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April 29, 2014

What You Need to Know

Gray Matters

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
First innings have been a bear for Athletics ace Sonny Gray this season. Coming into his start at Globe Life Park on Monday, Gray had issued six walks and recorded four strikeouts in the opening frame of his first four starts; his K:BB ratio thereafter was a solid 27-to-7.

The 24-year-old continued that trend against the Rangers, falling behind 3-0 to leadoff man Michael Choice and eventually giving him a free pass to first. But two batters and six pitches later, Prince Fielder grounded into a double play. The first inning was over. And with that goose egg on the board, the Vanderbilt product never looked back.

Gray scattered three hits, all of them singles, and one hit batter the rest of the way in the 4-0 win. He recorded 13 ground-ball outs and fanned six, four of them on his curveball, which impressed Adrian Beltre in the fourth inning. The right-hander was cruising so comfortably, he decided to mix in pitches that his manager forgot existed:

The slider appeared only three times in the outing, registering 88-89 mph on the radar gun, but Gray had thrown it only once this year before Adrian Beltre fouled one off in the second inning. His second slider of the game whiffed Alex Rios in the fifth.

Gray’s three-hitter was Oakland’s first complete-game shutout of the season and the club’s first blanking with three or fewer hits allowed since A.J. Griffin flummoxed the Reds on June 26 of last year. It also marked just the 10th shutout with no more than three knocks at the bandbox in Arlington, the fifth by a visitor, and the sixth such effort in which the pitcher did not permit an extra-base hit.

Martin Perez tossed a three-hitter for the home team with the White Sox in town earlier this year, but he coughed up a double in the process. Matt Garza was the last non-Ranger to fare so well in the unfriendly confines, and that was more than five years ago.

The 24-year-old Gray now ranks fifth in the American League with a 1.76 ERA. He trails Perez, the junior circuit leader, by 0.34, and his teammate, Scott Kazmir, by 0.14. Those two lefties are set to lock horns in game two (8:05 p.m. ET).

Quick Hits From Monday
Yu Darvish, Gray’s counterpart on Monday, saw his night end much sooner. What had been a widely anticipated, nationally televised duel ground to a halt in the fourth inning, when the right-hander coughed up his third and fourth runs of the game and watched Ron Washington emerge from the home dugout.

It was the second straight disappointing outing for Darvish, both of them at the hands of the Athletics. He fought poor fastball command at the Coliseum last week, when more than half of his 56 four-seamers went for balls, but fought through six innings to notch a quality start in a game in which the Rangers eventually prevailed. The 27-year-old’s command wavered again in the rematch—and this time, he wasn’t so lucky.

Darvish has always preferred to pound the outer half of the zone when facing opposite-handed batters, but he took that approach to an unhealthy extreme last night, when A’s manager Bob Melvin’s loaded his lineup with lefties. Coco Crisp and Josh Donaldson, the lone righty starter for Oakland, both swung and missed at sliders in the first inning, a 1-2-3 frame.

That was the only inning in which Darvish retired the side in order. And those whiffs represented his entire total for the 83-pitch outing.

In 65 starts since he came stateside from Japan, Darvish had never failed to notch at least five whiffs; his command on Monday was so poor that he couldn’t even reach half that number. In his last 56 starts, Darvish had never failed to complete the fifth inning; he was so inefficient on Monday that Washington had seen all he could take with one out in the fourth.

With the clunker, Darvish’s career ERA versus the A’s ballooned to 4.73, more than a run and a half higher than his major-league ERA against everyone else.

***

Speaking of not having it—Wade Miley didn’t, either.

The left-hander became the latest Diamondbacks starter to take a beating: 10 hits, seven of them for extra bases, two of them round-trippers. But Miley took one for the struggling team, enduring six innings, after which Kirk Gibson’s club trailed only 7-4.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Miley is the first pitcher since at least 1914 to record 18 or more outs while coughing up at least seven runs and seven extra-base knocks, all on fewer than 90 pitches. He could not have earned that footnote in the history books without Troy Tulowitzki.

The shortstop’s triple-slash line before his first plate appearance was .342/.449/.646. He had more walks (17) than strikeouts (13). Tulowitzki’s OPS was 195 points higher than that of Alexei Ramirez (.900), the second-best in that category at his position.

That wasn’t enough for Tulo, who doubled in the first inning and then doubled again in the third. Still dissatisfied, he led off the sixth with a home run.

Randall Delgado and J.J. Putz either thought better of pitching to Tulowitzki or lost the strike zone, tacking a couple of free passes onto his National League-leading total.

Now, Tulowitzki’s triple-slash line stands at .366/.476/.720. It’s not easy to raise a 1.095 OPS by 101 points, even at the 27-game mark of the season. But by turning in his first-ever big-league game with three or more extra-base hits and two-plus walks, Tulowitzki managed to do it.

***

From Trevor Rosenthal’s gas to Carlos Martinez’s electric arsenal to Seth Maness’s worm-killing to Kevin Siegrist’s and Randy Choate’s lefty-squashing, by the end of 2013, the Cardinals bullpen was the envy of the league. Last night, the first-place Brewers went toe-to-toe against that crew and came out on top.

Long after Yovani Gallardo departed with six innings of three-run work to his credit, the scoreboard at Busch Stadium read 3-3 in the top of the 12th. Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith combined on a scoreless seventh after the Brewers tied the game against Michael Wacha and Pat Neshek, the first man out of Mike Matheny’s bullpen. Jim Henderson tackled the eighth, matching Martinez. Brandon Kintzler handled the ninth, and Zach Duke took over in the 10th; in tandem, they battled Rosenthal to a draw. Duke, a former starter, had another goose egg in his arm, which erased Choate.

Maness couldn’t hold the line, surrendering two runs on a Jonathan Lucroy double, a Khris Davis triple, and a Mark Reynolds sacrifice fly. Francisco Rodriguez bent—allowing a two-out single to Yadier Molina and issuing a walk to Allen Craig—but did not break, coaxing a fly out by Jhonny Peralta to secure the 5-3 win.

The Brewers’ relief corps entered the road series with a 2.36 aggregate ERA over 72 1/3 innings, during which it had walked only 17 and struck out 86. Add in Monday’s six clean frames, and that mark improves to 2.18. Subtract the six runs allowed in three innings by Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang—who pitched the 2013 season in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and is on the roster as a long-term stash—and it would be a league-best 1.55.

Ron Roenicke’s club is now 19-7, 5 ½ games ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Central, and 10-1 away from Miller Park. His relievers might be the biggest reason for the Brewers’ hot start. Now they just need to work on their dance moves.

***

Fact one: In the first 11 games of his 2014 campaign, Rene Rivera had zero extra-base hits and zero RBI.

Fact two: In Monday’s 6-4 victory over the Giants, Rivera drove in five runs on a two-run double and a three-run homer.

Rivera jumped on a first-pitch, get-me-over cutter from Madison Bumgarner in the fourth inning to get the Padres on the board. The Giants came back with three runs in the home half of the frame. But Bumgarner didn’t learn his lesson: He grooved a changeup to start Rivera’s next at-bat, and this time, the Friars’ catcher touched ’em all.

In doing so, Rivera delivered the first five-RBI game by a Padres backstop since Ramon Hernandez did it on September 27, 2005, also against the Giants. He also became the first Padres batter at any position to drive in five or more runs in a win in which the team scored six or fewer since Phil Nevin did it on July 28, 2001.

Not a bad night for a 30-year-old who woke up on Monday morning with just 22 RBI in 132 major-league games.

The Defensive Play of the Day
This isn’t just the defensive play of the day. It’s also the baserunning play of the day.

How’s that for a center fielder one-upping his counterpart?

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Sometimes, players fall into slumps; less often, entire teams do. Right now, the Pirates are in a club-wide funk, batting .160/.245/.203 over their past six games with 44 strikeouts in 211 plate appearances. Clint Hurdle’s offense was held to two or fewer runs in five of those six contests, including two shutouts in a three-game set versus the Cardinals over the weekend. Meanwhile, top prospect Gregory Polanco is batting .400 for Triple-A Indianapolis… but I digress.

    Next up for the Bucs: a visit to Camden Yards, a hitter-friendly yard, but one in which the hosts have struggled this year. The Orioles own the league’s worst home OPS (.573) and have slugged only five home runs in 11 games in Baltimore. That’s good news for Charlie Morton, who enters on a three-start losing streak and has beaned a league-high five batters to date. The right-hander is scheduled to face Chris Tillman in the opener (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Last week, Jose Fernandez and Alex Wood gave us a duel for the ages. Tonight, they’ll try to deliver a worthy encore, this time in Miami, where the Braves and Marlins kick off a three-game set. Despite mechanics that “scare small children” and might eventually pave his way to the bullpen, the 23-year-old Wood has thus far shown few signs of wearing down under a starter’s workload. He has logged at least seven innings in four of five assignments and eight in each of his past two, though his velocity did tick down a bit in the late stages of his 11-strikeout effort against the Braves on April 22. Of course, the same was true of Fernandez, who began the evening firing 99-mph gas before settling for 96 in the eighth (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Jered Weaver’s strikeouts are down (from 18.5 percent to 17.6 percent). His walks are up (from 5.8 percent to 8.8 percent). And his HR:FB ratio is climbing (from 7.8 percent to 10.4 percent), too, which might be the most worrisome news of all for one of the league’s most fly-ball-dependent starters. The 31-year-old Weaver has evaded serious damage in the early going, partly thanks to a .221 BABIP, but he’s been little more than a replacement-level starter to date. That’s bad news for the Angels, who owe the Long Beach State product about $54 million between now and the end of the 2016 season. They’ll hope for a turnaround in tonight’s matchup with Corey Kluber and the Indians (10:05 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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