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June 20, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Outstanding Oriole

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
If you asked knowledgeable fans to choose the top two hitters in the American League over the first two-plus months of the 2013 season, Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis would undoubtedly be popular choices.

The lefty-swinging Oriole and the righty-batting Tiger went toe-to-toe at Comerica Park this week, in a series that came down to yesterday afternoon’s rubber match. Cabrera’s first-inning home run was all the help that Max Scherzer would need to propel the Tigers to victory in the opener. And, after watching his teammates clobber Justin Verlander to even the series while he himself brought an 0-for-4 back to the hotel, Davis decided to take matters into his own hands in game three.

Davis fell into a 6-for-31 lull earlier this month, going homer-less and striking out 11 times between June 4 and June 11. But those who wondered if his third week-long drought of the season might finally spell the end of his surge can officially stop wondering. He went 9-for-25 with four big flies in the six games preceding Tuesday’s 0-fer, and after a one-day hiatus, the 27-year-old turned in his first multi-homer showing since May 29.

With three hits—two long balls and a double—to go with five RBI, Davis paved the way for the Orioles in their 13-3, series-clinching rout, which put the skids on an impressive string of performances by Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello. The 25-year-old Porcello had allowed only one homer in his previous four trips to the mound, lowering his ERA from 6.28 to 4.37 in the process. Davis matched that total with a fourth-inning blast that plated two, and Taylor Teagarden drilled a three-run bomb later in the frame to give the visitors to a 6-1 lead.

The Tigers halved that gap in the bottom of the sixth, sending Chris Tillman to the showers with only 15 outs under his belt, but a leaky bullpen prevented them from mounting a more serious threat. By the ninth, the Orioles enjoyed a comfortable, 9-3, advantage, and Davis was ready to put the cherry on top.

He did so with a two-run round-tripper off of Jose Valverde, who coughed up four runs in the mop-up appearance, sending a 2-2 splitter over 400 feet to right field. Davis’ homer off of Porcello was an opposite-field shot on a first-pitch fastball, and together, the long balls continued an all-fields trend that has been a key component of the slugger’s success.

The ninth-inning blast raised Davis’ triple-slash line for the season to a remarkable .337/.413/.720. He now enjoys a 48-point OPS lead on Cabrera, who is second in the majors at 1.084, and has a 71-point cushion in slugging percentage, where the runner-up is Carlos Gonzalez at .649. Davis’ 26 homers also pace the league—by seven in the junior circuit over Cabrera’s 19 and by five in the majors over Gonzalez’s 21—and, health permitting, he could reach the 50-homer plateau, which has gone untouched by left-handed hitters since Prince Fielder whacked that many in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Orioles improved to 42-31 with the victory and climbed to within one loss (1 ½ games) of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East. Buck Showalter’s squad is 82-51 since July 29, 2012, good for a .616 winning percentage, tops in the majors over that 10-plus-month span.

There is a long road yet to be traveled for Davis, in his stunning quest for Most Valuable Player honors, and for the Orioles, in their bid to capture the division crown for the first time since 1997. But two homers tacked on to a league-leading tally and two wins in a three-game series at a ballpark where the home team had been 22-10 supplied the latest bit of proof that Davis and the Orioles are not going away.

Matchup of the Day
The fourth-place Rays are coming to the Bronx to take on the third-place Yankees, and the opener will pit left-handers Matt Moore and Andy Pettitte against each other this evening. Both will try to rebound from a rough go in their most recent outings, though Moore’s slump—which dates to the beginning of the month—is deeper than Pettitte’s.

Moore was knocked around for six runs in two innings on June 4, coughed up 12 hits and nine runs in five innings on June 9, and struggled through 5 1/3 innings on June 14, taking home a loss in each of those three assignments. Pettitte pitched well in his second start after returning from the disabled list, holding the Mariners to one run in seven innings at Safeco Field, but the Angels shelled him for 11 knocks on June 14, marking the first time that Pettitte had allowed that many hits in one start since June 13, 2009.

If Pettitte is to turn things around this evening, he may need to find an answer for Ben Zobrist, who delivered a two-run double in the fifth inning of their most recent showdown: a 3-0 Rays victory on April 24, in which that two-bagger plated the winning runs. Zobrist is 9-for-22 lifetime against Pettitte with two homers, three walks, and two strikeouts, and things have gotten worse, not better, for the 41-year-old southpaw of late.

As you can see on the afore-linked matchup page, Zobrist made outs in each of his first four plate appearances against Pettitte. But he went 2-for-2 with a single and a big fly in their subsequent encounter, and, for the most part, it has been all Zobrist since then.

There are two notable ways in which Pettitte’s approach to the switch-hitting Zobrist has differed from his game plan against right-handed batters as a whole. Pettitte generally likes to bust opposite-handed swingers inside with his cutter, but while he has done that to Zobrist on occasion, he has relied much more heavily on fastballs and sinkers on the outer half and above the zone. Additionally, he has started almost 40 percent of his meetings with Zobrist with a curveball, a significant hike from its 22 percent first-pitch rate to righties, as shown by the second plot on the matchup page.

Zobrist’s track record when it comes to breaking balls is inconsistent: He has shown some ability to punish mistakes, but his .181 TAv on middle-middle pitches suggests that the skill is not robust. On the other hand, the aforementioned game-winning double came on thigh-high bender, and one of Zobrist’s homers off of Pettitte was the fate of an up-and-in hanger. Rather than an attempt to exploit a weakness, the heavy curveball usage is more likely a response to Zobrist’s solid plate coverage on fastballs and cutters. Pettitte struck him out with five consecutive hardballs on April 24, but he did so by painting the edges of the zone; he’ll need to be similarly sharp to get away with that sort of sequence tonight.

Of course, Pettitte won’t be the only member of this matchup looking to right the ship. Zobrist, whose career splits are roughly even, has had a tough time from the right side of the plate over the first two-and-a-half months of 2013. His OPS versus lefties stands at 596, the result of 87 homer-less plate appearances, over which Zobrist has drawn only six walks and struck out 16 times. If Pettitte is ever going to regain his long-lost upper hand on Zobrist, this might just be the time (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Brandon Cumpton struck out the first five batters he faced in his major-league debut on Saturday, a five-inning, three-run no-decision against the Dodgers, but of the next 18 Los Angeles hitters who stepped in, not a single one went down looking or swinging against him. The 24-year-old righty, who posted a 3.31 ERA and 49-to-22 K:BB over 65 1/3 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis before his promotion, will need to resume his bat-missing ways in today’s series finale at Great American Ball Park. He’ll lock horns with Homer Bailey, who gets the ball for the Reds looking to bounce back from his second six-plus-run clunker in a span of four starts (12:35 p.m. ET).
  • He’s back! Roy Oswalt, that is, after signing a minor-league pact with the Rockies on May 2 and making four tune-up appearances for Double-A Tulsa. Oswalt posted a 2.16 ERA and struck out 25 batters over 33 1/3 innings at Tulsa, giving the eternally pitching-starved Rockies a reason to give him a shot. He made 17 trips to the mound (nine starts) for the Rangers last year, but was smacked around to the tune of a 5.80 ERA, and it’s fair to wonder whether, at age 35, Oswalt still has enough left in his right arm. We’ll get our first answer to that question this evening, when the Rockies kick off a four-game set at Nationals Park. The home team will counter with Jordan Zimmermann (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Is this the long-awaited Albert Pujols surge? Over his last 13 games, dating back to June 4, Pujols is 19-for-56 with four doubles, four homers, seven walks, and only five strikeouts. His OPS has gone from 723 to 787, and it will keep on climbing if the 33-year-old Pujols continues to swing the bat the way he has of late. Tonight’s finale versus the Mariners will bring a formidable challenge, though, as Felix Hernandez toes the rubber for the visitors. Pujols is 4-for-19 lifetime against King Felix, with three doubles, one homer, no walks, and five strikeouts. He’ll try to add to the first three of those totals to back Tommy Hanson this evening (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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