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April 10, 2014

What You Need to Know

Ervin Arrives

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Strike, strike, strike, strike… okay, fine, I’ll spare you the next 16. But that’s how Ervin Santana began his Braves career: with 20 consecutive strikes, and 28 of them in his first 29 pitches.

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
Yesterday’s WYNTK covered a few early examples of Major League Baseball’s emphasis on players establishing full possession and control of a ball to record an out. The Defensive Play of the Day, a wall-crashing catch by Alex Gordon, was not subjected to replay review, but as commenter John H. pointed out, Gordon dropped the ball when he tried to transfer it to his glove. He crumbled to the ground, collected himself, and got up first, sure—but he dropped the ball involuntarily, which, under the official definition of a catch, puts the “out” on shaky footing. More on why it wasn’t reviewed and why in the league’s mind the call was correct in a bit.

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:

  • The league instructed its umpires to call “no catch” in these instances, presumably so that runners who were on base could continue on their way, saving umpires the trouble of using their discretion to determine where they would have ended up if the call of a “catch” were overturned. This scenario arose on the Josh Hamilton play in the Angels-Mariners game discussed yesterday, when third-base umpire Seth Buckminster ruled a catch, and even though the call was overturned, Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon could not persuade the umpires to allow the runner on second, Justin Smoak, to take third.

  • On the other hand, by making the default ruling “no catch,” the league has placed the full burden of proof on fielders to establish indisputable evidence of full control of the ball. If there is any doubt, as was the case on the Johnson play, presumably because his glove obstructed any possible view of the ball, the ruling on the field will stand.

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
2. Complete control of the ball in his glove
3. A voluntary release

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.

No dice:

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.

***

Remember when Bryce Harper was “pretty lost?” That got him demoted to the no. 7 spot in manager Matt Williams’ order—where, last night, he was found alive and well.

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
As I mentioned in the Takeaway, Ervin Santana had a little help in his Braves debut:

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Gerrit Cole struck out only three Cardinals in seven innings in his first start of the year, but the right-hander nonetheless seemed to be on cruise control while his counterpart, Shelby Miller, failed to settle in. The 23-year-old budding ace virtually abandoned his changeup, throwing it only twice in 108 offerings, and instead leaned more heavily on his fastball and curveball, a departure from the balanced breaking-ball approach he employed during the 2013 Division Series. Cole could see as many as seven left-handed batters in today’s Cubs starting lineup—assuming first-year manager Rick Renteria opts to load up with them—and glove-siders haven’t had trouble catching up to his gas. Keep an eye on Cole’s pitch selection to see if he expands it when facing Anthony Rizzo and co. in the matinee at Wrigley (2:20 p.m. ET).
  • Two injury-addled right-handers square off in the first Red Sox-Yankees battle of the 2014 season, as Clay Buchholz toes the rubber for the visitors against Michael Pineda. The 29-year-old Buchholz spent more than half of 2013 on the disabled list with what ultimately was diagnosed as shoulder bursitis and AC joint inflammation, while Pineda missed the last two seasons to recover from surgery on his labrum.

    Pineda resembled his 2011 self in his 2013 debut, as Harry Pavlidis observed in this PITCHf/x look. Buchholz, on the other hand, was knocked around by the Brewers and barely scraped 90 mph with his fastball—a considerable drop from his 93-mph average during the early months of last year, and a tick down even from the diminished velo he showed at the end of 2014. The radar gun won’t lack for attention when Buchholz toes the rubber in the Bronx, where he has served up six homers in 34 career innings (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Among the 15 Princeton University products ever to have appeared in a major-league game, David Hale holds the best ERA, a 0.56 mark through three starts dating back to last September. The 26-year-old right-hander blanked the Nationals for five innings on April 4, tacking that effort onto 11 innings of one-run ball from 2013. Between those three outings, his K:BB ratio stands at 18-to-3. Not bad for a player who was buried on most Braves prospect lists before his debut. Hale’s next assignment is a duel with the Mets and Jenrry Mejia, who held the Reds to one run and struck out eight over six frames in his 2014 debut (7:10 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

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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montanabowers

Stop this insanity! This catch/no catch obsession by the league and its umpires is horse manure and it's not good for the game. Zobrist, Hamilton, et al were all catches - period. I'm yelling at my TV over umpire calls that I see on MLB Network. This is pure lunacy! Help!

Apr 10, 2014 06:39 AM
rating: 6
 
gjhardy

I have to agree. Stop the madness!
There is no question about Johnson's catch, regardless of how you twist the rulebook. Caught it, took several steps, hit the wall, still had the ball…and then drop it out of his throwing hand.

Apr 10, 2014 08:58 AM
rating: 1
 
carltondavis

Men on first and second with one out - Can a player make a catch in the outfield, run to third base, "invoulntarily" drop the ball on a transfer, and then begin a double play?

Just curious...

Apr 10, 2014 10:18 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Daniel Rathman
BP staff

Heh, I think we're stretching the definition here. It'd be tough to prove an "involuntary" release in that case.

Apr 10, 2014 10:25 AM
 
lheiman

OK, same game situation, with a fly ball hit to the LF. The ball is caught with the glove but not "controlled" because we cannot see into the glove, "fumbled" on transfer to the bare hand, and then quickly picked up and thrown to 3B to start the old 7-6-4 DP.
If we cannot "see" control of the ball in the glove on every play in order to establish whether a drop is voluntary or involuntary, and apparently can't assume any catch as a result, then there are many scenarios just like this. THAT's how stupid this new interpretation is.

Apr 10, 2014 11:47 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Daniel Rathman
BP staff

No argument from me on the silliness of the interpretation.

Apr 10, 2014 12:03 PM
 
lheiman

Just to set the record straight, since his "lost" at the plate comment on Saturday, Harper's spot in the order was:
Sunday: out of the lineup, day off for several regulars
Monday: off day
Tuesday: batting 2nd, against a righty
Wednesday: batting 7th, against a lefty
Today: batting 6th, against a righty
For the season: 5th, 6th (Ramos on DL or it's 7th), 2nd, 6th (Ramos on DL or it's 7th), 2nd, DNP, 2nd, 7th, 6th. Can the "demotion" talk; Matt Williams is moving multiple hitters around the lineup every game based on matchups.

Apr 10, 2014 11:29 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Daniel Rathman
BP staff

Demotion may not have been the right word, but I believe it's the first time that Harper has hit that low in the order since June 2012. You're right to point out that Matt Williams has shuffled up the order a lot more than Davey Johnson did, though; thanks for mentioning it.

Apr 10, 2014 11:46 AM
 
BurrRutledge

So funny the discussion of catch/no catch. When I first read the rule (like actually read it in the rule book), my first thought was the fumbled transfer on a sac fly. The outfielder is making that transfer so quickly that it has to be considered a no catch, because of point 2, but I felt it was rarely ruled that way.

But if you've taken a couple steps or banged into a wall, that's got to be demonstrating control. A dropped transfer after that point is definitely a voluntary release, just not released into the intended target: the throwing hand.

Apr 10, 2014 17:06 PM
rating: 0
 
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