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July 1, 2013

What You Need to Know

Buccos Bucking Losing Trend

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
The Indians and White Sox kicked off the weekend slate with a doubleheader at U.S. Cellular Field, where the South Side nine deepened its plunge from second place a year ago to the cellar in 2013. Two days later, the senior-circuit portion of the docket concluded at PNC Park, where the home team continued its rise to the top.

After Hector Santiago worked around a pair of walks by striking out the side in the weekend’s first frame, the White Sox went to work against Indians starter Trevor Bauer, forcing the young right-hander to labor for the two outs that he managed to record. Robin Ventura’s club batted around and plated five runs before Matt Albers came to the rescue, stranding the bases loaded to keep the game within reach.

As it turned out, that reach was rather broad. Santiago did not escape the top of the second, and only a double-play ball coaxed by Brian Omogrosso off the bat of Drew Stubbs saved him from further embarrassment. But the Indians weren’t satisfied with just one round of “everybody hits.” They played it again with Omogrosso in the top of the fourth, scoring six more times in that frame before sending him off with three insurance runs in the fifth.

The White Sox dropped a four-spot on Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen in the last of the fifth, but, by then, a game that had all the makings of a laugher had become one—only with the shoe on the other foot. And, in case you’ve forgotten, this four-hour-and-two-minute, 19-10 decision—in which the Indians became the first team in nearly half a decade to win a contest despite their starting pitcher failing to complete the first inning and allowing more than five runs—was just the opening salvo of a true twinbill.

How could things get worse? Well, Jose Quintana getting knocked around for four runs in the top of the first didn’t help. But the White Sox bounced back from that setback with one in the bottom of the first, one more in the bottom of the fifth, and four in the last of the sixth, immediately after the Indians tacked one on. Two insurance tallies in the bottom of the eighth gave Addison Reed a three-run lead to protect to end the day on a high note.

And that is when things got worse. Reed coughed up the save opportunity five batters later, and the sixth, Nick Swisher, homered to put Cleveland on top for good. Vinnie Pestano struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth, and the Indians completed the doubleheader sweep. They went on to secure a four-game series sweep—and with it a share of first place in the Central—on Sunday afternoon, when Justin Masterson added to the White Sox’ misery with a six-hit shutout, in which Ventura’s hitters grounded into four double plays.

“All year, it’s been frustrating,” said Dylan Axelrod, who took home a no-decision in the 4-3 defeat on Saturday, a fitting way to describe the team’s 32-47 effort to date. At the 79-game mark of last season, the White Sox were 42-37, 10 games ahead of this year’s pace and four spots ahead in the division standings. They’ve gone from first to worst in less than a year—buoyed in part by good fortune in 2012, felled in part by bad luck in 2013, but first to worst nonetheless. A fire sale may not be far off.

***

While frustration reigns on the South Side of Chicago, jubilation has taken foot in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates, with a 14-inning victory over the Brewers in the series finale, reached the midway point of their season at 51-30. The Bucs’ .625 winning percentage is the best in baseball. They need only 30 more wins to finish at or above .500 for the first time since 1992. And—pausing for a moment to give superstitions Pirates fans, those turned cynical by the two decades of misery, a chance to knock on wood—this team has reason to dream much bigger.

PECOTA now projects Clint Hurdle’s squad to win 92 games, enough to raise its odds of securing a playoff spot above 92 percent and to give it a roughly 37 percent chance of winning the National League Central. With nine games remaining against the Reds and 14 showdowns left with the Cardinals—five of them in the heat of the trade deadline, between July 29 and August 1—the Pirates will need to earn their stripes. But with every victory, they seem to give fans another reason to believe.

The bullpen, critical to the team’s success during the first half, came up as big as ever on Sunday afternoon. An hour-long rain delay brought Charlie Morton’s day to an abrupt end with only two innings in the books. In came Vin Mazzaro to toss five spotless frames. Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Jason Grilli, and Mark Melancon took their turns posting zeros. And Tony Watson chucked three of them onto the PNC Park scoreboard, facing the minimum, just as Mazzaro did, before Russell Martin’s walk-off single sent the 35,351 in attendance home happy.

That 35,351 figure actually ranked as a disappointment, because it snapped the afore-tweeted streak of five consecutive sellouts. Still, the Pirates have drawn more than 35,000 fans to six straight home games, embodying the Field of Dreams-based adage, “If you build it, he they will come.” They will try to keep on rolling, both on the field and in the stands, when the cross-state rival Phillies come to town on Tuesday night.

Matchup­ of the Day
Ninety players have stepped into the box against Yovani Gallardo at least 15 times in their big-league careers. Only one of those players has failed to earn his way on base in all 15 of his attempts. That player is Denard Span, the leadoff man for the Nationals, the team Gallardo is scheduled to face tonight.

Span is hitless in 14 at-bats versus Gallardo, and the other plate appearance resulted in a sacrifice bunt. He has struck out three times, popped out three times, flied out twice, grounded out four times, and reached on an error. Of the 44 pitchers that Span has locked horns with 15 or more times, Gallardo is the only one that has entirely shut him down.

A left-handed hitter acquired from the Twins for pitching prospect Alex Meyer on November 29, 2012, Span is off to a disappointing start in the nation’s capital. Instead of setting the table for the likes of Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, and—when healthy—Bryce Harper, the 29-year-old has become a symptom of the club-wide malaise that has left the Nationals hovering around the .500 mark at the halfway point of the season. And while Span’s .146/.222/.171 triple-slash line versus left-handed pitchers accounts for a good deal of his slump, tonight, he’ll put his .300 average against righties to the test while taking on one that he has never been able to solve.

Over five years in the majors, Span has proved to be a solid low-ball hitter against opposite-handed hurlers with the ability to slap pitches high and away. He is prone to getting tied up inside and vulnerable to hard stuff the low-and-away corner, and he is not at all adept at handling backdoor breaking balls.

Gallardo has sporadically tested that back-door weakness with his slider and curveball, but in general, he has relied on his fastball to retire Span, throwing it on more than 80 percent of his first pitches to the former Twin, compared to a roughly 55-percent clip to lefty hitters as a whole. Span went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt in their most recent meeting, on June 15, 2012, when Gallardo struck him out twice. The first punchout came on an inside-third fastball set up by soft stuff away. The second began with a curveball—but, more saliently, it was the product of Gallardo’s ability to change eye levels with his heater while keeping Span on his heels with pitch selection.

If there’s any good news for Span, it’s that the Gallardo who will stand 60.5 feet away from him this evening is not the same pitcher he saw around this time last year.

Based on the graph above, from Gallardo’s Brooks Baseball pitcher card, the 27-year-old has experienced a steady decline in fastball velocity, which, oddly, has not translated to his changeup. As a result, in addition to blowing fewer hitters away than he did in the early years of his big-league career, Gallardo is also suffering from a diminished ability to keep hitters off-balance with his off-speed arsenal. Put those two factors together, and the sudden dip in the right-hander’s strikeout rate, from 23.7 percent in 2012 to 18.8 percent so far this year, becomes unsurprising.

Gallardo appeared, during a three-start stretch last month, to have overcome that hurdle. He tossed 21 innings without permitting an earned run in wins over the Marlins and Reds and a no-decision against the Astros, compiling a 15-to-5 K:BB along the way. But his early-season struggles returned on June 26, when the Cubs visited the Brewers at Miller Park and tagged him for five runs (three earned) on eight hits and four walks over just four innings.

The matchup with the Nationals, whose leadoff man Gallardo has thoroughly perplexed in their past encounters, is a break for the righty. But if the shaky fastball—the pitch on which Gallardo has leaned nearly 75 percent of the time with Span in the box—prevents Gallardo from sustaining his dominance over Span, even the scuffling Nationals could open the door for an early exit in the first game of four in Washington, D.C. (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey brought his vintage—well, 2012—form to the bump in Tampa Bay last week, tossing a two-hit shutout in which he struck out six batters, his highest total since May 14. The right-hander has disappointed Blue Jays fans over his first three months with the team, compiling a 4.72 ERA to go with a 78-to-41 K:BB, but if Dickey succeeds in righting his own ship, he could help to continue the club’s recent surge. Next up is a home date with the hard-hitting Tigers on Canada Day, the lone matinee on the Monday slate. In addition to keeping the ball down against Jim Leyland’s big bats, Dickey ought to be cautious when facing Omar Infante; the second baseman is 13-for-28 lifetime against him with a pair of home runs, both authored while the pitcher was a Met and the batter a Marlin (1:07 p.m. ET).
  • As the Giants weigh their trade deadline priorities, one player who could impact general manager Brian Sabean’s plans is rookie left-hander Michael Kickham, who has shared with righty Chad Gaudin the duty of supplanting the injured Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation. Kickham was knocked around by the Athletics in his major-league debut, but he pitched well in Los Angeles on June 25 before running out of steam in a costly sixth inning. The Giants’ sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, Kickham is running out of chances to impress the brain trust in time to avoid another ticket to Triple-A Fresno. After allowing two Dodgers home runs in his last outing, Kickham will need to show better command to avoid an early exit at Great American Ball Park this evening (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Matt Moore took effectively wild to a whole new level in his last trip to the mound, walking six Blue Jays batters but writhing out of jam after jam by striking out 11 of them. The 24-year-old became the first pitcher to complete six innings while issuing at least a half-dozen bases on balls and fanning at least 11 hitters since Johan Santana did it on May 27, 2009. Other pitchers who have met those benchmarks since 1990 include Pedro Martinez, Hideo Nomo, Kerry Wood, and Randy Johnson, who did it four times.

    Clearly, the win over Toronto, in which Moore extended his homer-less game streak to three, put the young southpaw in some exclusive company. Moore has served up only one gopher ball over his last eight starts, but shaky command and control left him with a 26-to-20 K:BB in June, which in turn bloated his ERA for the month to 8.39. Now that the calendar has flipped to July, Moore will aim for a tidier evening at Minute Maid Park, where the host Astros are set to counter with Dallas Keuchel (8:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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