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May 5, 2014

What You Need to Know

Weekend Wrap-Up, 5/5

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
About a month and a half ago, the Baseball Prospectus staff wrote about spring training performances we sort of believed in. Rob Arthur chose to cover Anthony Rizzo, who was batting .392/.452/.750 at the time. With six home runs through 121 plate appearances, Rizzo has spent the first month and change of the season giving us reason to believe that the power spike he showed in Arizona is here to stay. But he’s done more than that. Still three months shy of his 25th birthday, Rizzo might be morphing into one of the best hitters in the National League.

Between Wednesday and Saturday of last week, Rizzo went deep in three consecutive games for the first time in his career. Equally as notable as the thump, though, were two of the pitchers against whom he displayed it.

Tony Cingrani, who gave up Rizzo’s first-inning homer on Wednesday, is a bear for left-handed hitters. In his first 138 innings in the majors, he’d allowed only one home run to a fellow southpaw. Rizzo worked the count into his favor by laying off of two low fastballs, which bought him the one over the plate that he drove to the opposite field.

Randy Choate, Rizzo’s victim on Saturday, has one job: rendering lefty sluggers powerless. He does it exceptionally well. When Choate took the mound in the eighth inning of the middle match at Wrigley Field, he did so with a streak of 107 homer-less appearances. His last gopher ball had come on August 1, 2012. Rizzo didn't wait around: He got a Reagan-era fastball over the plate and rocketed it into the right-center field stands.

That’s two homers off of two tough lefties in a span of three days. This, from a hitter who’d been stymied to the tune of a .189/.282/.342 slash line in 216 plate appearances versus lefties last year.

Rob wasn’t the only one who thought Rizzo was on the verge of a breakout this spring. Scouts who saw him in the desert did, too. Three of them told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune that Rizzo looked “more comfortable and more selective against left-handers.” The data from his first 28 games of the regular season affirms their observations.

There were two clear weaknesses in Rizzo’s swing versus port-siders last year: below the knees and in on his hands. Unfortunately, Rizzo wasn’t particularly adept at spitting on pitches in those parts of the hitting area:

Fast forward to 2014:

Rizzo is swinging less often in general this year than he did last, and from a percentage standpoint, most of that decrease has come on offerings below the strike zone. The sample size is small—and it’s even smaller off the plate inside—but even in one month of action, the apparent change has produced tangible results.

Year

LD%

FB%

GB%

IFFB%

BB%

K%

2013

17.1

40.4

42.5

15.3

10.2

20.4

2014

30.8

26.9

42.3

0.0

15.0

20.0

If the 40 plate appearances of data contained in the above table can be trusted, Rizzo is squaring up the ball far more often. Joe Mauer and Jacoby Ellsbury are the only hitters with as many trips to the box and a higher left-on-left line-drive rate than Rizzo, and their combined home-run total (three) is half of his. Mauer is the only other one who’s yet to pop the ball up.

Rizzo will need a healthy dose of luck to sustain his .435 BABIP against like-handed hurlers, but keeping up that batted-ball profile would give him a chance to hover around .400. A popup-free diet with a 30 percent line-drive clip is Joey Votto territory, and Rizzo’s Reds counterpart posted a .404 BABIP in 2012.

A month’s worth of action is hardly enough data on which to proclaim Rizzo an elite hitter on par with Votto or even a tier below. But at least in a month-long sample, the underlying numbers are present. All Rizzo needs to do is sustain them.

Quick Hits from the Weekend
In the wee minutes of Saturday morning in the Bronx, David DeJesus was eating an ice cream bar in the Rays dugout:

That can only mean one thing: #weirdbaseball. And boy, was it.

The Rays led 4-2 heading into the home half of the eighth. Mark Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano erased that lead with back-to-back home runs. The Rays put one on the board in the top of the ninth, but the Yankees countered with a run of their own. That 5-5 tie would hold for a while, and eventually, the fun began.

The Yankees threatened to walk off in the last of the 12th, when Jacoby Ellsbury singled and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt attempt that became a throwing error when Heath Bell chucked the ball into center field. That put runners at first and second with nobody out. Carlos Beltran hit a ground ball to second. Here’s what happened:

That’s a 4-3-3-6-3-4-3-4-5-2 double play.

In the 13th inning, the Yankees once again put the first two runners on, this time on singles by Brian McCann and Brian Roberts. Yangervis Solarte hit a ground ball to first. Sean Rodriguez fielded it and stepped on the bag to retire Solarte, then initiated a rundown to try to complete the twin killing. Here’s what happened:

Yunel Escobar took himself out of the play when Roberts scampered back to first, and with no one backing up the keystone end of the pickle, Roberts enjoyed a free path to second base. That put runners at second and third with one out, and—with the designated hitter eliminated by an earlier substitution—Joe Girardi needed a pinch-hitter for pitcher Adam Warren. He chose Brett Gardner, at which point Joe Maddon responded by setting up a five-man infield.

Gardner validated that unorthodox alignment with a ground ball to the first baseman, Rodriguez, who wasn’t close enough to the base to take it himself. Instead, he threw it to Wil Myers, who had joined the infield and was playing first base.

That’s a 3-9 putout, if you’re scoring at home, which, according to Twitter’s best Retrosheet efforts, had never happened before in recorded major-league history.

With another out under his belt, Bell walked Ellsbury intentionally to bring Derek Jeter to the plate with the bases loaded and two down. Jeter hit a comebacker to end the inning—and even that anticlimactic at-bat was historic. It marked the first time in 19-plus big-league seasons and 2,624 big-league games that Jeter had gone 0-for-7.

A five-run Rays rally in the top of the 14th made Bell, who wound up throwing 43 pitches in 2 1/3 innings before Josh Lueke replaced him in the bottom of the frame, the winner. It was his first victory in a Rays uniform.

Bell’s reward: getting to throw 28 more pitches on about 15 hours of rest on Saturday afternoon. And then, a ticket out of town.

***

The Pirates were batting .190/.288/.251 over their previous eight games and hadn’t homered in 69 innings. The Blue Jays’ bullpen was wilting under a heavy workload, and closer Sergio Santos, who came on to protect a 5-3 lead, entered with an 8.31 ERA, having blown two of his previous three save chances. Something had to give.

Three batters in, Santos gave…

Pedro Alvarez a center-cut fastball to mash into the center-field stands and tie the game.

Two batters later, Santos gave…

Starling Marte another middle-middle heater to smack into the Pirates bullpen and send the PNC Park crowd home happy. It was Marte’s first extra-base hit since he’d last gone yard, way back on April 14. He’d batted .207/.292/.207 in the interim, with 18 strikeouts in 65 plate appearances.

The 6-5 defeat also cost Santos his temporary gig as the Blue Jays’ closer, which manager John Gibbons will now decide on a game-to-game basis. It’s tough to lose your job while striking out 17 batters in 9 1/3 innings, but despite his success in the bat-missing department, Santos had coughed up 12 hits—three of them homers—walked nine, and uncorked three wild pitches.

He’d also turned in just about the weirdest pitch-type result split you’ll ever see:

The easy advice would be to tell Santos to throw more sliders, but he’s already using the breaking ball 38 percent of the time. To right the ship, the right-hander is going to have to start spotting his fastball somewhere other than the heart of the plate.

In the meantime, Marcus Stroman is on the way to help the beleaguered bullpen.

***

The Brewers weren’t going to play .700 ball all year, and they finally hit a bump in the road in Cincinnati this weekend, where the Reds took three of four. With Ryan Braun hurt and Aramis Ramirez in a 4-for-48 slump, Ron Roenicke’s club foundered at the plate, failing to score four runs in any of the matchups at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. That’s unfortunate, as Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt pointed out, because the Brew Crew is 17-0 when it reaches that total this year.

Only a 2-0 victory in game two of four saved the Brewers from being swept for the first time in 2014. And even in that one, the offense let its pitcher, Wily Peralta, do all of the heavy lifting.

The visitors and hosts combined for one hit in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position on Friday. The only knock? This fifth-inning double by Peralta—the fourth hit by a Brewers pitcher this year—which one-hopped the wall and brought home the only runs in the game:

Of course, the 24-year-old Peralta had a hand in the other end of that equation, too. He scattered three hits and two walks over eight frames on the bump to lower his ERA to 2.04. To find the last time the righty was charged with more than three earned runs, you’d have to go back a dozen assignments to last August 18. With the all-around masterpiece, Peralta became the first pitcher since Tim Hudson on June 20, 2011 to blank an opponent for eight or more innings while accounting for all of his team’s runs.

Peralta has been the chief beneficiary of the Brewers’ defensive shifts, which have yielded a .215 opponents’ BABIP on ground balls. Peralta’s foes, who’ve hit the ball on the ground 54.5 percent of the time, have teamed up for a .197 average in those at-bats.

***

On Saturday, Jon Lester became the first left-handed pitcher to strike out 15 batters since Francisco Liriano did it on July 13, 2012. Both of those outings came in 6-3 decisions against the Athletics, but the similarities between them end there.

For one thing, Liriano and the Twins were on the losing end of his duel against A.J. Griffin. Lester, on the other hand, left with a 6-0 lead. Jonny Gomes slugged his fifth career grand slam in the bottom of the first inning, and Lester never looked back, permitting only one hit and two walks in the 119-pitch effort.

Liriano dominated the Athletics with his slider, coaxing 17 whiffs on the 39 that he spun, many of them in the dirt:

Lester blew the A’s away with his fastball and cutter, and he induced fewer swings-and-misses (14) with all of his offerings than Liriano did with his slider alone:

The 30-year-old Lester threw 98 total hard pitches, and the Athletics put only seven of them in play.

With only one lefty (Josh Reddick) in manager Bob Melvin’s platoon-laden lineup, Lester pounded the low-and-away quadrant to Oakland’s righties, and they rarely swung at pitches in that part of the zone, as evidenced by all of the bright-red called strikes on the above chart.

“He was working the corners really well, taking balls around the back side to righties and front door to lefties,” catcher David Ross told reporters after the game.

The A’s, meanwhile, were looking for pitches over the inner half, perhaps eager to take aim at the Green Monster. But even when Lester threw it there, they seldom managed to do more than foul it off.

Only 32 (43 percent) of Liriano’s 75 strikes were called by the umpire or hit foul. By contrast, 55 (72 percent) of Lester’s 76 fit into one of those two categories. He’s the first pitcher of either handedness to record 15 punchouts without getting at least 15 whiffs since Cliff Lee baffled the Braves on May 6, 2011.

Lester is also just the fifth Red Sox pitcher ever, and only the second lefty, to collect 15 Ks. Roger Clemens (six times), Pedro Martinez (10), and Bill Monbouquette (once) are the righties on the list; Martinez had been the only one to do it while permitting fewer than two hits. Mickey McDermott is other southpaw—and he needed 16 innings to fan 15 Indians on July 28, 1951.

An impending free agent, Lester now owns a 58-to-10 K:BB ratio through seven starts. It improves to 43-to-5 when Ross, who has caught five of Lester’s games to date, is in the squat. That explains why the veteran catcher “expect[s] that kind of performance every time he goes to the mound.”

***

During Jenrry Mejia’s days as a top-10 prospect in the Mets farm system, many evaluators—including BP alumnus Kevin Goldstein—pegged the right-hander as a future reliever while giving him a puncher’s chance to stick in the rotation. The 23-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2011 and went under the knife again last August to have bone chips removed from his elbow, but he pitched well during a brief big-league stint in 2013 and earned a job in the starting five out of spring training.

Six games into the 2014 campaign, Mejia is undefeated and has fanned 34 batters in 32 2/3 innings. On the other hand, he’s sporting a 5.23 ERA, only slightly worse than his 4.70 FIP. The five gopher balls he’s served up are chiefly to blame. But dig a little deeper into each of Mejia’s starts, and a stark pattern emerges:

Hitter’s PA in Game

Slash Line

K:BB Ratio

1st (54 PA)

.160/.222/.220

16-to-4

2nd (54 PA)

.239/.352/.413

15-to-8

3rd (38 PA)

.438/.526/.656

3-to-5

A good deal of the damage in the second and third rows of the above table came in Saturday’s wild affair at Coors Field, in which Mejia posted four zeroes while the Mets scored six times against Rockies starter Franklin Morales. Then came the bottom of the fifth inning, which began ominously, as Ryan Wheeler, staring down Mejia for the second time as the sixth-place hitter in Walt Weiss’s lineup, slugged a solo home run. It would only get worse from there.

Jordan Pacheco singled. D.J. LeMahieu walked. Pinch-hitter Brandon Barnes hit into a force play at second base, leaving runners at the corners with one out for the top of the order. Mejia would face five more batters without retiring any of them.

Charlie Blackmon singled. Drew Stubbs singled. Carlos Gonzalez singled. Troy Tulowitzki was hit by a pitch. And then, on the first pitch he saw from Mejia, Nolan Arenado brought them all home with a grand slam.

That was all for Mejia, who has now surrendered 14 runs in his last 10 innings of work—13 of them following his final trip to the mound in each of the past two games.

Virtually all of the fifth-inning damage came in early counts; only one of the nine Rockies who batted versus Mejia saw more than three pitches. After keeping the home nine at bay for four frames and two-and-a-half turns through the order, Mejia and catcher Anthony Recker weren’t fooling anyone in the fifth.

For now, Mejia will remain a member of the rotation, as manager Terry Collins told reporters that he expects him to pitch against the Phillies on Friday. But even the skipper acknowledged that Mejia’s injury history and outings like the one he had on Saturday could eventually force a permanent move to the bullpen.

***

Corey Kluber set an Indians franchise record on Sunday by striking out seven White Sox in a row. He whiffed 13 total, becoming just the fifth Tribe pitcher since 2000 to reach that number in a game. That was a shrewd game plan, because the Indians entered play yesterday having allowed opponents to bat .271 on worm-killers, the third-worst clip in the majors. They’d also committed a league-high 16 errors on ground balls.

Unfortunately, tossing eight innings of one-run ball didn’t help Kluber beat the South Siders, even as his battery-mate, George Kottaras, became the first player in Indians history to go yard in his first two trips to the plate. For the second time in five starts, the right-hander gave the Indians a chance to win, only to watch John Axford melt down in the ninth.

The first-year Indians closer threw 28 pitches and notched only two outs, permitting two walks and a three-run bomb by Dayan Viciedo in between. That was all the scoring the White Sox would need in the 3-1 decision. Matt Lindstrom, who coughed up a one-run edge on April 13 to set Axford’s first blown save of the year, blanked the Indians in the home half of the ninth following his second.

So, should Cody Allen’s fantasy owners rejoice? Nope, said manager Terry Francona, urging Axford to “have a bit of amnesia, come back tomorrow and get a save.” For more on the situation, check out Mauricio Rubio’s Closer to Me column, which includes a weekly look over Axford’s shoulder at Allen’s chances of usurping the job.

The Defensive Play of the Weekend
Troy Tulowitzki can pick it with the best of them, and he’s hovering around .400 at the plate. But his partner on the left side of the Rockies infield isn’t too shabby either:

And, on top of that, Arenado has a league-best 24-game hitting streak going, including the aforementioned grand slam.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • At least for the time being, the Blue Jays are transitioning to a six-man rotation; the sixth man is J.A. Happ. The 31-year-old left-hander made 18 starts for Toronto last year but was relegated to bullpen duty when he came off the disabled list on April 13 after battling lower-back inflammation. Happ issued five walks over 4 1/3 innings in that role, and he hasn’t pitched since a 2 2/3-inning appearance on April 23. His first rotation assignment is a visit to Citizens Bank Park, the first big-league yard he called home, where he’ll duel Kyle Kendrick in the opener (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • There’s nothing wrong with trying to steal a base now and then—you just need to succeed a good deal more often than you fail. Unfortunately, the Mariners are about as good at theft as this Florida man. And they’re getting worse at it as the season wears on.

    Lloyd McClendon’s club has gone 9-for-20 in its stolen-base tries to date, a 45 percent conversion rate that ranks dead last in the majors. That would be bad enough, but the Mariners are just 4-for-11 in the SB department over their last 15 games, dating back to April 17. The good news: a visit to Oakland is next on the docket. A’s catchers John Jaso and Derek Norris have combined to catch just three of 24 would-be base-stealers to date, and runners are 5-for-5 with Scott Kazmir on the hill (10:05 p.m. ET).

  • Trivia time: Who was the Royals’ starting pitcher in their first-ever visit to Petco Park on July 2, 2004, and what did the Padres do that night for the first and only time since the ballpark opened? (Answer below.)

    Tonight’s interleague battle, which marks Kansas City’s third visit to the new San Diego yard, features a bit of a velocity mismatch. Eric Stults, who gets the ball for the home team, averages 88.07 mph with his fastball. Yordano Ventura, who is due to go for the visitors, averages 88.05 mph with his changeup. Opponents are batting .344, slugging .672, and walking more than they strike out versus Stults’ four-seamer through 61 at-bats. He’s teed up at least one homer in each of his six starts and seven long balls total in just 28 2/3 innings. The 34-year-old southpaw will need to locate better to avoid another early exit in game one of three (10:10 p.m. ET).

    Trivia answer: Dennys Reyes, who gave up three home runs in 5 2/3 innings to help the Padres log their first-ever five-homer night at Petco. It remains the only nine-inning home game in which the Padres have slugged five big flies since Petco opened more than a decade ago.

Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for the embedded GIFs.

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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