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June 21, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Rocky Road Less Traveled

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
The Rockies on Thursday turned to their seventh starting pitcher of the season, the oldest one to toe the rubber for Walt Weiss’ squad this year. And while you might not know it from a glance at the scoreboard, which showed a 5-1 victory for the Nationals, in Roy Oswalt, general manager Dan O’Dowd may have found a diamond in the rough.

Oswalt signed a minor-league hitch with the Rockies on May 2 and reported to Double-A Tulsa a few weeks later to prepare for an eventual return to the majors. The contract included both performance bonuses and a late-June out clause, but it wasn’t merely the language in the deal that forced O’Dowd’s hand this week. Oswalt amassed a 2.16 ERA over five starts for the Drillers, to go with a 25-to-7 K:BB in 33 1/3 innings, and he tossed 8 1/3 shutout frames in his final tune-up outing on June 14.

Last night, Oswalt supplied compelling evidence that there is gas left in his 35-year-old tank:

According to the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data, Oswalt routinely hit 92-93 mph with his fastball and could reach back for 94-95 when he needed it, both notable because he sat in the 91-mph range while serving as a swingman for the Rangers last year. He mixed in a passable changeup and exhibited excellent control of his curveball, earning called, swinging, or foul-ball strikes with eight of the nine hooks that he threw.

The outing was far from flawless. In the second inning, Oswalt hung a 1-1 changeup that Ian Desmond walloped 419 feet for a solo home run. In the fifth, Adam LaRoche pounced on a grooved, 2-2 fastball and drilled it to deep right-center field for a two-run triple. But amid those mistakes, which led to three of the four runs with which he was charged—the other scored on a fourth-inning single by Kurt Suzuki—Oswalt also enjoyed stretches of dominance, dominance of the sort that fans of the Rockies have seldom seen.

Seventy of his 101 pitches went for strikes, 17 of those strikes were of the swing-and-miss variety, and 14 of those whiffs were induced by the fastball, which blew away numerous Nationals batters. Oswalt’s impressive velocity and control helped him to log 11 strikeouts without issuing a walk, a ratio that renders somewhat forgivable the nine hits and four runs that accompanied those numbers on his final line.

In the Rockies’ first 73 games of the 2013 season, only thrice had a starter notched at least eight strikeouts, and only once had that feat been accomplished by a pitcher who did not permit a base on balls. Moreover, Oswalt became the first Rockies starter to fan at least 11 and walk none in an outing since John Thomson did it on October 7, 2001. The only other hurler in franchise history to post a K:BB of 11-to-0 or better was Pedro Astacio, who set the standard in the second game of a doubleheader on August 15, 1999, and remains the only Rockie ever to pull it off at Coors Field.

All of those strikeouts came at a cost, knocking Oswalt out of the game after only five innings of work, but the whiffs were a positive harbinger, and from a long-term perspective, Thursday’s inefficiency and loss may be bumps in the road.

“There was plenty of stuff there, plenty of arm,” Weiss told reporters, praising Oswalt’s heater and noting that “a few tough breaks” contributed to the four runs with which he was tagged. After weeks of watching Jeff Francis and Jon Garland struggle to miss bats and barrels, Oswalt’s debut held considerable promise for a team that dropped to .500 but is still in the hunt in an injury-marred National League West.

Assuming that the Rockies stick to a five-man rotation, the veteran right-hander’s next assignment will come on Wednesday at Fenway Park, putting him in line to make his Coors Field debut sometime the following week in a series against the Dodgers. The Rockies’ setback last night was their fourth in a row, but although they lost the battle in the nation’s capital, a healthy Oswalt would significantly boost their 1-in-6 odds of winning the war.

Matchup of the Day
For years, Ricky Nolasco walked few batters and struck out plenty, but perennially underperformed those peripherals due to a bloated home-run rate and abundant line drives. Then, after he signed a three-year, $26.5 million extension in December 2010, the right-hander’s strikeout clips began to tumble, and his trade value went with them. Nolasco was one of the few Marlins veterans that survived the team’s offseason purge, perhaps because no teams were willing to meet Larry Beinfest’s asking price, or perhaps because of pressure to keep at least one lucrative contract on the payroll.

In either case, Nolasco has rewarded Beinfest and the Marlins with a renaissance of sorts. His strikeout percentage, which went from a career-high 24.8 in 2009 to 22.1 in 2010 to 16.6 in 2011 and all the way down to 15.5 in 2012, has bounced back up to 19.5, enough to offset a modest uptick in the 30-year-old’s walk rate, which at 5.9 percent would be the highest he has posted in a full big-league season. If Beinfest plans to reevaluate the trade market for Nolasco in the weeks leading up to the July 31 deadline, he might find more suitors than he did this winter, particularly with a plethora of contenders potentially looking for veteran rotation depth.

Nolasco could continue building up his value with a strong effort in game two of four between the Marlins and Giants, which will be played in the Southern California native’s favorite major-league setting. The pride of Rialto High School is a perfect 4-0 lifetime at AT&T Park with—this is not a misprint—a 0.87 ERA. Nolasco twirled a two-hit shutout in his first-ever visit to San Francisco, back on August 19, 2008, and he has held the Giants to no more than one run in each of his three subsequent trips to China Basin.

But all of those starts came before the Giants plucked Hunter Pence from the Phillies at last year’s trade deadline. Pence is just 6-for-26 in his career against Nolasco, which would mean that the Giants, who are currently without Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval, might be no better equipped to handle the Marlins’ ace than they have been in previous years. Except, of the half-dozen knocks that Pence has notched off of Nolasco, one is a double and four are home runs. His average is just .231, but his OPS is a stellar 1.016, the 10th-highest among active big-leaguers who have faced Nolasco at least 20 times.

All you need to know about Nolasco’s approach to Pence is evident from a cursory glance at the above plot, which comes from the afore-linked matchup page. Nolasco has thrown Pence more sliders than fastballs, and most of those sliders have been outside of the strike zone, darting down and away from the right-handed-hitting outfielder. And here’s why:

Pence is a solid fastball hitter with good plate coverage on virtually anything thrown anywhere except up and in. A lack of discipline is what generally gets him into trouble. And nowhere is he less disciplined than on sliders off the outside corner or below the hitting area.

Nolasco, as his approach demonstrates, is keenly aware of that weakness. But it’s interesting to note that, even though he has spun slider after slider at Pence in deeper counts, he has actually used it less often on first pitches than he has to right-handed hitters as a whole. Nolasco learned the hard way on September 17, 2008, that he can’t simply slip a get-me-over fastball past Pence without paying the price. And sliders in the strike zone, like this one, which turned into a single in their last head-to-head showdown before Pence headed to San Francisco, aren’t of much use, either. In two-strike counts, though, spinning slider after slider, down and away, generally earns the pitcher his desired result.

With little reason to alter his strategy, expect Nolasco to mix up his first pitches to Pence, and to lean heavily on the slider when he smells a strikeout in the offing. The damage that Pence has done to Nolasco has largely come on location mistakes of the sort that the right-hander should be able to avoid. If Nolasco keeps Pence at bay, it will be up to the rest of the Giants to give him his first rude welcome to a yard in which he has made himself comfortable for years (10:15 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Five major-league players with at least 150 at-bats under their belts this season are hitting at least .330 with an OPS over 950. Miguel Cabrera is one, Chris Davis is another. Those two are easy. Two Rockies, Michael Cuddyer and the currently disabled Troy Tulowitzki, have also met those benchmarks. That’s four—can you name the fifth?

    Four years removed from his 35-homer breakout in 2009, Adam Lind is hitting as well as ever. The Blue Jays’ first baseman, who turns 30 on July 17, might be enjoying the quietest dominant offensive campaign in the majors, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Lind’s $7 million team option for 2014 (and subsequent options for 2015 and 2016), which was considered a team-friendly no-brainer when he inked the extension in April 2010, then seemed like an obvious buy-out for the Blue Jays as recently as this spring, now once again appears to be an asset for general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Lind and the Jays are preparing to welcome the Orioles to the Rogers Centre this weekend, and the University of South Alabama product will try to improve on a 1-for-8 career line against Jason Hammel in the opener (7:07 p.m. ET).
  • After a strong first month and a half of the 2013 season, Jon Lester has slipped into a major rut. The left-hander’s ERA stood at a robust 2.73 following a seven-inning, two-run outing at Tropicana Field on May 15, but since then, he has allowed 29 runs (28 earned) on 47 hits and 18 walks in 35 innings. Opponents have batted .324/.406/.559 off of Lester during that six-start span, which, for the sake of emphasis, is about what Andrew McCutchen (.327/.400/.553) hit last year. Tonight’s matchup with the Tigers at Comerica Park is hardly an optimal venue for a struggling starter, but the 29-year-old southpaw will need to battle in order to give the Red Sox a chance to beat Doug Fister in game two of four between the first-place clubs (Friday, 7:08 p.m. ET).
  • The last time Zack Greinke faced the Padres, his outing was cut short by a benches-clearing brawl—spurred by what Carlos Quentin perceived as a purpose pitch—in which the first-year Dodger suffered a broken collarbone. The 29-year-old righty missed a month while recovering from that injury and has found consistency to be an elusive goal since returning to the mound on May 15. He permitted five runs in as many innings in a loss at PNC Park last weekend and has struck out more than five batters only once in his seven starts since coming off the disabled list. Quentin, who is nursing a shoulder injury, may not be in the lineup for the Padres, but Greinke would settle for a victory in his quest for revenge. To get it, he’ll need to outduel Edinson Volquez (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • Yu Darvish. Adam Wainwright. On national television. In primetime. There was hope, as recently as yesterday, that the matchup of Cy Young Award contenders might materialize, but the Rangers have shuffled their rotation, and the Sunday Night Baseball assignment will instead fall on the shoulder of rookie righty Nick Tepesch. The 25-year-old Missourian has coughed up at least five runs in each of his last three starts, watching his ERA climb from 3.88 to a season-high 4.84, and he’ll need to rediscover his early-season form to keep up with Wainwright, who suffered his first loss since May 16 on Tuesday night (Sunday, 8:05 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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