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April 28, 2014

What You Need to Know

Jose Abreu's Amazing Month

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
There are 30 days in April—30 days for rookies who earn Opening Day roster spots to challenge the record for home runs hit in a player’s first major-league month. By that standard, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is an overachiever. He needed only 25.

Abreu welcomed the Rays to U.S. Cellular Field on Friday by singling home Adam Eaton in the first inning to draw first blood in the four-game series. The Rays countered with four runs in the second. Abreu fired back by clearing the 400-foot mark in dead-center field:

That solo blast off of Chris Archer was Abreu’s eighth, tying him with Carlos Delgado, Kent Hrbek, and Albert Pujols for the first-year April record. The White Sox tied the game at 4-4 in the fourth inning, and no one else would cross the plate until the ninth, when Matt Lindstrom unraveled and coughed up two on a homer by Evan Longoria.

Not to worry. Abreu had his closer’s back:

He broke the aforementioned record in grand fashion, tattooing a Grant Balfour fastball into the Rays bullpen past the right-center field fence for a walk-off salami. It was the first game-ending slam hit with the White Sox trailing since Abreu’s manager, Robin Ventura, did it on July 31, 1991. And it gave Abreu the third multi-homer game of his nascent big-league career, a feat that no other player has accomplished in his first 24 contests in at least a century.

The 27-year-old wasn’t about to stop there, either. He continued his assault on Rays pitching yesterday afternoon, this time taking aim at David Price. By the time Abreu and the White Sox were through with the ace left-hander, Price had eight runs on his line for just the fourth time in his career and the first since May 4 of last year.

Abreu’s chief contribution came amid a five-run sixth inning, when Price hung an offspeed pitch and watched it get walloped to left field:

That two-run homer ticked Abreu’s RBI total for the month up to 29, breaking another Pujols-held record. Abreu chipped in a pair in the ensuing frame, too, part of a four-run rally that chased Price and saddled Josh Lueke with a run in what ended up a 9-2 White Sox win.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Abreu’s power display is that he has distributed the souvenirs around the bleachers:

Sunday’s long ball off of Price was Abreu’s first to left-center field. The righty-swinger has yanked two down the left-field line, centered five, gone to right-center twice, and used an inside-out swing to club one over the right-field corner.

Color the Rays impressed.

With three homers and 10 RBI already on his résumé for the series, Abreu has one more chance to pad his April records before Joe Maddon’s squad leaves town. He’ll square off with Jake Odorizzi in support of Andre Rienzo tonight (8:10 p.m. ET).

Quick Hits From the Weekend
Walking eight batters without allowing a hit is usually a good sign for a pitcher. No really, it is:

Until Saturday, the two most recent such starts resulted in no-hitters: Edwin Jackson’s on June 25, 2010, and A.J. Burnett’s on May 12, 2001. Dating back to 1938, Johnny Vander Meer, Cliff Chambers, Jim Maloney, Dock Ellis, and Nolan Ryan had also thrown complete-game no-nos in such effectively wild fashion. Together, those accounted for seven of the 18 qualifying outings logged since 1914, according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index.

At least for two innings, Brandon Morrow, the 19th pitcher ever to meet the eight-BB, zero-H criteria, seemed set to follow in their footsteps. The righty walked two in the first but escaped unscathed by inducing a double play ball. He issued two more free passes in the second but again wriggled out thanks to a twin killing. Morrow retired the first two batters in the top of the third.

And that’s when things began to go awry.

Shane Victorino walked. David Ortiz walked. Mike Carp walked. Morrow had nowhere to put Grady Sizemore, but he walked him, too. That got the Red Sox on the board and Morrow out of the game. Unfortunately for Morrow, A.J. Pierzynski greeted reliever Chad Jenkins with a grand slam. And to make matters worse for the Blue Jays—albeit not for Morrow—Will Middlebrooks launched a big fly, too.

Apart from a few badly dirt-bound offerings and a badly errant slider, Morrow’s wildness was confined to the right side of the plate, as pitch after pitch sailed in that direction. The Red Sox were seldom tempted to lift their bats from their shoulders.

Umpire Jeff Kellogg compounded the issue by enforcing a tight strike zone, but any arbiter would have called most of Morrow’s balls that way. And while pitching coach Pete Walker sacrificed himself in an argument, Morrow and manager John Gibbons absolved Kellogg after the game.

Morrow became the 15th pitcher ever to squeeze eight walks into an outing of 2 2/3 or fewer innings and the first since Kerry Wood did it on September 22, 2000. He’s the first to do it without permitting a hit since Steve Adkins on September 12, 1990, and the first to fulfill both of those requirements while being charged with at least four runs since Billy Pierce, who suffered that fate in relief on August 3, 1948.


Justin Upton has wrapped two slumps and at least one surge into the same, still-ongoing month.

The Braves’ outfielder went 6-for-30 with 11 strikeouts and zero extra-base hits over his first eight games of 2014.

Over his next four games, he racked up 11 hits in 14 at-bats, including two doubles and four home runs, while striking out only once. Adding the previous two games to expand that sample to 26 plate appearances still gives Upton a .591/.654/1.227 triple-slash line for the six contests. He was named National League Player of the Week.

Over the ensuing nine games (eight starts), Upton plunged into a 6-for-33 schneid and fanned 20 times. During this stretch, he saw 66 fastballs and cutters, swung at 31 of them, and hit only one into fair territory (actually, into the seats).

On Sunday, in a 1-0, 10-inning Braves victory, Upton was the only Atlanta batter to notch two hits (and one of two to author an extra-base hit) off of Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who threw eight shutout innings and whiffed 11. That came on the heels of a 3-for-3 Saturday and a 1-for-4 Friday. He went deep in both of those games, and so over the last three he is 6-for-11 with a double, two homers, and no strikeouts. That’s a tiny sample, but Twitter has already declared him flamin’ hot.


Alexi Ogando’s Sunday afternoon began with a three-pitch strikeout on three straight fastballs. It continued with another three-pitch strikeout, this time on three sliders. He pulled the string on two changeups to Justin Smoak, and jumped ahead 0-2. Ogando was one pitch away from holding a 5-3 lead with an immaculate inning.

Then he strayed from the pattern.

Ogando’s next pitch was a fastball that missed the zone for a ball. His next was another fastball, which Smoak drilled for a double. Ogando’s first pitch to Dustin Ackley wound up as an infield single. His second pitch to Kyle Seager cleared the wall for a three-run homer.

And that’s the story of how Alexi Ogando went from the cusp of an immaculate inning to a blown save and a loss in a span of five pitches.


Seager, of course, played a pivotal role in that most drastic of swings. The third baseman began the season in a 10-for-64 hole with four doubles, no dingers, and 17 strikeouts. He snapped out of it on Thursday and has been virtually unstoppable ever since.

The 26-year-old swatted two taters in the Mariners’ series finale versus the Astros, then welcomed the Rangers to Safeco Field with another on Friday. He collected two singles in Saturday’s game, then went back to yardwork on Sunday. The game-winning blast off of Ogando was his second in as many innings.

And that’s the story of how Kyle Seager went from a .499 OPS to a .468 slugging percentage in 16 plate appearances near the end of April.


When he was manager of the Brewers, Royals manager Ned Yost once told us that learning from the past is key to baseball success.

I’m not saying that you forget what you learned; I’m saying that you forget the results. You may be 0-for-4, or you may be 4-for-4, but that’s not going to help you today, so forget about it. You take your experiences with you every single day and that’s how you become better. It’s by going through adversity, by learning the game, understanding what happened in this situation, and you need to do it to get better.

That’s sage advice from a longtime baseball man. We’ll return to it in a moment.

On Saturday, with the Royals and Orioles knotted, 2-2, in the 10th inning of a game being played at Camden Yards, Yost elected to leave his closer, Greg Holland, sitting in the bullpen, as just about any old-school manager would.

Danny Duffy hit the leadoff man, Jonathan Schoop, and then made back-to-back throwing errors to load the bases with nobody out. Even in that perilous situation, Yost did not elect to use Holland. He went instead with Louis Coleman, who struck out Nelson Cruz before allowing a walk-off single to Nick Markakis.

Now, rewind to Opening Day, March 31, Royals at Tigers, 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Wade Davis, who pitched the eighth, stayed on the mound for the visitors and retired the first batter before walking Alex Avila and serving up a single to Nick Castellanos. There were runners at the corners and one out. Yost made the call for Holland, who gave up a game-ending single to Alex Gonzalez.

Many of us would argue that Yost should have used Holland at the outset of the ninth inning and resisted the urge to save him for a save situation. Nonetheless, it’s worth crediting Yost for putting his best reliever on the mound when it mattered most. It may have been too late, but from an intelligent-bullpen-usage standpoint, late is better than never.

For a proponent of learning from experience, as Yost himself claims to be, there were two possible lessons to be gleaned from that 4-3 defeat:

  • Holland should be on the mound to start the ninth (or later) inning of a tie game on the road.
  • Holland should never be used in a tie game on the road.

Yost chose the latter. As peculiar and erroneous as we might find that choice to be, it is a legitimate choice. Yost must have had some rationale for it, be it wanting to restrict the bullets in Holland’s arm to those that he might use to earn a save, or believing that closers need the adrenaline rush that comes with protecting a small lead, or something else entirely. Either of those might have led us to sigh and move on.

Instead, Yost said this, referring to the Opening Day game:

That’s the first time I’ve ever used my closer (in that situation). Because I really wanted to win that game on Opening Day. But don’t look for me to do it. I’m not going to do it. Because I’ve got confidence in everybody down there.

Let’s break this head-scratcher down:

  • Yost learned before Opening Day that if you really want to win a tight road game, you should use your closer whether or not you have the lead.
  • On Opening Day, his closer failed.
  • Yost decided that he would never use his closer in that situation again…
  • …even though that’s what years in the game told him you should do if you really want to win.

This from a man who said, some six years ago, “You don’t forget experiences, you just forget results.” It seems Yost may need a reminder that leaders ought to practice what they preach.

The Defensive Play of the Weekend
For the first time this season, a minor leaguer, Double-A Akron second baseman Tony Wolters, earns the nod:

Honorable mention: This throw by Josh Reddick. And this catch by David Lough.

What to Watch for on Monday
More than half of the league is taking the day off, so only 14 teams are in action tonight…

  • Legal trouble aside, the Alfredo Simon rotation experiment is still going off without a hitch, as the converted reliever owns a 1.30 ERA through four starts, and the Reds are 3-1 behind him. But there is one reason for concern: Simon’s walks have ticked up from game to game over the past three, spiking to a season-high five in a 6 2/3-inning victory over the Pirates on April 23. The 32-year-old right-hander now welcomes the Cubs to Great American Ball Park for what will be his second home outing of the young season. Simon’s K:BB ratio versus left-handed batters stands at an even 8-to-8, and he could see as many as seven of them in the visitors’ lineup—if manager Rick Renteria opts to skew his lineup—when he duels Jeff Samardzija tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • The year’s second head-to-head matchup between the Athletics and Rangers begins with a bang, as the visitors send Sonny Gray to the mound to duel Yu Darvish. Ron Washington’s squad packed its brooms for the trip to Oakland last week, when the Rangers pitching staff limited the A’s to seven runs over three games to earn a sweep. Darvish labored in his outing at the Coliseum last Monday, needing 116 pitches to complete six innings, over which he permitted 12 baserunners. He’ll strive to be more efficient this evening (8:05 p.m. ET).

  • While we’re on the subject of former starters who became relievers and are now back in the rotation, Franklin Morales has recovered from a rough start to the year to work 13 innings of two-run ball over his last two assignments. More importantly, the southpaw fanned 12 while issuing only three walks during that stretch after handing out six free passes in his first 11 2/3 frames of the year. Next up: a date with the Diamondbacks, who have scuffled versus southpaws in the early going, assembling a collective .230/.294/.330 triple-slash line entering play on Sunday (9:40 p.m. ET).

  • And to complete a swingman-heavy “What to Watch for” segment, it’s Tyson Ross, who’s scheduled to lock horns with Madison Bumgarner in this evening’s opener at AT&T Park. After bouncing around between the bullpen and rotation during his time with the Athletics and his first year with the Padres, Ross appeared to have his “Eureka!” moment during the second half of 2013, when he worked exclusively as a starter and posted a 2.93 ERA to go with an 85-to-23 K:BB ratio in 80 innings. But the Cal product wasn’t content with that progress; if his early PITCHf/x data is any indication, Ross spent the offseason and the first few weeks of 2014 continuing to refine his arsenal.

    The 27-year-old was chiefly a fastball-slider pitcher during the 2013 season, even after he became a rotation mainstay down the stretch. That raised two concerns, both of which Craig Goldstein mentioned in his writeup of Ross as a fantasy pitcher to avoid: Ross’ fastball command has a history of eluding him at times, and throwing lots of sliders can break down a pitcher’s arm, an issue to which Ross—who underwent Tommy John surgery while at Cal in 2005, sprained his UCL in the minors in 2010, and missed two weeks with a subluxed shoulder last year—is not immune.

Over the first month of the regular season, which includes five starts for Ross, the right-hander has progressively increased his sinker usage when facing opposite-handed batters while essentially curbing his four-seam fastball and changeup. Catcher Rene Rivera encouraged the shift when Ross faced the Giants two starts ago on April 19, and the result was one of the best outings of Ross’s career: eight innings of four-hit, shutout ball with one walk and nine strikeouts.

Tonight, Ross gets his second look of the season at Bruce Bochy’s club. The sinker may have caught the Giants by surprise that night at Petco Park, but the cat is now out of the bag. Ross’s pitch mix in game one of three in San Francisco could provide a window into the adjustments he intends to make as the season wears on (10:15 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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