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July 2, 2013

What You Need to Know

No Trouble with the Curve

by Zachary Levine

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The Monday Takeaway
It was the first day of July, so it was the first day that we were federally mandated to spin every baseball story toward the trade deadline. Not that the dueling meltdowns of Monday evening are all that difficult to attach to trade storylines. While Yovani Gallardo and Mike Kickham both lost games on Monday night, their evenings signified much bigger problems.

Their poor outings, both on the road against teams with struggling offenses, were pretty much simultaneous with deficits and concerns mounting. Gallardo was lit up by the Nationals as Bryce Harper went deep in his first at-bat back from the disabled list, and he wasn’t yanked until after he gave up eight runs in three innings. Flipping channels, you saw the Reds teeing off on Kickham for seven runs on nine hits in 2 2/3 innings.

For the Brewers, who are going nowhere, the problem is obvious. They don’t have a great farm system, and Gallardo was one of the pieces they seemingly could trade to get out of what appears to be a rut even with Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura’s emergence. This outing definitely didn’t help.

For the Giants, the problem is decidedly more complicated. Much was made even last year when they were winning the World Series about their lack of a sixth starter, whether they were fortunate not to need one as in 2012 or struggling without one in 2013.

Just looking at production, the Giants’ rotation has fallen from fourth in the National League in ERA last year to 13th this year. Using FRA or other peripheral-based stats paint a slightly better picture in places, but they’re still going to be in the market for upgrades at the deadline.

The problem, though, is how many it’s going to take to make this a competitive rotation again. Staff-wide, they’ve gone the wrong direction.

Pitcher

2012 ERA

2013 ERA

Madison Bumgarner

3.37

3.08

Matt Cain

2.79

4.29

Tim Lincecum

5.18

4.64

Ryan Vogelsong

3.37

7.19

Barry Zito

4.15

4.53

All starters

3.73

4.57

The good news is that nobody is running away with the National League West. Their loss, combined with the Diamondbacks’ loss, still only put them three games back of first place with 80 to play. The bad is that now they’re looking for a seventh starter and maybe an eighth, having made no progress over the last couple years even to develop a sixth.

Matchup of the Day
Surprisingly, the Dodgers-Rockies game is one of the most important matchups of the day, and depending on your point of view, the surprising part is different. A foreseer from the perspective of the preseason would probably be surprised to see Colorado in a tight pack battling for NL West supremacy, whereas just a couple weeks ago, you might be shocked to see the Dodgers just 3 1/2 games out.

Arguably the best matchup within this matchup is Clayton Kershaw vs. Carlos GonzalezCy Young candidate vs. Silver Slugger candidate. As division rivals, they’ve met plenty of times, the latter seeing 109 pitches from the former. And a very curious pattern has developed.

Gonzalez, a left-handed hitter with a pretty defined platoon split, is still an excellent hitter against lefties when he swings at curveballs. So the play here is to keep it pretty fastball- and slider-heavy, as you’ll see from his slugging percentages against the three pitches Kershaw uses on lefties.

Gonzalez vs. LHP
Fourseam: .457 SLG
Slider: .436 SLG
Curveball: .573 SLG

So the play here is not to use the curveball much, maybe waste one or use it to keep the batter honest. Or, at least, it would be for most pitchers who have caught on. Kershaw has taken it to a different level. He has never, in their 109-pitch history against each other, thrown Gonzalez a curveball.

A couple things we know about Kershaw: He does throw curveballs to left-handed hitters—10.22 percent in his career and, remarkably, the exact same percentage to two decimal places this year. Also, it’s not like Gonzalez has caught him in games when he’s been reluctant to use it. Teammate Todd Helton, who has the fifth-most plate appearances against Kershaw among left-handed hitters, has seen curveballs, again, 10 percent of the time.

But against Gonzalez, it’s an exaggerated repertoire playing to the slugger’s weaknesses.

Pitch type

Vs. Gonzalez

Vs. all LHH

Fastball

65%

71%

Slider

35%

19%

Curveball

0%

10%

As a result, Gonzalez has never been a good hitter against Kershaw. The last time they met, in 2012, Gonzalez homered on both a fastball and a slider for his first extra-base hits in the history of the matchup. Kershaw got him back with a three-pitch strikeout in May, and tonight, with more on the line than we could have expected, they meet again.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • The Pirates look to extend their winning streak to double-digits when they send Jeff Locke to the mound to open a three-game set against the Phillies. On episode 230 of Up and In, Sam and Ben talked about lousy pitchers who were getting great strikeout and walk numbers and were still lousy. So far this year, Locke has been the opposite. He’s produced terrific results despite less-than-stellar peripherals (40 unintentional walks and 67 strikeouts in 96 1/3 innings, 2.06 ERA). Jonathan Pettibone goes for the Phillies. (7:05 p.m. ET)
  • Game two of the Nationals’ series against the Brewers is actually game five of a very interesting 17-game stretch entering the All-Star break. Their five series leading into intermission will be the conclusion of what has been a very disappointing first half: at the Mets, vs. Milwaukee, vs. San Diego, at Philadelphia, at Miami. So far they’ve done OK with it, going 3-1 in the weekend against the Mets and opener against the Brewers. Stephen Strasburg goes tonight, and while there are generally no must-wins in baseball until the final week of the season, you’d really, really, really like to have this one and do as much damage as possible in this soft portion of the schedule. (7:05 p.m. ET)
  • Albert Pujols will take on the team where he built his Hall of Fame career for the first time when the Angels meet St. Louis. Fortunately for Pujols, the interleague games are in Anaheim and he can continue to play designated hitter, which he has done the last eight games and 23 out of 27 in June. His June was a slight improvement over the first two months, but he still enters the series with a true average 24 points lower than last year, which was already a career-worst at .307. The Angels have won six in a row thanks to an impressive sweep of the Tigers and their first really strong series against the Astros, who had given them trouble all year. (10:05 p.m. ET)

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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