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July 23, 2014

What You Need to Know

July 23, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
On Tuesday afternoon, one National League MVP candidate, Troy Tulowitzki, was placed on the disabled list with a left hip flexor strain. Hours later, one of his rivals in the running made his loudest case to date.

The Brewers led the National League Central by 6 1/2 games when the calendar flipped to July. A dozen days into the month, they shared first place with the Cardinals. And not once since the 12th had Milwaukee been able to rebuild its lead to more than a game.

Armed with a half-game edge entering play on Tuesday, Ron Roenicke’s club went to work early. Ryan Braun’s first-inning solo shot got them on the board. Aramis Ramirez, who followed that long ball up with one of his own, gave rookie starter Jimmy Nelson a little breathing room in his fourth major league start.

But those homers were only worth two runs, and Nelson—who logged six solid innings, then faced four batters in the seventh without retiring any of them—would cede three. The Brewers would need two more to down the Reds and have a chance to move 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals, who later fell 7–2 to the Rays.

Nelson’s battery-mate, Jonathan Lucroy, who woke up yesterday with nine home runs and 3.9 WARP to his name, supplied both.

With nobody on and two away in the last of the sixth, he worked a full count against Homer Bailey, then took him deep for an insurance run that would prevent the Reds from taking the lead with their two-spot in the next half-inning.

The 3–3 tie held until the bottom of the ninth, when Lucroy was the first hitter due to face Sam LeCure. As it turned out, he was the only one the Brewers would need:

Lucroy’s second tater of the night gave the Brewers a 4–3 victory and their catcher the fifth multi-homer game of his career. If he remains productive through the summer, it’ll give the 28-year-old a signature moment for writers to remember when they fill out their award ballots at the end of the season.

That could prove critical for Lucroy, both because it provided the scuffling Brew Crew with a much-needed lift, and because his candidacy will otherwise be largely understated. Lucroy is currently a .310 hitter with pedestrian numbers (by MVP standards) in the other Triple Crown categories, numbers that won’t sway old-school voters. He is also likely to fall short of fellow hopefuls like Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Tulowitzki, and even teammate Carlos Gomez in the catch-all value metrics to which more sabermetrically inclined writers might adhere.

What’s intriguing about Lucroy’s burgeoning MVP candidacy is that it would be the first to require voters to show faith in the value of pitch framing, an area in which the Brewers catcher led the senior circuit in 2013 and has fared well again this year. Mike Trout’s all-around contributions couldn’t top Cabrera’s Triple Crown. To garner enough support to best Tulowitzki and the National League’s best outfielders, Lucroy would need voters to go a step further than that.

Of course, all of that is still more than two months away, and both Lucroy and his teammates have plenty of work left to do. After racing ahead of the pack during the first half, the Brewers have seen their playoff odds slip toward 50-50, and PECOTA expects the Cardinals to eventually overtake them for good.

That’s in part because PECOTA sees Lucroy delivering just 0.9 WARP the rest of the way, with a 40-plus-point drop in True Average—from .317 entering play on Tuesday to .272 down the stretch—in store. Lucroy has helped the Brewers exceed expectations for 101 games. For Milwaukee to complete its Cinderella run to the third division title in franchise history, and for him to be recognized as one of the elite performers in the senior circuit, he’ll need to do the same in the 61 left to go.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
Josh Beckett returned from his two-week stay on the shelf with a split personality:

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, that meant a lot more bad than good.

Neil Walker drew first blood in the bottom of the second. Two batters later, Ike Davis joined in the fun. After the Dodgers countered with a pair of runs in the top of the third, Gregory Polanco put them back in a two-tally hole.

It’s a good thing for Beckett that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle broke up the lefties in his order. Had he stacked them, Beckett’s ERA might’ve risen much more than the 26 points it did, from 2.26 to 2.52, adding a harsher insult to the hip injury through which he pitched.

As ineffective as Beckett was against glove-side batters, his fine effort versus righties kept the Dodgers in the game, and they eventually tied it, 4–4, in the sixth. On the other hand, by lasting only 3 2/3 innings, he left the front end of Don Mattingly’s bullpen with a lot of frames to eat. And moments after the visitors drew even, Paul Maholm and Jamey Wright came unglued.

The Pirates scored four times—twice on a single by Polanco, once on a knock by Travis Snider, and once on a wild pitch—to give their relief corps a comfortable lead. But after Justin Wilson got himself ejected for plunking Justin Turner in (apparent) retaliation for the Dodgers hitting McCutchen, Jared Hughes served up a two-run bomb to Adrian Gonzalez that cut the cushion in half.

The beanball war continued when Wright hit Russell Martin immediately after the seventh-inning stretch, but there was no harm done, either to Wright, who was allowed to stay in the game, to Martin, who was fine, or to the Dodgers, who escaped the inning unscathed. Then Scott Van Slyke went yard, and suddenly, it was 8–7.

That drama didn’t last long, because Chris Perez lost the strike zone one batter into his appearance and never found it again:

The right-hander threw 25 pitches, and only eight of them crossed the plate between the knees and letters. Perez walked four straight Pirates, then watched Brandon League allow the three inherited runners to score. If Martin wanted revenge, this two-run single past a diving Dee Gordon probably sufficed.

Pittsburgh would go on to win, 12–7. As for Perez, the Baseball-Reference Play Index indicates that he became the 39th pitcher in the last century to work no more than one-third of an inning and be charged with four earned runs despite not allowing a hit. The last to do it before him? Ernesto Frieri (on June 20, 2011), who secured the victory in the ninth.

* * *

In Monday’s series opener, the Giants dealt a blow to Cliff Lee’s trade stock by saddling the left-hander with a career-worst 12 hits. In Tuesday’s game two, they tried to put a dent in the market for the Phillies’ closer.

Jonathan Papelbon took the hill with a 5–4 margin resting on his right arm. He punched out Ehire Adrianza to come within two outs of converting the save before Buster Posey snatched it away:

That solo blast, the first homer off of Papelbon in 38 2/3 innings this year, tied the game at 5–5. It would remain deadlocked past midnight, until the 14th, by which point the Giants were out of relievers.

Posey kickstarted a rally with his fourth hit of the night, a double against Jeff Manship, who, like Papelbon, retired Adrianza to begin his outing. Phillies skipper Ryne Sandberg elected to walk Pablo Sandoval intentionally. With no one left in the bullpen, Bruce Bochy had no choice but to let George Kontos bat, and the righty successfully executed a sacrifice bunt. Then Manship walked Gregor Blanco to load the bases for Brandon Crawford. And the free passes came back to bite the home club.

Crawford’s three-run double gave the Giants an 8–5 lead, and Hector Sanchez’s ensuing single made it 9–5. But Kontos, who had trouble throwing strikes earlier in his appearance, ran out of gas in the bottom of the 14th. Ryan Howard singled to begin the rally, and two batters later, Wil Nieves doubled. Kontos was finished, but Bochy had only two ways to replace him: with a position player or a starting pitcher.

Enter Tim Lincecum, whose first ever major league relief appearance had come in Game Six of the 2010 NLCS, also at Citizens Bank Park. With all hands on deck after a two-inning clunker from starter Jonathan Sanchez, Lincecum allowed two hits but recorded only one out, leaving then-closer Brian Wilson to record five outs.

This outing went more smoothly. Lincecum traded a run for an out on an RBI grounder by Cody Asche, and after walking Cameron Rupp, he got Domonic Brown to ground out to end it.

Two hundred and forty-two outings into his big-league career, Lincecum now has two World Series rings, two Cy Young Awards, two no-hitters ... and one save.

Trivia time: Can you name the only other pitcher in MLB history—technically, since 1956, the first year in which the Cy Young Award was given out—with at least that many of each? (Answer at the bottom of the post.)

* * *

The Giants and Phillies weren’t the only squads that decided to play 14 on Tuesday. The Rangers and Yankees let the fans in the Bronx stretch twice, too. And by the time game two of the four-game set was over, newly acquired third baseman Chase Headley had enough time to get to the ballpark, squander a scoring opportunity, and emerge as the hero.

We’ll pick up the action in the bottom of the 12th inning, because frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot of it in the first 11 1/2. The game was scoreless when Carlos Beltran reached on an infield single, moved to second on a wild pitch, and saw Brian McCann reach first behind him on a popup that dropped in left-center field. A sacrifice bunt by Ichiro Suzuki moved Beltran to third, but Francisco Cervelli lined out, leaving it all up to Headley ... who grounded into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

That anti-climactic at-bat sucked some life out of the fans who stayed to enjoy bonus baseball. The next one, by J.P. Arencibia, delivered a 442-foot gut punch:

But after 12 innings of fruitless hitting, the Yankees had an answer for Arencibia’s big fly. Brett Gardner doubled, Derek Jeter bunted him over to third, and Jacoby Ellsbury turned in the equalizer: an RBI single. Beltran followed with a knock that gave the Yankees another chance to send everyone home. But McCann hit into a double play.

So on they went, into the 14th, with Headley needing at least one man to reach to come up for the fourth time in his Yankees debut. His teammates did one better: After Ichiro grounded out, Brian Roberts doubled and Cervelli singled, putting runners at the corners with one out. This time, Headley came through:

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. On Tuesday, Headley got four. And the fourth one was the charm in the 2–1 Yankees win.

* * *

In the preview for yesterday’s contest between the Marlins and Braves, I wrote that facing one of the league’s worst road hitting teams (.667 aggregate OPS away from Miami) might remedy Mike Minor’s month-long case of piñata-itis. The left-hander toed the rubber having permitted 58 hits in his previous 39 1/3 innings of work, the result of a 39 percent line-drive rate. And despite the favorable matchup, things didn’t get any better for Minor on Tuesday night.

The southpaw was knocked around for double-digit hits for the fourth time in eight starts. The culprits behind Minor’s recent struggles had been his fastball and cutter. On Tuesday, he couldn’t fool the Marlins with anything.

Mike Redmond’s hitters went 12-for-17 when they put the ball in play against Minor, which was almost every time they came to bat, because he only notched one strikeout in three-plus innings. The chart above illustrates the problem: Too many pitches dotting the heart of the strike zone, and too few near the corners.

Remember Minor’s 39 percent line-drive rate allowed, dating back to June 10th? It actually got worse, as seven of the Marlins’ 17 balls in play were of that variety, a 41 percent clip. And one of those liners was a double by his counterpart, Jacob Turner, leading off the third.

David Hale, David Carpenter, and Anthony Varvaro tossed six shutout innings in relief of Minor, but that relief was too little, too late. The Braves nearly rallied, scoring once each in the first and third innings before chucking up a three-spot in the eighth, but Steve Cishek stifled their comeback effort in a scoreless ninth.

The Nationals beat the Rockies, 7–4, so the Braves are now two games back in the East for the first time since June 24.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Juan Lagares, the center fielder, was positioned relatively shallow and shading the batter, Endy Chavez, a couple of steps toward left.

The red dot marks the spot to which the ball was hit: the foot of the warning track, a step toward right. Did he get there in time to make the catch standing up?

You bet he did.

What to Watch on Wednesday
According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, in the last century, only three White Sox pitchers have struck out at least seven batters in more than five consecutive starts. They are Chris Sale (6), who did it last summer, Floyd Bannister (6), who did it in the summer of 1983, and Juan Pizarro (9), who holds the franchise record but had the benefit of tossing seven complete games. Tonight, Jose Quintana could become the fourth member of the club, but he’ll have to do so versus the Royals, a team against which he’s fanned seven or more only once in 10 career starts. The visitors are set to counter with James Shields in the matinee on the South Side of Chicago (2:10 p.m. ET).

On the opposite side of the lefty strikeout spectrum from Quintana sits Jorge De La Rosa, who once racked up 193 punchouts in 185 innings. Unfortunately for the Rockies, that 2009 campaign is a distant memory, as the Monterrey, Mexico, native has recorded four or fewer strikeouts in each of his last seven starts. The 33-year-old will try to miss a few more bats as the Rockies wrap up their home series with the Nationals, whose probable starter, Stephen Strasburg, has had no such trouble blowing hitters away. Strasburg has fanned nine in three straight outings, though it’s not all peachy for him either, because the Nats are just 2–5 behind their ace since June 14th (3:10 p.m. ET).

And speaking of polar opposites, tonight’s matchup between Chris Tillman and Jered Weaver offers something in that department, too. Weaver has been on the mound for 16 stolen bases this year, the third-highest total in the American League, trailing only Scott Feldman and Drew Hutchison. Tillman and his battery-mates have allowed just 14 thefts in his career. The good news for Weaver is that the Orioles have the fewest steals of any major league team (28 entering play on Tuesday). With far more sluggers than burners in Buck Showalter’s lineup, Weaver can focus on the men at the plate instead of dwelling on those who reach first or second base.

Tillman, meanwhile, may be the best right-handed pitcher in baseball at shutting down the enemy’s running game. Only one opponent has dared try to swipe a bag with Tillman on the mound this year, and he—Carlos Gomez—was caught in the act. The last player to successfully steal a base on Tillman’s watch was Jimmy Paredes of the Astros on June 4, 2013. Eight others were caught trying last year, and Paredes is the only one who’s gotten away since September 28, 2012.

The Angels are just 7-for-14 on steal attempts since the calendar flipped to July. If recent history is any guide, they’d be foolish to test Tillman tonight (10:05 p.m. ET).

Trivia answer: Sandy Koufax (4 World Series rings, 3 Cy Young Awards, 4 no-hitters, and 9 saves).

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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