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July 9, 2013

What You Need to Know

Tigers Back on Top

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Two days before their scheduled return home to welcome the Tigers, the Indians earned a 6-5, series-opening victory over the Royals to move into first place in the American League Central, a perch they had not held since May 23. The Tribe snuck up on a scuffling Tigers squad that had lost six of seven, bouncing all the way back from its own eight-game skid in early June.

Over the last four days, though, Jim Leyland’s club has reasserted its strength, ensuring that the Indians’ stay atop the standings would be a short one. The Tigers won the first two games of the four-game set at Progressive Field, running the home team’s losing streak to four contests and their own winning streak to five. A 9-6 victory on Sunday gave the Indians a chance to salvage a series split on Monday night, which would have left them just 1 ½ games behind first-place Detroit.

To notch the split, however, the Indians needed to get past Max Scherzer, the first-half Cy Young Award favorite whose record was a flawless 13-0, and behind whom the Tigers had not lost since May 31. Fortunately, the three-man crew of Scott Kazmir, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen kept pace with Scherzer for seven innings, the duration of the right-hander’s outing, and a two-out, two-run single by Lonnie Chisenhall in the bottom of the second proved sufficient to keep the game tied going into extras.

Allen and Joe Smith traded zeroes with Bruce Rondon in the eighth. Chris Perez put the pressure on Drew Smyly, but the young lefty matched his goose egg in the ninth. And in the 10th inning, after Matt Albers unraveled, Joaquin Benoit held firm.

A two-out, two-run double by Victor Martinez, which plated Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder—who were both issued two-out walks—proved to be the deciding blow. The Indians put two men on base with two away in the bottom of the 10th on singles by Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley, but Mike Aviles struck out swinging to end the game.

Come October, this 4-2 Tigers victory may seem inconsequential, just one game in a 162-game season. But Monday’s win provided the favorites with a bit more cushion, padding their already-excellent odds of winning the division and setting the Indians back in their quest to return to the playoffs in the first year of Francona’s tenure.

The closer role, one of the few major concerns that plagued Leyland’s roster throughout the first half, appears safe thanks to Benoit’s right arm, as the 35-year-old is now a perfect seven-for-seven in his save opportunities. With a 1.73 ERA and a 46-to-10 K:BB in 36 1/3 innings, Benoit has admirably answered the call that rookie Bruce Rondon and retread Jose Valverde could not. The Indians’ bullpen—which had a hand in both of the losses in the Royals series before Monday’s extra-inning flub—has looked to be the more porous unit of late.

With a deeper rotation, a more powerful heart of the order, and now a more reliable bullpen, the Tigers enjoy an edge over the Indians in virtually every area—save for defense, where Cleveland is in the middle of the pack and Detroit ranks at the bottom, and baserunning, where the Indians rate fifth in the majors and the Tigers again bring up the rear. The Indians’ return to first place was fleeting. And with no head-to-head meetings between the Central rivals for nearly a month, their next one is unlikely to come anytime soon.

Monday’s Matchup in Review
A finger injury kept Carlos Gonzalez out of the lineup, preventing him from doing any further damage to Edinson Volquez, but that reprieve did little to help the Padres. Corey Dickerson, who replaced Gonzalez in left field, went 1-for-3 with a walk at the top of the order, and Volquez failed to complete the sixth inning despite throwing 94 pitches. The Padres’ 4-2 loss to the Rockies was their 10th in a row, and it kept them mired in the National League West cellar.

Matchup of the Day
Ian Desmond has picked up right where he left off this year, collecting 23 doubles and 15 homers in his first 87 games as one of the Nationals’ few consistent threats at the plate. Cole Hamels, meanwhile, followed up a career-best 4.1 WARP campaign in 2012 by sputtering throughout the first half, though his 3.62 FIP suggests that a summer surge—which may have started with his seven-inning, one-earned-run win over the Pirates on July 4—is in store.

Tonight, if past trends hold, the left-hander should have the upper hand on the shortstop. Desmond, a right-handed hitter, has generally performed well against southpaws, and he posted a .303/.331/.571 triple-slash line while enjoying the platoon advantage in 2012. But Hamels is one of the select few southpaws who have given Desmond fits, and the .635 OPS to which he has held him is Desmond’s lowest versus any lefty whom he has faced at least 20 times.

Overall, Desmond has gone 5-for-28 with Hamels toeing the rubber, notching two doubles, a triple, and a home run. In their 30 head-to-head meetings, he has also walked once and struck out eight times.

 

As you might have discerned from all the blue dots in the above plot, Hamels’ changeup has been the great equalizer against Desmond. He has used it as a put-away offering in deep counts, as a backward-approach setup pitch to keep Desmond off of his fastball, and even as a standalone piece that the 27-year-old cannot seem to touch. Desmond, who thrived on fastballs last year, is not an altogether poor off-speed hitter, but Hamels’ changeup is one of the best in the league, and all three of those varied plans has yielded a strikeout.

On the rare occasions when Desmond has gotten the better of Hamels, the culprit has almost always been an early-count fastball mistake. Desmond was one of the league’s most aggressive hitters in 2012, when he averaged 3.37 pitcher per plate appearance (a mark trailed only by Erick Aybar, who saw 3.28), and though he has become more patient this year (3.71), he will not stare at many first- or second-pitch fastball strikes. Hamels learned that the hard way on April 7, 2010, when he teed up this gopher ball, and again on May 6, 2012, when this get-me-over heater turned into a three-bagger.

With the changeup affording Hamels an obvious two-strike-count advantage, the key for the left-hander is to force Desmond into a pitcher-friendly count or to coax him into swinging at a well-placed pitch early. Desmond is 1-for-18 against Hamels in plate appearances that have lasted three pitches or longer, and the lone knock was a single.

Given the various strategies that have done the trick in the past, Hamels can base his game plan for Desmond on what is working on this particular evening. If his fastball command is sharp, then he can paint the corners with the four-seamer or cutter to set up the changeup in deeper counts. If he has greater confidence in his off-speed arsenal, then he might choose to pitch backward or stick with the changeup exclusively if the shortstop steps in with runners on base. And since Desmond has only twice seen Hamels’ curveball, the element of surprise is in the lefty’s back pocket, too.

Nonetheless, for all of the credentials on Hamels’ head-to-head résumé, it takes only one mistake to spoil a fine outing. Desmond has just one hit off of Hamels in the last two-plus seasons, but if a fastball crosses the middle of the plate, he will be ready to pounce (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Jose Bautista went 1-for-3 with a double and two walks on Sunday, extending a tear that dates back to June 29. Since then, the Blue Jays’ right fielder is 14-for-32 (.438/.538/.906) with three doubles, four home runs, seven walks, and only two strikeouts, though he is just 1-for-16 lifetime versus tonight’s Indians starter, Ubaldo Jimenez. The 29-year-old Jimenez has issued at least four walks in four of his last five starts, and he has not completed the sixth inning of an outing since June 1, but somehow the Indians have gone 5-2 behind him over that span. They will try to stem the recent skid in the series opener, in which they will face Josh Johnson (7:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • Speaking of Josh Hamilton and the Angels, they have won 10 of 12, and the outfielder turned in another two-run blast, this one of the walk-off variety, to down the Red Sox in a wild, 9-7 decision on Saturday. The 32-year-old Hamilton has raised his OPS by 60 points, from .640 to .700, since the start of the Halos’ surge, and if he stays hot, Mike Scioscia’s club might inch its way back into the postseason race. Fellow newcomer Joe Blanton, whose run of three straight quality starts ended when he was knocked around by the Cardinals last week, duels Travis Wood in game one of three at Wrigley Field (8:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • After cruising through eight innings of one-run ball in his most recent outing, Adam Wainwright surrendered a leadoff single to Albert Pujols in the ninth, and then watched Edward Mujica cough up the lead on a two-run blast by Josh Hamilton. The Angels eventually won that game, 6-5, which marked just the third time this season that Wainwright had been charged with more than three runs. Wainwright also notched only three strikeouts over his eight-plus innings of work, equaling a season-low set on June 18, so he will look to miss more bats with the Astros in town. Bud Norris, whose trade market should heat up now that Scott Feldman and Ricky Nolasco have new homes, gets the ball for the visitors (8:15 p.m. ET).
     
  • And speaking of Nolasco, the right-hander will take the bump in blue for the first time this evening since joining the Dodgers in a deal that sent three pitching prospects to the Marlins. Nolasco, a native of Southern California, is scheduled to duel Ian Kennedy in a date with the Diamondbacks, a team he held to one run over eight innings on May 19. The 30-year-old struck out 11 batters in that victory, his highest total since May 6, 2010, and he’ll try to deliver a worthy encore in his debut for Don Mattingly (9:40 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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