Yankee Stadium. Sabathia’s fastball, which sat between 92-93 mph and touched 94 mph, regained some of the zip that it had lost earlier in the spring, and his slider, looking as sharp as ever, did most of the dirty work. The 32-year-old southpaw may need every bit of that enhanced arsenal against the Tribe, which leads the league in runs scored and OPS versus lefties, to win the matinee matchup with Corey Kluber (1:05 p.m. ET).
  • The John Lackey that the Red Sox thought they were getting when they inked him to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in December 2009 has made fleeting appearances this season, after recovering from Tommy John surgery and an early biceps ailment. Lackey’s 23.6 percent strikeout rate is the highest clip of his career, and his 7.3 percent walk rate is the lowest that he has posted since 2009, his last year with the Angels before the aforementioned free-agent fiasco. Now 34 years old, Lackey could be on the verge of a renaissance, but he didn’t look the part in his most recent outing, a six-inning, three-run loss to the Phillies, in which he served up three solo shots. He’ll attempt to bounce back in a tough assignment versus the Rangers, who are set to counter with Alexi Ogando, fresh off a two-plus-week stint on the disabled list with a biceps strain of his own (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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