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April 11, 2014

What You Need to Know

A Play at the Plate

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway

Update: The original version of the Takeaway indicated that the new ban on catchers blocking the plate resulted in Starlin Castro being called safe. That was not the case, and this portion is now revised to reflect the umpire’s comments after the game.

According to umpire Mark Carlson, the rule invoked at the plate that resulted in Castro being called safe was not Rule 7.13, which deals with the new ban on catchers blocking runners’ path to the dish. He ruled that Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez did not have possession of the throw from left fielder Starling Marte at the time when he tagged Castro.

Carlson told a pool reporter after the Pirates win:

"I didn't have (Sanchez) violating any rules for the collision play," Carlson told the pool reporter. "If he has the ball securely, he would have been able to block the plate. (Castro's) foot touched the plate before (Sanchez) had possession and control of the ball."

There are two critical elements that led to that call.

At the point of the tag, the ball is in Sanchez’s glove, and he appears to be clutching it with his bare hand to ensure that it won’t escape. He tags Castro’s left foot with his glove, which contains the ball but—according to Carlson—has not yet secured it.

The impact of the collision knocked Sanchez onto his back, at which point the ball wound up in his bare hand. That suggests Sanchez may not have had “full and complete control” of the ball at the time when he touched Castro’s foot.

One important distinction between the plate-collision rule and the possession rule is that the latter can be challenged. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle would have been at the mercy of the umpires’ discretion on the necessity of replay review had Carlson invoked Rule 7.13. In this case, though, after discussing the play with Carlson, Hurdle simply decided to stick with the call on the field.

As a result, the wait for a play on which Rule 7.13 is enforced continues.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Two years ago, Sam Miller wrote an article about unique pitching lines—lines that, as arduously as it might search its 100-year archives, the Baseball-Reference Play Index can’t find. Now, Sam is tracking unique lines regularly. And on Thursday, Danny Salazar added a doozy to his collection.

For the purposes of Sam’s mining, only two numbers in Salazar’s effort from the series opener between the Indians and White Sox actually matter: the 3 2/3 in the innings column and the 10 in the strikeouts department. No pitcher since at least 1914 has fanned 10 without recording at least 12 outs. Felix Hernandez, who whiffed 10 Angels in four frames last September 22, is the only one who had ever come close.

Unfortunately for the Indians, there’s a reason that manager Terry Francona had to fetch Salazar with two out in the fourth. By then, he’d allowed five runs on six hits (two of them homers) and two walks, and thrown 93 pitches. Efficiency wasn’t his strong suit.

Salazar isn’t the only pitcher whom rookie first baseman Jose Abreu tormented on Thursday. The 27-year-old went yard off of the right-hander in the second inning and then added another blast against lefty Josh Outman in the fifth, doubling his home run total for the season to four. In doing so, he helped the White Sox to snap a long-standing streak of futility against the Tribe.

Robin Ventura’s club lost 17 of its 19 meetings with Francona’s bunch in 2013, including each of the last 14. It was the Indians’ longest Expansion Era winning streak against any opponent. And now, it’s over.

***

On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka joined Stephen Strasburg in the exclusive club of pitchers who struck out eight or more batters in each of their first two major-league games. On Thursday, Strasburg decided to up the ante.

At one point in the 7-1 Nationals win over the Marlins, Strasburg—who worked 6 2/3 innings and struck out 12—could make this rather absurd claim:

The key to the right-hander’s dominance wasn’t his 96-mph fastball or either of his two 80-plus-mph breaking balls. It was his changeup:

Half of the dozen strikeouts in that video came on the off-speed offering, which Strasburg throws at 88-90 mph. He pulled the string 22 times and coaxed eight whiffs, a 36.4 percent clip—or 61.5 percent if you measure it by whiffs per swing (eight of 13). For comparison, the highest whiffs-per-swing rate induced by any pitcher’s changeup last season was 48.8 percent, set by Jarrod Parker. Strasburg’s was second at 47.3 percent.

In Thursday’s victory, the pitch was second to none. Strasburg mixed the cambio with his heater to get ahead and stay ahead, throwing 71 of his 98 total pitches and 22 of his 26 first pitches for strikes. Ian Desmond’s eighth-inning grand slam helped turn what had been a 2-1 edge into a 7-1 laugher. And Rafael Soriano slammed the door with two more Ks in the ninth.

By the time the Marlins left for the airport to travel north to Philadelphia, they had tied a dubious franchise record with 17 strikeouts—a mark they hadn’t touched in a nine-inning game since Curt Schilling and the Diamondbacks baffled the Cliff Floyd-led club on April 28, 2002. Six years before that, Hideo Nomo did it to Gary Sheffield and co. all by himself.

***

Pine tar…

…or dirt? You be the judge. Whatever it was, and whether or not it helped Michael Pineda in game one of four between the Red Sox and Yankees in the Bronx, the right-hander looked to be on the doorstep of recovering his pre-labrum-surgery form.

Pineda averaged 93 mph and touched 97 with his fastball, which he complemented mostly with a sharp slider and sparingly with a changeup that fooled Boston batters when used. He took advantage of home-plate umpire Bob Davidson’s loose outside corner to left-handed batters and limited the Red Sox to just a solo shot by Daniel Nava in six innings of seven-strikeout work.

For their part, the Red Sox said the pine tar (or dirt) was not a factor (as Dan Brooks’ perusal of the PITCHf/x data seemed to confirm). Cesar Cabral and David Phelps, who teamed up to record the last nine outs without ceding a baserunner, were equally effective in shutting down the visitors’ attack in the 4-1 Yankees win.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Not a lot of things went the Twins’ way in their 6-1 setback against the A’s, but Brian Dozier slugged a homer and turned in this gem in the field:

What to Watch for This Weekend

Friday

  • Eight walks, two hit batsmen, and a wild pitch in 11 2/3 innings isn’t quite what the Phillies had in mind when they signed A.J. Burnett to a two-year, $22.5 million deal in February, but that’s what the right-hander has delivered in his first two starts. He’ll try to right the ship when the Marlins come to town and send their ace, Jose Fernandez, to the Citizens Bank Park mound. The 21-year-old is already in midseason form, with a 17-to-2 K:BB ratio through 12 2/3 innings (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Nine games into the 2014 season, the Rangers are still waiting for Prince Fielder—whom they acquired from the Tigers for Ian Kinsler—to showcase his prodigious power. The 29-year-old has collected only two extra-base hits (both doubles) in his first 39 plate appearances with Ron Washington’s club, and he hasn’t really come close to clearing a fence. Fielder will look to change that as the Rangers begin a 10-game homestand by welcoming their cross-state rival Astros. Former Ranger Scott Feldman, who boasts a 0.66 ERA even though his K:BB ratio is 0.75, gets the ball for the visitors against Yu Darvish (8:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday

  • Royals catcher Salvador Perez walked just 21 times in 526 plate appearances across 138 games last year, a 4.0 percent clip. Over his last six games, he has drawn seven bases on balls and received an intentional free pass in 25 trips to the box. That comes out to a 32 percent rate. Small samples do funny things, but they often have an underlying cause—even if that cause eventually proves fluky.

    For Perez, improved discipline around the inner part of the zone appears to be involved. Compare his swing-rate chart from this year to the one he turned in last year, and you’ll see a roughly three-fold decrease in hacks at pitches off the inside edge. But is true skill refinement actually at play? Or are plate appearances like this four-pitch walk, in which Matt Moore—perhaps hindered by an elbow injury—couldn’t come within a foot of the dish, skewing the numbers?

    We’ll need more data to find out, and Perez should provide some this weekend. He’s due to dig in against Ricky Nolasco, who sports an 8.10 FIP through two outings with the Twins, in the middle match, assuming that manager Ned Yost doesn’t give him the day off after a night game (2:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday

  • Trivia time: When Chris Young last started a game against the Athletics, on June 27, 2006, he was a member of the Padres. His catcher that day was a future member of the A’s. Who was it? (The answer is below.)

    After turning in two clean innings out of the bullpen on April 6 (also against Oakland), Young has been deemed ready for his first big-league start since September 29, 2012. He’s scheduled to duel Scott Kazmir in the finale at Safeco Field (4:10 p.m. ET).

  • Ivan Nova is a mystery wrapped in a riddle—even to scouts, who can’t figure out where the “live mid-90s fastball and bastard curveball” that he used to carve up hitters in Grapefruit League play went once the regular season began. The 27-year-old coaxed four twin killings to escape with just two runs on his line in his debut, but he had no such luck when facing the Orioles on Tuesday, as they tagged him with seven runs on 10 hits in just 3 2/3 frames. His counterpart in the Sunday Night Baseball matchup, Felix Doubront, was almost equally ineffective, surrendering five runs on six hits and three walks to the Rangers without finishing the third. If neither of them shakes off those clunkers, the ESPN crew could be in for a slugfest in the Bronx (8:05 p.m. ET).

Trivia answer: Mike Piazza

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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