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June 18, 2014

What You Need to Know

Can't Retire the Royals

by Daniel Rathman, Nick Bacarella and Chris Mosch

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The Tuesday Takeaway
For much of Angels starter Matt Shoemaker’s career, the odds have been stacked against him. Shoemaker went undrafted out of Eastern Michigan—where he had a 4.83 ERA and 1.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three seasons—and spent parts of the next seven years in the Angels’ minor league system before making his major league debut last September. On Tuesday night, Shoemaker toed the rubber against the Indians for what turned out to be the best outing of his short big league career, and he was well on his way to a complete game before a short rain delay in the ninth inning brought a premature end to his night.

Prior to Tuesday, Matt Shoemaker had never recorded an out in the seventh inning of a game that he started. In six career starts, his longest start had been on May 18 against the Rays, when he spun six-plus inning of one-run ball. When Shoemaker walked off the mound in the sixth inning on Tuesday after striking out the side, his pitch count sat at just 70. That tally rose to 94 after eight innings, and Shoemaker warmed up in the bottom of the ninth, ready to close out his 9-2 lead. However, the grounds crew had to roll out the tarp for an 11-minute rain delay, and Mike Scioscia decided to call it a night for Shoemaker, whose previous single-season career-high was 96 pitches.

Efficiency was the focal point of Shoemaker’s attack, as the right-hander threw first-pitch strikes to 22 batters and needed just three or fewer pitches against 20 of the 29 batters he faced. Shoemaker’s secondary offerings were especially on point; he threw 37 of his 49 changeups, curveballs, and sliders for strikes, including six swing-and-misses with his changeup. He tallied 14 total swing-and-misses, which helped him register a career-high 10 punchouts.

Shoemaker actually trailed 2-1 in the fourth inning after Lonnie Chisenhall made him pay for one of his few mistakes of the night—a first-pitch fastball down the middle that was deposited into the Cleveland bullpen. However, Shoemaker’s teammates were able to pick him up with a four-spot in the fifth inning that was made possible by a crucial error by Asdrubal Cabrera. Cleveland had the opportunity to erase a leadoff single by David Freese when Josh Tomlin got Raul Ibanez to bounce a potential double play ball to Cabrera—who was playing on the right side of second base due to the overshift. However, in his attempt to tag Freese, Cabrera failed to field the grounder cleanly and came away with no outs.



After Hank Conger flied out for what could have been the third out of the inning, Kole Calhoun picked up his third of four singles on the night, this one an RBI base knock that moved Ibanez to third. Next up was Mike Trout, who took Tomlin oppo for a three-run jack.



Trout has found his power alley this season (as well as in seasons past) against pitches at or below his knees, and Tomlin made the mistake of leaving his 2-2 offering over the middle of the plate and in the lower third of the zone. With the Halos up 6-2 in the seventh, Trout went down even lower, increasing his .647 ISO on pitches below his knees and over the inner third of the plate with an absolute scorcher into the left-center field stands.


Trout’s second long ball of the night left even his teammates in disbelief. After the game, Hank Conger left the media with thoughts that we’ve all had at one point or another when watching Trout at the plate, “It's unbelievable. It's so effortless. It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. I was truly [ticked]. How do I do that? Seriously. How do I do that?" —Chris Mosch

Quick Hits from Tuesday
The Royals and Tigers have swapped fates over the last month, and nothing could symbolize the role reversal better than Tuesday’s thrashing of Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander was at least able to keep pace with Jason Vargas through first four innings of Monday’s game, but Scherzer had no such luck, as Kansas City cobbled together a seven-run outburst in the second inning.

Billy Butler set the table with a single after battling Scherzer to a 3-2 count. Butler would advance to second on an error by right fielder JD Martinez, but it wouldn’t matter: Alex Gordon stepped to the plate and promptly belted his eighth home run of the season. Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas more or less repeated the same process, with Perez drawing a walk and Moustakas driving him in with his seventh big fly.

Scherzer’s allowing four runs without recording an out was enough to draw pitching coach Jeff Jones’s attention, but whatever Jones said during his mound visit didn’t do much good. Alcides Escobar followed Moustakas’s home run with a single, Jarrod Dyson reached on a bunt single after Ned Yost challenged the initial out call, and Norichika Aoki singled to right field to load the bases.

Scherzer put the next batter, Omar Infante, in a 1-2 hole, but Infante got the better of Scherzer anyway, singling up the middle to plate Escobar and Dyson. Eric Hosmer did just enough to allow Aoki to score, tapping a dribbler back to the mound. Scherzer finally got out of the inning by retiring Butler and Gordon, but not before the Royals batted around (and then some) and put the Tigers in an unmanageable hole.

The damage continued in the fifth, when Butler, Gordon, and Perez combined to knock Scherzer out of the game. He didn’t get much help from his bullpen, as Phil Coke entered the game and allowed two inherited runners — Gordon and Perez — to score.

Even Detroit’s best opportunity to put a dent in Kansas City’s lead was foiled. With Victor Martinez up to bat with the bases loaded and two away in the fifth inning, Eugenio Suarez was picked off third to end the threat on what was perhaps the craziest play of the night.

All told, Scherzer allowed 10 runs and recorded only 12 outs, marking his worst start since May 3, 2010, when he allowed 10 ER in 4⅓ innings. It was just the latest sputter in what has been an uncharacteristic month for Scherzer, who has posted a 6.84 ERA over his last six starts. Granted, Scherzer snuck in a complete-game shutout last Thursday, but that was his first quality start since May 16th.

The Royals, meanwhile, are wielding the league’s fourth-best offense this month, after toiling at the bottom of the league in May. They’ve jumped their team OPS by better than 140 points to .781. Billy Butler seems to be finding his usual high-average form, Alex Gordon continues to dominate, and Mike Moustakas is now hovering around league-average production (which is worlds better than where he’s been).

With the Tigers slipping — they’re 11-19 over the last month — the Royals now find themselves in first place for the first time since May 1st of last year. And Royals fans, perhaps unaccustomed to this kind of success, seem to be dealing with complicated emotions. —Nick Bacarella

***

The Nationals got a taste of the outright National League East lead last Wednesday, when they climbed past the Braves for the first time since May 5, but they ceded that edge over the weekend by getting swept by the Cardinals. Two straight losses by the Braves gave the Nats a chance to surge back to the top of the division—and they did just that with a 6-5 win over the Astros on Tuesday night.

Tanner Roark and Dallas Keuchel—both little-known starters before the 2014 season who’ve become first-half darlings by posting sub-3.00 ERA to this point in the year—struggled throughout their five innings apiece on the Nationals Park hill. But while the Astros lefty coughed up a pair of two-spots in the first three frames, the hosts’ right-hander never allowed a crooked number.

Led by Anthony Rendon, who finished 2-for-4 with two doubles and drove in three runs, the Nationals raced ahead early and didn’t look back until the top of the eighth. The third baseman drove in the first two tallies of the contest with a two-bagger in the top of the first. Ryan Zimmerman scored Rendon with a double of his own, and it was 2-0 Nats after one.

The home nine scored twice more in the bottom of the third, when Zimmerman collected his second RBI double of the night and Ian Desmond tacked on a run-scoring single. The Astros countered that tally in the top of the fourth, which began with three consecutive singles, but Roark did well by holding the visitors to just one run. Jason Castro struck out with the bags juiced and nobody on, after which Matt Dominguez plated the lone tally with an infield single. A Jonathan Villar fly out and a Robbie Grossman strikeout got Roark out of the jam.

Two innings later, Rendon supplied two much-needed insurance tallies with another double, this one at the expense of reliever Darin Downs.

Those runs became crucial in the top of the eighth, when Tyler Clippard unraveled. Three straight hits to begin the frame brought home a run and put runners at the corners with nobody out. Clippard struck out the next two hitters he faced, but Dexter Fowler singled, Jose Altuve doubled, and suddenly, it was 6-5.

Aaron Barrett came to Clippard’s rescue, inducing a lineout by George Springer, and Rafael Soriano cemented the three-hour-and-41-minute victory, which put Washington back atop the East. —Daniel Rathman

***

Masahiro Tanaka first pitch on Tuesday night sailed over the right field fence courtesy of Jose Reyes’s bat. That would be the only time Blue Jays hitters were able to get to the Yankees ace; Tanaka fanned 10 in 6 innings on his way to his league-leading 11th win.

Consistency has been Tanaka’s calling card so far this season. He’s relied heavily on his splitter, inducing weak groundouts to go with his 113 strikeouts (tied for second in the league). Scroll through his strike zone plots and you’ll notice that his game plan hasn’t varied over the last few months. The steadiness of his approach has made him the only pitcher to throw six or more innings in his first 14 starts so far this season. Perhaps the best example of his composure, though, is Tanaka’s release point. The baseball world drooled when the GIF depicting Yu Darvish’s release point debuted last year, but it might just be that Tanaka’s zone is even tighter. Compare Darvish’s, who faced off last night against the A’s, with Tanaka’s:




Famously self-critical, Tanaka has described his performance thus far as “OK.” Maybe when he takes home the AL Rookie of the Year crown (if not the Cy Young Award) he’ll finally upgrade to “half-decent.” —Nick Bacarella

***

Instant replay received another test on Tuesday night after Chris Davis hit a deep fly ball to right field in the Orioles’ game against the Rays. At first glance, it appeared that Tampa left fielder David DeJesus had a beat on the ball, but he could only deflect it after crashing into the outfield wall. Davis was initially awarded a double, plating Nick Markakis and Steve Pearce in the process. After review, though, the ball was determined to have hit the bottom of the foul pole, not DeJesus’s body or the wall.

Davis’s grand slam came as part of Baltimore’s five-run third inning, which would lead to Erik Bedard’s early exit. The Rays responded in the bottom of the inning with solo home runs by Sean Rodriguez and Desmond Jennings. They then drew to within one run in the fifth, when James Loney doubled in Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria.

Tampa reliever Kirby Yates kept the game tight after Bedard’s departure in the fifth, but Brad Boxberger allowed Baltimore to score the game’s decisive runs on a two-run Steve Pearce round-tripper in the seventh.


The Orioles ended up taking home the 7-5 win—indispensably important in the tightening AL East—but they lost a much bigger piece of their potential playoff run, as it was announced that Matt Wieters would undergo Tommy John surgery. Wieters has been dealing with discomfort and soreness in right arm for several weeks, and efforts to rehab the injury through rest and strengthening exercises haven’t worked as planned. Because he’s a catcher, Wieters’s recovery timetable will be a bit shorter than that of a pitcher—projected at about nine months—but his absence will inevitably hamstring a team fighting to stay above .500. —Nick Bacarella

***

Trout wasn’t the only player who launched a pair of long balls on Tuesday, as Jonathan Lucroy also left the yard for the seventh and eighth time this season. Lucroy’s second tater came with the bases full of Brewers and proved to be the difference in his club’s 7-5 win against the Diamondbacks.



Lucroy has long been adored in sabermetric circles thanks to his astounding receiving skills behind the dish, but Tuesday’s offensive performance upped his slash line this season to .340/.401/.537. The 28-year-old’s .938 OPS trails only Derek Norris’s .949 mark among qualified catchers. —Chris Mosch

***

In yesterday’s What to Watch For section, Daniel Rathman pointed out the Athletics’ dominance against Yu Darvish since the 27-year-old has come over to the States. Things didn’t get any better for Darvish on Tuesday, as he failed to make it out of the sixth inning for just the second time this season (the other start, naturally, was against the A’s).

Oakland tallied eight hits against Darvish and pushed across seven runs (four earned) that were charged to Rangers’ ace. Darvish issued a season-worst five free passes but managed to fan eight batters. Earlier, I mentioned that Derek Norris was the only catcher with a better OPS than Jonathon Lucroy, and that held true only because of his 2-for-2 night off the bench.

First, Norris launched a pinch-hit three-run blast off Shawn Tolleson to extend Oakland’s lead to 8-3. After the Rangers clawed back to an 8-6 deficit, Norris dampened any hope of a Texas comeback with a two-run double in the home half of the eighth inning. Not that Sean Doolittle needed the extra wiggle room; he retired the Rangers in order in the ninth to close the door on the 10-6 win.

***

Armed with one of baseball’s most effective pickoff moves, Johnny Cueto has been among the best when it comes to containing the running game. On Tuesday, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison each swiped a bag against the battery of Cueto and Bryan Pena, becoming just the second pair of teammates ever to steal a pair of bases against Cueto in a single game.

Jose Reyes circa 2008 swiping second base against Cueto won’t turn too many heads, but Oliver Perez? The game recap of the May 11, 2008 game describes Perez as “catching the Reds napping” and says that his stolen base didn’t even draw a throw.

Mercer’s steal on Tuesday didn’t draw a throw either. Cueto had two strikes against opposing pitcher Brandon Cumpton with a runner on third base and two outs in the second inning, so Brandon Phillips elected to stay home rather than risk the possibility of a cheap single getting through the right side of the infield.



In the sixth inning, Harrison slid in headfirst, just ahead of Pena’s throw. —Chris Mosch



The Defensive Play of the Day
Add x-ray vision to the list of Brock Holt’s superpowers.


What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • The National League’s ERA leader (among pitchers with at least nine starts) meets the American League’s ERA leader this afternoon when Tim Hudson toes the rubber against Chris Sale at U.S. Cellular Field. It’s the second interleague assignment of the season for the 38-year-old Hudson, who held the Indians to a run in seven innings at AT&T Park on April 25 but has yet to face a designated hitter in 2014. Sale, who still has yet to allow an extra-base hit to a left-handed batter this year, will likely have to contend with Brandon Crawford, who’s hit .323/.408/.631 against southpaws in a small sample of 77 plate appearances to date (2:10 p.m. ET).

  • There’s no question that Masahiro Tanaka has quickly blossomed into the Yankees’ ace, but their second-best pitcher right now might be another 25-year-old righty. Chase Whitley, who just celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday, owns a 2.41 ERA through his first six big-league starts, and he’s issued just three walks through 33 2/3 innings in the majors. In fact, Whitley hasn’t walked a batter since May 21, giving him a string of four consecutive BB-less outings. Unfortunately, the Bronx faithful haven’t seen much of the Troy University product, because five of his first six major-league games have come on the road. Tonight, Whitley hosts Mark Buehrle and the power-packed Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium in what might prove to be his most formidable test yet (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Chase Anderson became the first pitcher in Diamondbacks history to notch a win in each of his first five starts, but his streak hit a snag last week, when the Dodgers chased him after just five innings of four-walk, two-run work. The 26-year-old right-hander will try to bounce back with the Brewers paying a visit to the desert, as he takes on Matt Garza in game three of four. The first-year Brewer hasn’t allowed a homer in any of his last three starts, but he’s also fanned only one batter in each of his past two (9:40 p.m. ET). —Daniel Rathman

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here
Nick Bacarella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here

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