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August 5, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Unsung Member of the Red Sox Rotation

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
Ryan Dempster has struggled since an excellent April. Clay Buchholz has been sidelined since early June. John Lackey has a 5.49 ERA since the All-Star break. And Jon Lester has taken his team for a season-long rollercoaster ride.

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington saw a club in need of rotation reinforcements last month, and he took action a day before the trade deadline, snagging Jake Peavy from the White Sox in a three-team deal that shipped Jose Iglesias to the Tigers. Peavy, whom Cherington lauded as a pitcher who “gives us a chance to win every time out,” tossed seven innings of two-run ball to help the Red Sox past the Diamondbacks in game two of three at Fenway Park.

The first impression was a positive one, but the verdict on the Peavy trade won’t be in for a while. In the meantime, one of Cherington’s incumbent starters has recently proved worthy of the praise that his boss heaped on his newest teammate.

Felix Doubront flashed upside but was erratic in April, and his season took a sharp turn for the worse in early May, when he was touched up for 23 hits over nine innings in a two-start span. The 25-year-old was effectively wild on May 16, issuing a season-high six walks but holding the Rays to two runs in five innings. Since then, he has been a rock.

On Sunday, that rock was immovable—at least to the Diamondbacks, who went down quietly while the Red Sox forced Brandon McCarthy, fresh off the disabled list, to throw 97 pitches in 4 1/3 innings. The home team built up a 2-0 lead off McCarthy and added two more runs against Josh Collmenter; the visitors seldom threatened. Doubront scattered five singles to blank the Diamondbacks over seven innings. He struck out five and walked none despite throwing first-pitch strikes to only eight of the 25 batters he faced. And he did all of that without his best stuff.

For the first four months of the season, Doubront’s performance mirrored his fastball velocity. He was okay in April, dreadful in May, better in June, and at his best in July, when his heater regularly lit up “92” on the radar gun.

On Sunday, Doubront’s fastball touched 92 mph, but it averaged 90. Nonetheless, he was able to keep the Diamondbacks off the scoreboard, and he relied heavily on his two- and four-seam heaters to do so. (Note: the above table is missing PITCHf/x data from a couple of innings, a total of 19 pitches.)

Batted-ball luck played a role in Doubront’s success, as it usually does when a pitcher amasses only four swinging strikes in a seven-inning outing, but Doubront also worked around a fielding error by Brock Holt and used effective sequencing to overcome his diminished arsenal the second and third times through the heart of the Arizona order. For example, he used two curveballs in this sixth-inning plate appearance by Aaron Hill, which ended with a swing-and-miss on a fastball high and away.

Doubront has now limited opponents to three or fewer earned runs in 15 consecutive starts, which—as the Elias Sports Bureau pointed out—puts him one shy of the franchise record for lefties currently held by Babe Ruth. He owns a 2.55 ERA since May 16 and has shaved his mark for the season down from 6.40, where it stood when he took the mound at Tropicana Field that day, to 3.56, good for 18th among qualifying American Leaguers.

The Red Sox hope to have Buchholz back before the end of the month. Lester has given fans reasons for optimism in recent outings. Peavy should help stabilize the rotation down the stretch. And the Red Sox are still in first place.

But even counting Sunday’s win, John Farrell’s club is just 8-7 in Doubront’s last 15 starts. If the southpaw stays as dependable in August and September as he has been over the past two-and-a-half months, a likely improvement in his remaining outings is one reason to like the Red Sox’ chances to win the East for the first time since 2007.

Friday’s Matchup in Review
Coming into the series opener between the Rockies and Pirates, the small sample of meetings between Jhoulys Chacin and Garrett Jones contained a whole lot of good news for Jones and a lot of neck craning for Chacin. Pittsburgh’s first baseman was 5-for-9 lifetime against the Rockies’ right-hander with a pair of home runs and a couple of walks. Moreover, in those 11 head-to-head plate appearances, Jones had not struck out even once.

That last part is still true after their three showdowns on Friday, but Jones is now 5-for-12, and he was unable to get the ball off the ground. Chacin tossed eight innings at PNC Park and allowed only one run on six hits—two of them doubles, both by Neil Walker—while striking out three. He did not issue a base on balls. And he did not serve up a home run, an area in which he has excelled throughout 2013. Chacin has now been taken deep only twice in his last 11 starts and only four times all season.

The sixth-place hitter in Clint Hurdle’s order, Jones grounded a 1-1 fastball into a 6-4-3 double play in his first at-bat and a 3-2 heater into a 4-6-3 twin killing in his second. He could not make two outs with one swing in his third trip to the box, since there was no one on base, but he tried his best anyway, tapping a backdoor curveball to shortstop for his third worm-burner of the day.

All three of the balls that Jones put in play were down and away. That all three wound up on the infield dirt is unsurprising, given the data in these two plots:

That’s bad news for Jones, whose power numbers have slipped markedly from his career-high, 27-homer showing in 2012. He is hitting fewer fly balls (41.7 percent in 2012 compared to 35 percent in 2013) and driving fewer of the balls that he elevates (17.1 percent HR/FB rate in 2012, 12.2 percent HR/FB in 2013) out of the park. With just 10 homers in 335 plate appearances to date, his effort in a corner-position platoon role has been one of the few disappointments on an otherwise solid Pirates roster.

Matchup of the Day
Of all the baseball skills that a major-league player might possess, hitting knuckleballs is probably the least useful—or, at least, the least-frequently useful. But don’t go telling that to Raul Ibanez, who has made the most of his scarce encounters with pitchers who throw the spin-less offering.

Ibanez only shook hands with Charlie Haeger (1-for-2) and Tom Candiotti (1-for-3), but he grew well acquainted with Tim Wakefield (six extra-base hits in 35 plate appearances) and has gotten to know R.A Dickey, too. Dickey appears to be Ibanez’s preferred knuckleball opponent, at least judging by the numbers, as the Mariners slugger is 11-for-30 lifetime against the Blue Jays’ righty. In those 32 plate appearances, Ibanez has whacked a triple and three homers, drawn a pair of walks, and struck out twice. His 1.140 career OPS versus Dickey is the fourth-best among hitters who have faced the 38-year-old at least 25 times, and it is Ibanez’s fifth-best effort among active pitchers against whom he has logged at least 25 trips to the box.

Twenty-three of the 32 head-to-head showdowns between Dickey and Ibanez are tracked on the afore-linked matchup page, but the data there, as is often the case with knuckleballers, does not tell us much about location tendencies:

This table, from Ibanez’s Brooks Baseball profile, confirms what the matchup histories suggested:

We know that Ibanez loves nothing more than a floating knuckleball: since the start of the 2007 season, he has gone 13-for-31 in at-bats that ended with one of them, slugging .807 on the merit of five extra-base hits, three of them homers. But Ibanez, whose power surge was the toast of Seattle for most of the first half, has slipped into a 10-for-57 lull since the All-Star break. He drilled a couple of doubles off Orioles southpaw Wei-Yin Chen on Sunday afternoon, but has not gone deep since July 12, when he tallied two round-trippers in a win over the Angels.

We also know that Dickey, during his peak with the Mets, was most effective when his knucklers tempted hitters to chase above the zone or when he was able to tie them up inside:

Dickey has fared much better, from a homer-prevention standpoint, away from the Rogers Centre than in it this season, allowing 18 homers in 75 1/3 innings across the border compared to just six in 71 1/3 in the United States. And, predictably, his ERA is a solid 3.28 on the road, but a bloated 5.97 at home.

But Ibanez has grown comfortable in Safeco Field, where the dimensions are cozier than they were when he departed after the 2007 season. He has swatted 16 of his 24 homers in Seattle, compiling an .891 OPS at home and only a .728 mark as a visitor.

Dickey has served up as many homers this year as Ibanez has slugged, but after a five-start streak of permitting at least one, he held the Athletics tater-less in a six-inning no-decision on July 31. The Nashville native has not logged consecutive homer-less outings since April. Ibanez’s bat stands between him and that accomplishment tonight (10:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • The Astros, Marlins, and White Sox have won fewer than 20 road games this season. The Dodgers? They’ve won 14 in a row. That, per ESPN, is the longest such winning streak by a senior-circuit club since 1957, and Don Mattingly’s squad will try to extend it when it visits the Cardinals at Busch Stadium this evening. Mike Matheny’s lineup awoke from its brief slumber with a 31-run outburst over three days at Great American Ball Park, and it will be up to Zack Greinke to cool St. Louis’ bats down again. The right-hander’s task is tall, because he is up against Adam Wainwright and likely won’t have the backing of Hanley Ramirez, who suffered a shoulder injury on Sunday and is set to undergo an MRI to gauge its severity today (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Braves left-hander Mike Minor has worked at least seven innings in each of his last four assignments, amassing a 26-to-3 K:BB ratio, permitting only one home run, and posting a 1.55 ERA over those 29 innings. The Vanderbilt product now boasts a 2.75 ERA on the season, 14th among major-league starters who have logged at least 100 innings, and his 134-to-28 (4.79) K:BB puts him ninth in that same group. The 25-year-old Minor is set to lock horns with Stephen Strasburg this evening, as the right-hander begs his Nationals teammates for help.

    Davey Johnson’s team has dropped each of the last four games and six of the last seven started by its ace—and in those losses, the Nats offense has supplied Strasburg with two, zero, three, two, two, and one run of support. While two of the defeats—a two-inning, seven-run disaster in Miami and a seven-inning, five-run clunker in Detroit—can be blamed on the 25-year-old himself, the dormant lineup is chiefly at fault for the rest. Strasburg is just 4-4 in 11 home starts this season, even though he has amassed a 1.68 ERA and an 81-to-13 K:BB over 75 innings in the nation’s capital (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Seven head-to-head meetings between the Tigers and Indians remain on the docket, and the first four of them will take place this week at Progressive Field, the site of tonight’s series opener. Anibal Sanchez, Detroit’s game one starter, notched only one strikeout in his most recent outing, his lowest tally since August 29, 2012, but he held the Nationals to one run over seven innings. The right-hander has allowed only two total runs in his last three starts, but he has issued eight walks and fanned only nine batters in those 19 innings on the mound. Sanchez limited the Tribe to a run on three hits in five innings on July 6, his first start following a three-week stint on the disabled list and his only meeting with Terry Francona’s club this year. Corey Kluber, who gets the ball for the home nine, has served up five homers to the Tigers in just 17 innings, but his K:BB against Detroit this year is a robust 22-to-5 (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, 13 players will be suspended today for their ties to the Biogenesis clinic, and the longest of those bans will go to Alex Rodriguez, who is expected to be barred from the field until the 2015 season. But, earlier Sunday, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Rodriguez will appeal the suspension, and that he will likely be allowed to play for the Yankees during the appeal process, which should be completed within three weeks. We will find out soon whether Nightengale’s sources have the correct read on Bud Selig’s plans, but as of this writing, the last word from manager Joe Girardi is that Rodriguez is “penciled in” at the hot corner in the lineup for the series opener against the White Sox. Assuming that’s accurate, he’ll take his first big-league hacks of the 2013 campaign versus left-hander Jose Quintana (8:10 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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