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June 20, 2014

What You Need to Know

Wheeler Hooks the Fish

by Chris Mosch and Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Earlier this week, Ben Lindbergh made an appearance on Jonah Keri’s podcast, where the two raved about Thursday’s matchup between a pair of promising young National League East hurlers: Zack Wheeler and Andrew Heaney. Rarely does a Thursday night matchup between the Mets and Marlins prompt Keri to declare it a must-watch that had him as excited for a pitching matchup as he’s been in quite awhile, but the two youngsters each turned in performances that justified the hype.

In his major-league debut, Heaney came out firing from the get-go, dialing up seven of his first 15 fastballs at 94 MPH or higher. Unfortunately for the ninth-overall pick of the 2012 draft, David Wright crushed one of those 94 MPH heaters to center field and off the Marlins Park home run sculpture for a solo blast.

That fastball left over the heart of the plate was one of Heaney’s few mistakes of the night. He faced just two more than the minimum from that point on and didn’t allow another New York batter to reach second base. The 23-year-old complemented his fastball with his slider against same-sided batters and mixed in his changeup in addition to his two best offerings to righties. He threw 38 of his 59 fastballs for strikes and generated swings-and-misses with just under a quarter of his breaking pitches. When Mike Redmond lifted Heaney in favor of Bryan Morris, the Marlins’ top prospect exited with a superb line of four hits, a walk. and three punchouts in six innings of work.

While Heaney’s debut undoubtedly had Marlins fans thrilled about a future Fernandez-Heaney front of the rotation, it was Wheeler who stole the spotlight. Command and efficiency have been issues for New York’s 2011 haul for Carlos Beltran ever since he made his major-league debut a year and a day prior to Thursday, but neither posed as an obstacle against this season’s sixth-best offense, which Wheeler mowed down on 111 pitches.

Miami tallied leadoff singles in the second and sixth innings, and drew a walk to start the fifth, but the Mets defense erased all three with twin killings behind Wheeler. A pinch-hit single by Reed Johnson with two outs in the ninth inning was the only thing that kept Wheeler from facing the minimum during his first career shutout. In fact, the 24-year-old became the youngest Mets pitcher to spin a 1-0 shutout since Dwight Gooden did it in 1985.

Wheeler had made it through the seventh inning just three times prior to Thursday and had never recorded an out in the eighth, but he got ahead in the count often with 17 of 28 first-pitch strikes and boasted some of his best fastball command to date. Wheeler’s most effective offering was his four-seamer, which he threw for a strike 75.6 percent of the time and at an average of 96.8 MPH—the highest single-game average velocity of his career. He complemented the heater with a healthy dose of sliders, curveballs, and changeups on his way to racking up eight strikeouts.

Thursday night’s matchup provided a glimpse into the future for a pair of young rotations that project to be two of the division’s best once their respective aces return from Tommy John surgery. With Noah Syndergaard expected to make his debut later this year and both Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi exhibiting stretches of brilliance in 2014, you can expect many more enticing pitching duels between these two clubs in the near future.

Quick Hits from Thursday

The 2014 season hasn’t been too kind to Nick Swisher. The Cleveland slugger missed the first two weeks of June with a hyperextended knee and entered Thursday’s matinee against the Angels with a .611 OPS—200 points lower than his career average. Swisher struck out in all three trips to the plate against C.J. Wilson and flew out to center during the ninth inning against Joe Smith, prompting some boos from the home fans at Progressive Field.

However, Swisher changed the tune of the Cleveland crowd later in the afternoon after capping off an improbable comeback win with an extra-inning walk-off blast.

The Halos and Tribe spent the majority of the afternoon knotted up at 1-1, as Wilson and Justin Masterson each turned in seven quality innings. The Angels grabbed the lead in the second inning when Howie Kendrick—who just missed an opposite-field home run off the top of the wall earlier in the inning—scampered home on a wild pitch by Masterson.

The Indians answered with a run of their own in the third inning, and the Angels were seemingly on their way to reclaiming the lead the next inning. Josh Hamilton led off the fourth with a five-pitch walk and moved up 90 feet after an Erick Aybar single. Up next was Kendrick, and the Angels second sacker drove what appeared to be another opposite-field double off Masterson. However, Ryan Raburn made a nice shoestring catch in the right-center gap and came up firing to double Hamilton off of second base.

Both teams stranded a runner in scoring position multiple times through the first nine innings (including Swisher, who struck out looking with runners at the corners in the sixth) before the Angels were able to break through in the 10th. Kole Calhoun started a two-out rally against Scott Atchison with a single to right field, and Mike Trout followed with a two-bagger to left field. With the Indians implementing a full shift, Albert Pujols snuck a slow chopper through the right side of the infield to give the visitors a 4-2 lead.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia elected to let rookie Cam Bedrosian try to shut the door instead of Ernesto Frieri, who imploded against the Braves last Saturday and surrendered a run during his last appearance on Tuesday. However, the 2010 first-round pick sandwiched a double to Jason Kipnis between a pair of walks, so Scioscia had little choice but to turn to his struggling veteran reliever with the bases loaded and one out. Frieri retired David Murphy on a fly out and had Swisher in a 1-2 hole, but he left a fastball up and Swisher delivered:

Frieri had gotten away with two fastballs up the zone earlier in the at bat that Swisher had fouled off, but the veteran made sure to make Frieri pay for his third mistake with the first walk-off grand slam by an Indian in Progressive Field history. It was the second time in five days that Swisher had launched an extra-inning game-winning dinger for the Tribe, as his solo shot off Junichi Tazawa in the 10th inning of Sunday’s game gave Cleveland a 3-2 win in Beantown.

While Swisher looks to build on his pair of game-winning drives and turn his season around, Frieri’s ERA ballooned to 5.83 after Thursday and his season continues to spiral downward. The blast the right-hander served up to Swisher was the eighth tater he’s given up this season, tying him with Addison Reed and Shawn Tolleson for the most allowed by a reliever. Scioscia indicated during post-game interviews that he plans to go forward with a closer-by-committee, but the bullpen as a whole continues to be one of the club’s most glaring weaknesses; only the Tigers and Rockies have a poorer bullpen FRA this season.

***

Also walking off in extra innings on Thursday were the Pirates, but their effort didn’t feature a gopher ball or a hard-hit knock. In fact, it didn’t require a hit of any kind, as Russell Martin drew a bases-loaded walk from Tony Cingrani to avoid a three-game sweep at the hands of the Reds.

Pittsburgh used a three-run fifth inning off of Homer Bailey to take a 3-2 lead, which the Bucs maintained into the ninth inning. Jason Grilli came on for the save and got Jay Bruce to fly out to center to start the frame. The next batter was Devin Mesoraco, who punished a hanging slider from Grilli to even the score.


After Jonathan Broxton walked a pair of Pirates in the bottom of the frame, Cincinnati manager Bryan Price went to his closer, Aroldis Chapman, to face Andrew McCutchen, and the Cuban flamethrower rung up the reigning National League MVP with a backward K. Chapman came back out for the 10th inning and fanned all three batters he faced to raise his strikeout rate this season to a ridiculous 56.9 percent.

As Jared Hughes and Justin Wilson managed to keep the Reds off the board, Price turned to Tony Cingrani for his second relief appearance since being removed from the starting rotation. Cingrani put the first two batters on in the 11th before escaping his own jam, but he wasn’t as fortunate in the 12th. Gaby Sanchez singled to center and moved up to second after a balk by Cingrani. The southpaw intentionally walked Josh Harrison and struck out Jordy Mercer before plunking Clint Barmes to load the bases for Martin.

Cingrani dug himself into a 3-1 hole against the Pittsburgh backstop, and his fifth offering of the battle crossed the plate just below Martin’s knees. However, Cingrani had struggled to find the strike zone throughout his outing and home plate umpire Mike Estabrook wasn’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The last time the Pirates walked off on a walk was on August 29, 2006, when their first-year starting right fielder by the name of Jose Bautista drew a bases-loaded walk in an 11-inning win against the Cubs. Also of note was the two-hit day by Pittsburgh rookie phenom Gregory Polanco, who became the first player in franchise history to kick-start a career with a nine-game hitting streak.

***

In the first three games this week between the Royals and Tigers, it was Kansas City that had emerged victorious, which propelled them to the top of the American League Central. Behind Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers were able to salvage the fourth game of the series and halt Kansas City’s 10-game winning streak.

The Royals jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, keyed by doubles by Norichika Aoki and Billy Butler. Sanchez retired the next 11 Royals and kept the visitors off the scoreboard for the next six innings, but finished the outing without recording a single strikeout. Sanchez has struck out just over eight batters per nine innings and boasted the fifth highest strikeout rate among qualified starting pitchers last season, so it’s not too surprising that the Baseball Reference Play Index comes up without a match when you search for previous starts by Sanchez without a strikeout.

Sanchez’s counterpart, Danny Duffy, turned in a superb outing of his own, but the Tigers tallied all three of their hits off the Southern California native in the fourth inning, which was enough to saddle him with the loss.

Austin Jackson led off the inning with a chopper over the head of Mike Moustakas for a single and came around to score when Miguel Cabrera drove the next pitch from Duffy off the left-center wall. Duffy got a gift from Cabrera when the reigning American League MVP made a major baserunning gaffe and was doubled off on a can-of-corn fly ball to right field. Cabrera was originally ruled safe, but the play was subsequently overturned.

Cabrera’s mistake was magnified when J.D. Martinez went deep three pitches later:

Luckily, two runs was all the Tigers needed to take care of their division foes. Joba Chamberlain tossed a clean eighth inning after Sanchez departed and Joe Nathan struck out all three batters he faced in an appearance for the first time since last August.

***

With Gavin Floyd cruising along through six innings with a 2-0 lead, everything was going Atlanta’s way in their first of four games against the division rival Nationals. The Braves ended up taking Thursday’s contest by a final of 3-0 behind Floyd’s outing, two doubles by Freddie Freeman and a trio of ribbies by Chris Johnson, but Fredi Gonzalez’s club was struck by yet another major pitching injury.

Floyd demonstrated excellent fastball command through his first six frames and got opposing batters to chase at his curveball outside the zone. He particularly dominated same-sided batters with his breaking pitch of choice, notching eight swings-and-misses with 14 curveballs to righties.

Unfortunately for Floyd, he made a premature exit after needing just 63 pitches to pilot six innings. He came out for the seventh and “heard a pop” after reeling off a first-pitch curveball to Jayson Werth. Floyd promptly signaled to the Braves dugout that something was wrong. It turned out that Floyd had suffered a fractured olecranon in his right elbow and was immediately removed from the game.

Floyd will return to Atlanta today to be evaluated by the team’s doctors, but the outlook looks bleak for the 31-year-old. Joel Zumaya similarly fractured his olecranon back in June of 2010 and missed the remainder of the season. Bleacher Report’s (and BP alum) Will Carroll doesn’t seem too optimistic about the injury.


Luckily for the Braves, they have been stretching out Alex Wood down at Triple-A and the southpaw was in line to return to pitch as part of a doubleheader on June 28. With Atlanta’s latest significant pitching injury, that timetable may be pushed up a few days to Floyd’s next scheduled turn in the rotation.

***

Scott Kazmir continued his torrid start to the season by stymying the Red Sox at O.co Coliseum on Thursday night. The Oakland left-hander whiffed eight batters without issuing a walk, and carried a shutout into the sixth inning before serving up a home run to Dustin Pedroia. Kazmir held his velocity in the mid-90s through his seventh and final inning of work and kept the Sox off balance with a healthy diet of changeups and sliders.

The scoring started for Oakland in the second inning, when Jake Peavy made the unusual decision to throw to third base after Derek Norris hit a comebacker to the mound with no outs and runners at first and second, rather than turning and going to second base for the 1-6-3 double play. Xander Bogaerts was caught off guard by the decision and skipped his attempt at a double play across the diamond past Mike Napoli at first base, which allowed the runners to advance 90 feet. An unearned run would score when the next batter grounded out to second base.

The A’s got their second run the next inning without any confusion when Yoenis Cespedes took Peavy yard, and plated another run in the third. Cespedes almost added another defensive highlight to his recent collection when Pedroia’s two-run blast in the sixth landed just inches beyond the glove of the Cuban outfielder.

With Sean Doolittle taking the night off after appearing in back-to-back games, Dan Otero pitched the ninth inning for the A’s. The right-hander got A.J. Pierzynski to fly out to the deepest part of the ballpark with a runner on to seal the 4-2 win for Oakland and pick up his first career save.

***

Just five days removed from a six-run clunker in Houston, Chris Archer exacted revenge on the Astros with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 5-0 win that opened up a four-game set at Tropicana Field. Archer generated a season-high 15 swings-and-misses on his way to eight strikeouts and surrendered just three singles and a pair of walks.

The Rays spotted Archer a two-run lead in the fourth inning, but used back-to-back jacks by Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria to put the game out of reach. Houston reliever Paul Clemens is still waiting for Longoria’s moonshot to land.


A bonus gem from Tropicana occurred during batting practice, when Matt Joyce got two pitches from the pitching machine for the price of one. —Chris Mosch

The Defensive Play of the Day

The Reds and Pirates may not have played any bonus baseball if not for Billy Hamilton’s spectacular catch at the wall that robbed Travis Snider of extra bases in the ninth inning.

—Chris Mosch

What to Watch for This Weekend

Friday

  • Mat Latos has only made one career start against the Blue Jays—about four years ago, on June 15, 2010—when Toronto’s cleanup hitter was Vernon Wells, and Edwin Encarnacion, who ranks second in the American League with 21 home runs this year, batted eighth. In his second start off the disabled list, the right-hander will run into a power-packed Jays order led by two former Reds, Encarnacion and Juan Francisco, who has bopped 11 long balls in just 174 trips to the box. Latos pitched well in his first assignment of 2014, tossing six shutout frames at Miller Park, but he should face a stiffer test in his home debut, in which the visitors will counter with R.A. Dickey (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • The Mariners are coming to Kauffman Stadium, and no one is less excited to see the Robinson Cano-led lineup than Royals ace James Shields. If an 85-plate-appearance, head-to-head sample offers any indication, the second baseman has a better read on the righty than any hitter in baseball. Among the dozen who’ve stepped in versus Shields at least 60 times, Cano sits atop the leaderboard with a .395 average (32-for-81, 93 points higher than David Ortiz’ second-place mark) and a 1.115 OPS (132 points better than Big Papi’s). He’ll try to sustain that pace in support of Hisashi Iwakuma as the Mariners look to deal the Royals their second straight defeat on the heels of a 10-game surge (8:10 p.m. ET).

  • How much can a dollar buy you these days? The A’s are about to find out, as they send Brad Mills to the bump after acquiring the left-hander from the Brewers for a buck. Mills, a 29-year-old with a 7.76 ERA in 15 big-league appearances, is supplanting Drew Pomeranz in Oakland’s rotation, after the former first-round pick fractured his right (non-throwing) hand punching a chair. Now with his fifth professional organization, Mills leaves behind a 1.56 ERA in 14 games (12 starts) with Triple-A Nashville for his first attempt to stick in The Show since 2012. He’s due to face Felix Doubront, who fanned 13 batters over two starts for Triple-A Pawtucket to earn another try in the Red Sox’ starting five (10:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday

  • Adam Wainwright skipped a start with a balky elbow, but he’ll return to the mound just in time to bring us the on-paper duel of the weekend. It’s the Cardinals ace against the Phillies’ no. 1, Cole Hamels, in game three of four at Citizens Bank Park. The 32-year-old right-hander has turned in four consecutive outstanding efforts on the road, totaling 31 innings of three-run work with a 28-to-6 K:BB ratio and zero home runs allowed. Hamels, meanwhile, has been tremendous regardless of the venue; he hasn’t been scored upon in any of his last three starts, a stretch that’s trimmed his ERA to a season-low 2.78 (4:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday

  • Pop quiz: Only two pitchers with 14 starts under their belts this year have yet to be charged with more than three earned runs in a game. Can you name them?

    While you chew on that, here’s a series of hints: Both of them are scheduled to start on Sunday. One is an American League righty, who’ll be toeing the rubber at home; the other is a National League lefty, whose next start will come on the road. While one of them leads his circuit with 11 wins, the other has just three victories to his name despite his consistency to date.

    The easy answer is Masahiro Tanaka, who gets the ball against Chris Tillman in the afternoon finale between the Orioles and Yankees (2:05 p.m. ET).

    The more challenging one is Jon Niese of the crosstown Mets, who coughed up five runs in his most recent outing, but kept his streak alive because two of them were unearned. He’ll square off with Anthony DeSclafani and the Marlins in Miami (1:10 p.m. ET).

  • ESPN hit the jackpot with this week’s Sunday Night Baseball matchup, as the national audience will be treated to a battle between Yu Darvish and Jered Weaver. The Rangers righty can take solace in the fact that he won’t be facing the A’s, but after issuing five walks in as many innings on June 17 and at least three in five of his last six starts, Darvish will need to rein in his control to fare better in the finale at Angel Stadium. Weaver, meanwhile, will take the bump looking to snap a seven-start streak of serving up at least one long ball, the longest such rut of his career (8:07 p.m. ET). —Daniel Rathman

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