April 10, 2014
What You Need to Know
The Wednesday Takeaway
The right-hander was handed a 1-0 lead on a leadoff homer by Jason Heyward, and that was all he needed to keep the Braves on top through eight. He allowed only two singles and a Daniel Murphy double. Juan Lagares, who grounded out to begin the fifth, was the only Mets batter who worked a three-ball count.
Santana looked nothing like the erratic pitcher who took the mound for Triple-A Gwinnett in his lone minor-league tune-up. He needed 93 pitches just to complete 5 1/3 innings in that assignment, in which he issued four walks and uncorked a wild pitch. On Wednesday, Santana had pinpoint command of his fastball and relentlessly pounded the lower half of the zone:
That approach yielded 11 ground-ball outs, including The Defensive Play of the Day. It also jibes with the recent trend in his batted-ball profile.
Once an extreme fly-ball pitcher, with a grounder rate that bottomed out at 35.2 percent in 2010, Santana has steadily induced more worm killers over the past few years. His 46.2 percent ground-ball clip with the Royals in 2013 marked a career best. And if his first start of 2014 is any indication, the worms in the Turner Field dirt might want to find somewhere else to hide.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to end Santana’s night after eight, denying him a chance to complete the gem. The Braves’ normally reliable bullpen nearly made Gonzalez regret that choice. Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel combined to cough up three runs in the top of the ninth, and when Kimbrel fanned Ruben Tejada to secure the 4-3 win, the tying run was 90 feet away.
Quick Hits from Wednesday
First, fast-forward less than 24 hours, to the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Indians and Padres. Everth Cabrera reached on a two-base error by Asdrubal Cabrera to lead off the game. Chris Denorfia then hit a ball to deep right field. Here’s the play:
Wording this extra carefully: The ball lands in Elliot Johnson’s glove, as the right fielder’s momentum carries him into the fenced portion of the wall in front of the Padres bullpen. Johnson takes three or four steps between that point and this one…
…when the ball is still in his glove. It subsequently pops out, and the ruling—as explained by Rangers manager Ron Washington in this Dallas Morning News blog post—must be “no catch,” per the league’s instructions to umpires regarding how to handle any failed transfer. First-base umpire Bob Davidson makes precisely that call on the field.
Indians skipper Terry Francona challenged the play, and the ruling on the field stood. The distinction between “the ruling stands” and “the ruling is confirmed” is material here, because what the control-center umpires determined is that there was insufficient evidence to overturn the call, not that there was definitive proof that Johnson never established full control. Here, a tradeoff with no obviously preferable choice emerges:
It’s not difficult, though, to envision this issue arising on a majority of catch/no-catch plays. Supervisor of umpires Steve Palermo joined the Royals telecast during the top of the third inning of yesterday’s game, hoping to explain what exactly constitutes a catch. He said that there are three key elements that must be visible to record an out at second base on a play such as the Ben Zobrist error on Tuesday:
1. Firm and secure possession of the ball
The third point, according to Palermo, cost the Rays an out. The ball squirted out of Zobrist’s glove in a way that suggested an involuntary release. In Washington’s mind, the catch completes the out, and any subsequent release is part of the transfer. But, as we learned yesterday—and as this explanation confirmed—that is not the case in the league’s view.
Returning to the Johnson play, though, that leaves us with a legitimate concern. The ball is almost always going to be in the fielder’s glove, and if that alone is not proof of full control—as demonstrated by the Zobrist play in Tuesday’s Rays-Royals game, on which the ruling of “safe at second” was confirmed—then there are few circumstances in which such a ruling could be reversed.
There are two things we don’t yet know, because of the limitations of the reviews on which we can currently base our understanding of the rule.
1. We don’t know the exact line of distinction between the Gordon catch and the Johnson no-catch, even though we know that it exists. The time that Gordon spent on the ground, shaking off the blow the wall dealt him, might suffice, but that would still leave a considerable gray area between his play and Johnson’s. Palermo explained that by the time Gordon “haphazardly” dropped the ball, “he didn’t care, because he knew that he had secured it.” But that doesn’t answer the question of what precisely tells a player that he has secured the ball—and the supervisor admitted that this is left to the “umpires’ judgment.”
2. We also don’t know if an improper ruling of “out” on Johnson’s catch would have been overturned. In other words, we don’t know if the “indisputable evidence” requirement would hold in the other direction—if an umpire were to make what, according to the information the league gave to its teams, would be an incorrect application of the rule that any failed transfer should be called “no catch” on the field and subjected to review. The lingering question, then, is whether any dropped ball sans compelling evidence of full control could be reversed to “no catch.”
All we can do at this point is wait for more plays on which those two specific issues must be decided, or for clarification from the league on precisely what a player must do to establish indisputable evidence of full control.
For now, what we have is reason to believe that Major League Baseball failed to adequately prepare its teams and umpires for the challenges (no pun intended) that expanded replay would pose. The introduction of slow-motion video to the process enables managers to split hairs in the rulebook, forcing the league to determine which rules it will skirt (the neighborhood play) and which it will enforce to the letter of the book (full control on catches).
Washington’s statement to reporters on Tuesday indicates that the league attempted to cover its bases before the season, to make every gray area as black and white as possible. The confusion surrounding what exactly establishes a catch—which wasn’t fully clarified despite Palermo’s best efforts yesterday—suggests that it didn’t do so well enough.
We waited more than a week for Billy Hamilton to showcase his game-changing speed in a way that no other big leaguer could. It finally happened in the fifth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals.
Hamilton led off the inning with a single to left-center field against Shelby Miller. He stole second base without a throw—on Yadier Molina, mind you. He advanced to third on a shallow fly ball to right field by Brandon Phillips. And, after Joey Votto drew a walk, Hamilton scored on a sacrifice fly by Jay Bruce that right fielder Jon Jay caught some 25 feet beyond the edge of the infield dirt.
Jay did not take full advantage of the hangtime on Bruce’s pop fly, which—although it was shallow—afforded him plenty of time to catch the ball on the run and use his momentum to propel the throw to the plate. But his heave was on target, setting Molina up to grab it while positioned in front of the dish and tag Hamilton as he slid in.
By the time Molina turned around to tag Hamilton, the Reds center fielder was already crossing the plate. This, on a fly ball with which Bruce was so disappointed that he looked away and dejectedly threw down his bat.
Virtually any other runner would not have dared to tag up on the play. Hamilton did—and he scored with ease to give the Reds a 3-0 lead in a game that they eventually won 4-0.
A 4.84 ERA would be bad enough, but that’s not what the number represents for A’s closer Jim Johnson. That’s the 30-year-old’s WHIP—which, as you might imagine, means the former Oriole is stretching his leash with manager Bob Melvin.
Wednesday’s blown save was made easier for the Athletics to swallow when Derek Norris delivered a three-run home run in the top of the 11th, but it wasted an excellent seven-inning outing from Jesse Chavez and forced Dan Otero to throw 41 pitches over 2 2/3 frames, because primary setup men Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson had already been spent.
When asked about Johnson’s status, Melvin told reporters, “I’m just saying that I’m not saying anything.” But now that Ryan Cook has rejoined the bullpen after beginning the year on the disabled list, it will become easier for the skipper to alter his ninth-inning plans.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle heard from a scout in attendance at Target Field yesterday that an inconsistent release point might be behind Johnson’s inability to command his pitches. The scout also wondered if two rough outings in Oakland, both of which ended with the right-hander getting booed off the mound, are weighing on Johnson.
In either case, when all of their relievers are healthy, the A’s project to have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. Besides Johnson, the crew features several accomplished setup men in Doolittle, Gregerson, and Cook, plus Otero—who posted a 1.38 ERA and 2.15 FIP last year—and Drew Pomeranz, whom Oakland acquired from Colorado in exchange for Brett Anderson. It could get even deeper during the second half of the season, if Eric O’Flaherty rehabs smoothly from Tommy John surgery.
That’s good news for Melvin and the A’s, and bad news for Johnson and his fantasy owners, as Mauricio Rubio pointed out in this week’s edition of Closer to Me. Johnson’s $10 million salary and Cook’s shoulder ailment bought him some rope, but he’s inching closer to a demotion in the bullpen pecking order.
The outfielder’s first home run of 2014 was a moonshot into the third-deck nosebleed seats behind the right-field foul pole. And it came against a lefty, to boot. Harper did 90 percent (18 of 20) of his 2013 yardwork against right-handers, and his True Average sans the platoon advantage was 77 points lower (.250, compared to .327 versus righties).
That’s why Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore got all worked up about Harper’s opposite-field single in his subsequent at-bat. By that time, the 21-year-old had put Jordan Zimmermann’s career-worst 1 2/3-inning clunker in Nationals fans’ rearview mirror.
A gift-wrapped eighth-inning rally against Carlos Marmol, capped by Jayson Werth’s go-ahead grand slam, washed away later meltdowns by Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. But the most important news for the Nationals was that bit at the top: Their 21-year-old phenom is back.
The Defensive Play of the Day
What to Watch for on Thursday