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July 12, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Indians' and Orioles' Pitching Problems

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
If there is one thing that stands between the 2013 Indians and the organization’s first postseason berth since 2007, it is a lack of dependable pitching.

The Tribe entered play on Thursday ranked fifth in the majors in runs scored and sixth in True Average, a considerable improvement from last year, when Cleveland placed 22nd and 18th, respectively, in those categories. The Indians’ fielding also has been markedly better this year than it was in 2012, enough to bump their park-adjusted defensive efficiency up from 24th to 12th in the league. Unfortunately, while the pitching is on the right track—with the team’s ERA down from 4.78 to 4.38—it still ranks near the bottom of the pack (27th).

Of the teams whose playoff odds are currently above 10 percent, only the Orioles’ staff ERA (4.40) is higher than the Tribe’s. That also is true of each of their rotations: the Indians, with a 4.51 starting-pitcher ERA, were 22nd heading into play on Thursday, and the Orioles, at 4.80, were bringing up the caboose among realistic contenders at 26th.

The season-ending elbow injury suffered by Dylan Bundy, who underwent Tommy John surgery on June 27, forced Dan Duquette to look outside his organization for reinforcements and led to the acquisition of Scott Feldman. Meanwhile, Duquette’s counterpart in Cleveland, Chris Antonetti, may have found at least a partial solution within his own farm system.

Danny Salazar, a 23-year-old Dominican who racked up 100 strikeouts in 76 innings across Double-A and Triple-A earlier this year, got the call on Thursday to start the Indians’ series finale against the Blue Jays. In the Call-Up post published before the game, Jason Parks tackled the scouting side and noted that the right-hander’s future hinged on his ability to harness his secondary offerings—a slider and a changeup—and to prove the durability of his diminutive frame. Salazar took a decisive first step toward addressing the first concern in his big-league debut.

According to the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data, Salazar brought a healthy fastball to the Progressive Field mound, averaging 96 mph with the four-seamer and nearly touching triple digits. He threw almost 75 percent of his fastballs for strikes, and 10 of those strikes were swings and misses.

More salient, though, is the fact that Salazar’s secondary offerings passed their first test. He struck out the first four left-handed batters (including switch-hitters Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis) that he faced. Reyes whiffed on a changeup below the zone leading off the game, and Adam Lind, batting fourth, chased one in the dirt. Colby Rasmus, the second batter of the second inning, went fishing for a slider. And Izturis found the fastball too hot to handle, whiffing at three straight as Salazar struck out the side.

The first lefty to pick up a hit off of Salazar was Josh Thole, who singled to begin the top of the sixth. And righties did not have much better luck: their first knock was an RBI double by Jose Bautista later in that frame. Toronto’s second- and third-place hitters, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, went hitless in their first four combined at-bats. Both grounded out in the first inning, and then the right fielder popped out and the designated hitter struck out in the fourth.

Perhaps inspired by Ben Lindbergh’s article last week, Salazar relied on his changeup to put away the Blue Jays’ toughest right-handed hitters. He planted one just off the outside corner to induce Bautista’s ground ball and went down and away again to get the pop out. Encarnacion flailed at a low one with a 1-2 count after fouling off two high-90s fastballs and leaving one high.

And that’s the story of how Salazar no-hit John Gibbons’ club for five innings before relenting in the sixth. Salazar needed 89 pitches to record 18 outs, and 64 of his offerings were strikes. He allowed two hits and a walk, threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 21 batters who dug in, and struck out seven, all of them swinging.

Gibbons’ lineup is no juggernaut, but its .259 TAv was good for 14th in the league, and there were plenty of powerful bats for Salazar to tame. And tame them he did. With his strong first impression, Salazar became just the second Indians starter ever to work at least six innings and permit two or fewer hits in his major-league debut, joining Paul Rigdon, who blanked the Yankees for seven frames on May 21, 2000. The last Indians pitcher to strike out at least seven batters in his first big-league appearance was Luis Tiant on July 19, 1964. No Cleveland starter had ever met all three criteria—until Salazar did on Thursday afternoon.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, manager Terry Francona did his best to temper fans’ expectations for the young righty: “You only get one first game, and it’s not going to dictate how his career is going to go, by any means.”

Looking back, the Indians and their fans sure hope it does.

Thursday’s Matchup in Review
The rubber match between the White Sox and Tigers hinged on a sixth-inning grand slam by rookie catcher Josh Phegley, which turned a 3-1 deficit into a 5-3 lead for the visitors and helped Chris Sale outduel Anibal Sanchez. Sale, who faced Prince Fielder three times in his 6 2/3-inning outing, held the first baseman to a single; he also struck him out once and coaxed a double-play ball. Matt Tuiasosopo, who smacked a two-run homer in the second inning, and Miguel Cabrera, who drilled his 30th bomb of the season in the fifth, accounted for all of the Tigers’ runs.

Fielder’s single came at the outset of the home half of the second, the result of a middle-middle fastball in a 2-1 count. Victor Martinez followed it with another base hit, but Jhonny Peralta erased Fielder at third base with a 5-3 twin killing. That mitigated the damage of Tuiasosopo’s ensuing home run.

Fielder’s second at-bat came in the last of the third, after Torii Hunter tripled and Miguel Cabrera walked. He swung through a slider well off the outside corner—a weakness I mentioned in yesterday’s write-up—and then rolled over an elevated changeup, which Jeff Keppinger and Alexei Ramirez turned into an inning-ending, 3-6-3 double play.

In the bottom of the fifth, Fielder came up with two down and the bases empty, immediately following Cabrera’s big fly. He took a fastball up and in, watched a changeup cross at the knees for a strike, and then swung through consecutive down-and-away sliders, revealing the hole in his approach against like-handed pitchers once more.

Fielder, who was 1-for-9 with a double and three strikeouts versus Sale coming into Thursday’s matinee, is now 2-for-12 in 13 career meetings with the White Sox ace.

Matchup of the Day
When Delmon Young signed a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Phillies this past offseason, White Sox starter John Danks was among those celebrating his departure from the American League Central. The 27-year-old Young was a thorn in Danks’ side throughout his time with the Twins and Tigers: He went 16-for-43 with four doubles, a triple, and two home runs to assemble a .372/.404/.651 triple-slash line in 47 plate appearances. Of the active big-leaguers who have faced Danks at least 30 times, only Michael Cuddyer and Ian Kinsler can boast a higher OPS than Young’s 1.055.

Unfortunately for Danks, Major League Baseball’s scheduling overlords put a visit to Citizens Bank Park on the White Sox’ docket, and manager Robin Ventura’s rotation plans have him toeing the rubber in game one of three. Young has performed about as expected in his first couple of months with the Phillies, batting .272/.327/.426 while occasionally making a fool of himself in right field. He will be happy to see Danks on the mound in the opener.

Jason Collette wrote earlier this week about Danks’ rebound from shoulder surgery, noting that although he is working with less oomph on his fastball, he has surmounted that challenge by leaning more heavily on his changeup. With opposite-handed hitters in the box, Danks has turned to the off-speed offering 27 percent of the time this year, compared to a 23 percent usage rate in his past encounters with Young.

Danks last faced Young in May of 2012, about three months before he went under the knife to repair a torn capsule and rotator cuff, so the first-year Phillie has not yet seen the lefty’s revised approach. Based on the above plot, Danks previously tried to bust Young inside with his cutter and to tempt him to chase fastballs above the zone. The changeup was his primary off-speed pitch, with the curveball a distant second at seven percent, but locating the hard stuff was paramount to Danks’ success.

Young, however, has done well against fastballs and cutters from southpaws, particularly those thrown at the knees or over the outer third. There are holes in his swing—most notably below the hands, according to the afore-linked Brooks Baseball hitter chart—but when Danks has missed those targets, he has paid a steep price. This home run and this triple came on cutters that sank too low and caught too much of the plate.

Additionally, while there are clear weak points in Young’s off-speed approach, including a glaring inability to lay off of pitches down and away, Danks has not exploited them. Changeups can be Young’s undoing, but not when they are belt-high and over the middle of the plate, like this one was.

That changeup turned into a single on May 14, 2012, Danks’ penultimate start before the shoulder injury ended his season. Young went 2-for-2 against him that day, and 2-for-2 in their previous meeting, on September 12, 2011, so he has notched hits in each of their last four showdowns. Danks, armed with a changeup that has induced an 18.3 percent whiff rate so far this year, must take better advantage of Young’s aggressive approach in order to stem that tide tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • After an excellent first two-and-a-half months, which saw him carry a 3.21 ERA through June 21, Doug Fister has coughed up six runs in each of his last two starts and in three of his last four. The 29-year-old also served up three homers in his most recent assignment, a loss to the Indians on July 7, matching the worst showing of his career in the department. Fister’s last three-homer dud prior to last week’s defeat came at the hands of the Rangers, the team that he will welcome to Comerica Park this evening. He will try to stem the rise of his ERA, which is now up to 4.07, in a series-opening duel with Justin Grimm (Friday, 7:08 p.m. ET).
  • If there was any lingering doubt about Jered Weaver’s health, the right-hander should have put it to rest with his last three outings, in which he held the Tigers, Cardinals, and Red Sox to two combined runs over 20 2/3 innings. Weaver amassed a 17-to-4 K:BB during that span, stringing together his first three quality starts since June 4 to aid the Angels’ recent hike up the standings. Now, with a trip to Safeco Field on tap, Weaver must prepare to lock horns with Mariners ace Felix Hernandez in Saturday’s middle match. The Halos smacked Hernandez around for seven runs (six earned) on 12 hits in just five frames on June 20, a clunker that marked only the eighth time in 257 career starts that the 27-year-old had allowed a dozen knocks. Four of those eight have come against Mike Scioscia’s club (Saturday, 10:10 p.m. ET).
  • Among the many reasons for the Giants’ recent skid is the slump that has befallen Hunter Pence. The right fielder went 2-for-5 on the last day of June, but since the start of July, he is just 4-for-40 with one extra-base hit (a triple), no walks, and seven strikeouts. That, coupled with Pablo Sandoval’s 6-for-38 rut this month, has left Buster Posey as the lone reliable threat in Bruce Bochy’s order. With their playoff odds now below five percent and their record now worse than the Cubs’, if the Giants are to salvage anything from their campaign as defending champions, they’ll need their middle-of-the-order bats to wake up. Pence is 5-for-16 with a home run in his career versus Eric Stults, who gets the ball for the Padres in the series finale (Sunday, 4:10 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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