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June 21, 2013
What You Need to Know
The Rocky Road Less Traveled
The Thursday Takeaway
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
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