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June 17, 2013

What You Need to Know

Blanks Shoots Padres to Top

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
In 2010, the Padres came within a game of the National League West title, finishing a surprising 90-72 and fighting the eventual World Series champion Giants through the season’s final day. The offseason and spring training came and went, and five games into the 2011 campaign, the Padres were 3-2.

Bud Black’s squad carried that winning record into an off day, which the Friars spent waiting for the Dodgers to arrive at Petco Park, and then suffered a 4-2 setback in extra innings that dropped their record to 3-3. The fleeting 48 hours that the Padres spent at 3-2, between their victory on April 6, 2011, and their defeat on April 8, would be the last that they would enjoy with a winning record for more than two calendar years.

But all of that changed this weekend, when the Padres welcomed the Diamondbacks to San Diego for a three-game series, which Black’s crew entered with a 32-34 ledger and a three-game winning streak under its belts. The Padres proceeded to hold Kirk Gibson’s lineup to just six runs over the course of the series while plating 12 of their own, enough to bring the brooms to the yard for the second time in a week and the fourth time this season. More importantly, the three victories brought San Diego’s record to 35-34, halting a stretch of .500-or-below performance that spanned exactly 800 days.

The pivotal win on Sunday afternoon came on the left shoulder of Clayton Richard and the thump in the bats of Will Venable and Kyle Blanks. Richard attacked the potent Diamondbacks offense, throwing first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 28 batters he faced, and scattered seven hits over eight innings, notching only one strikeout but inducing 16 ground balls along the way. Huston Street, who returned from the disabled list to pick up his 12th save of the season on Saturday, notched his 13th in the finale, retiring the ninth-inning side with 12 strikes in 14 pitches.

Venable’s solo shot in the bottom of third inning avenged a run-scoring single by Ian Kennedy in the top half of the frame, and Richard took care of the rest, holding the line until Blanks dug in with two on and two away in the last of the eighth. The big man took a big swing at a backed-up slider from David Hernandez and produced a big fly off the Western Metal Supply Co. building that led directly to the Padres’ big, 4-1 win.

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Blanks, once projected to become the first baseman of the future in San Diego, showcased his power by slugging 10 home runs in a 54-game cameo in 2009. But Blanks’ stock quickly dimmed due to injuries and his inability to settle into a groove when healthy. Blanks underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and an operation to repair his shoulder labrum last year, and he logged only 92 big-league plate appearances from 2010 through 2012.

Now, he’s back—and with seven long balls in 45 games, Blanks has climbed through the window that opened when Yonder Alonso was placed on the disabled list with a fractured wrist in early June. The 26-year-old Blanks is no longer as highly regarded as Alonso, who was part of the trade package that lured the Padres into sending Mat Latos to Cincinnati, but if he keeps hitting, Black will find it difficult to take him out of the everyday order even after Alonso returns.

And the Padres, still in fourth place but only two games out of first in the crowded West race, may need all the hitting help they can get to stay afloat. Black’s team won the battle on Sunday, but it may have lost the war, as Everth Cabrera—the leader of the team’s recent charge—suffered a hamstring strain on a stolen-base attempt negated by a Chase Headley foul ball. Cabrera, who had three hits on Sunday to raise his triple-slash line to .305/.382/.418, ranks atop the majors with 31 stolen bases and has been one of the top sparkplugs in the circuit. Combine that with strong defense at shortstop, and you’ve got a player worth nearly three wins in less than half a season.

With Alonso still on the shelf, Cameron Maybin back on the disabled list with ligament damage in his knee, Jedd Gyorko nursing a groin strain, and Carlos Quentin’s shoulder on the verge of forcing him to join them, the Padres can scarcely afford to lose Cabrera.

To that, the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, and Rockies say: “Welcome to our world.”

Arizona is without Adam Eaton, Aaron Hill, Brandon McCarthy, and J.J. Putz, and its hopes of getting a midseason rotation boost from Daniel Hudson were dashed when the right-hander re-tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The Giants’ lineup has been a hodgepodge in the absence of Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, and Pablo Sandoval, and Ryan Vogelsong is not expected to return until late July. The Rockies lost Troy Tulowitzki to a broken rib last week. And the Dodgers have enough walking-wounded players to fill a hospital ward.

In a division so ravaged by injuries, depth and doctors could make all the difference. And after six straight wins, the Padres’ odds of pulling off a stunner are now just a smidge worse than the preseason-favorite Dodgers’ chances of returning to the top.

Matchup of the Day
With a .245/.309/.414 career triple-slash line allowed, Travis Wood has never been unacceptably bad against right-handed hitters, but improving on that performance could mean the difference between being a rotation fixture and living his career on the fringe. To this point in 2013, the 26-year-old Wood has moved in the former direction, amassing a 2.65 ERA over 13 starts. And his success versus opposite-handed batters is one reason why.

Skeptics will point to Wood’s peripherals, which indicate that he has been blessed with good fortune and that the excellent baseline performance is a mirage. Wood’s .214 BABIP will surely tick up, and his reliance on fly-ball outs is likely to bite him eventually, considering that he has served up only six homers in 85 innings so far. Much of that logic is sound, but Wood has also shown the ability to miss barrels often enough to remain effective.

Opponents are hitting line drives 19.1 percent of the time this season, compared to 21.8 percent in 2012, and they are popping up 13.9 percent of the balls they put in play, a healthy increase from the 8.6 percent clip he induced last year, when his BABIP was also a suspiciously low .244. A good deal of that barrel-missing improvement has come versus righties, who in 2012 hit .241/.316/.463 with a .254 BABIP, but are off to a .202/.262/.316 start this year with a .222 average on balls in play.

Wood has approached opposite-handed hitters a bit differently this year than he did a year ago, swapping some changeups for sliders. One motivation behind the shift is evident in Wood’s batted-ball data from 2012:

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Right-handed hitters squared up the changeup more often than they did any of Wood’s other offerings, and the slider fared much better in comparison, especially with regard to line-drive and pop-up rates. The dataset for this year comprises a rather small sample, but both pitches have contributed to the improvement in Wood’s batted-ball profile over the first two months. Sustaining that improvement will be the key to Wood’s attempt to continue defying the peripherals that suggest imminent regression.

He’ll be dealt a formidable challenge in tonight’s game against the Cardinals, whose lineup is loaded with right-handed bats, many of whom have gotten the better of Wood in their past encounters. Matt Holliday is 6-for-20 with two home runs. Yadier Molina is 5-for-17 with a pair of big flies. Carlos Beltran is 3-for-9 with a long ball. And Allen Craig, whose matchup page is linked above, is 5-for-13 and has also left the yard twice, including a solo shot on May 7 of this year.

The good news for Wood is that in that game, his most recent meeting with Mike Matheny’s lineup, Craig’s homer was the only run that the Cardinals pushed across. He tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, allowing five hits and two walks, and striking out eight. Wood’s pitch selection in that win reflected the decrease in changeup usage and the uptick in sliders, and considering the result, he seems likely to take a similar plan to the hill tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Remember when Mark Reynolds was sporting an OPS north of 1.000, and the Indians sent a slumping Lonnie Chisenhall down to Triple-A, enabling Reynolds to slide over to third base? Well, since May 13, the day following Chisenhall’s demotion, Reynolds is just 19-for-122 (.156) with three home runs and 43 strikeouts, a slump so deep that his OPS has plunged more than 230 points over a month and a few days. The 29-year-old Reynolds, who came over from Baltimore on a one-year, $6 million contract signed on December 9, may struggle in his bid to begin climbing out of the hole this evening, as he’s just 1-for-10 lifetime with six strikeouts against Royals starter James Shields. Indians manager Terry Francona will counter Shields with Ubaldo Jimenez, who blanked the Royals for seven innings on April 29 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • After a rough April and first two-thirds of May, Dillon Gee has bounced back nicely of late, shaving his ERA from 6.34 to 4.84 by permitting only one run in three consecutive starts. Gee, a preseason breakout candidate who pitched well in 2012 before succumbing to a blood clot in his shoulder, has dealt with flexor tendinitis in his right elbow since the beginning of the regular season and was fortunate to get two extra days of rest before his victory over the Cardinals. He’ll tackle the game one assignment at Turner Field and lock horns with Tim Hudson, who also has pitched well of late, but has received only four runs of support in his last three starts (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Jason Vargas’ first meeting with his former team, the Mariners, ended in a tough-luck loss on April 28, when he pitched all eight innings for the Angels and allowed only two runs, but was outshined by the tandem of Hisashi Iwakuma, Carter Capps, and Tom Wilhelmsen. Tonight, Vargas will try to exact his revenge against Aaron Harang, who tossed a two-hit shutout versus the Astros in his most recent trip to the mound. The shutout was Harang’s second of the season—his first came on May 27 against the Padres—but in his other eight starts, the 6-foot-7, 261-pound right-hander was smacked around to the tune of an 8.35 ERA. The Angels did a good deal of that damage in their two meetings with Harang, plating a combined 12 runs over 6 2/3 innings on April 26 and May 21 (10:05 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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