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August 8, 2014

What You Need to Know

August 8, 2014

by Sam Miller, Daniel Rathman, Andrew Koo and Morris Greenberg

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The Thursday Takeaway
Not much separates the Tigers, A’s, and Angels this year, so every little advantage might help in October. With an 83 percent chance of winning its division entering play Thursday, one edge the Tigers will likely have is a relatively stress-free march from here to October. While the A’s (60 percent division odds) and the Angels (39 percent) will be beating each other into a pulp, the Tigers should be able to use the final two months to, for instance, rest Miguel Cabrera, as they did Thursday for just the second time all season. And they can start to think seriously about such October questions as: Would we really move Justin Verlander to the bullpen to make room for Rick Porcello?

Verlander pitched Wednesday and had one of his finest starts of the year, going seven innings while allowing two runs, striking out five, and walking one. Porcello, facing the same club in the same inhospitable pitching environment, bettered him Thursday, going seven innings while allowing one run, striking out five, and walking nobody. The effort lowered his season ERA to 3.09 and improved his team-best ERA+.

The case for Verlander will be that he’s an Ace with a 72-point "A," that he came on strong last year and dominated in the postseason, that he has a career of excellence instead of a single season. But how far back to do we have to go to make the case based on recent results?

One month?

  • Porcello: 1.75 ERA, 2.37 FIP
  • Verlander: 4.17 ERA, 4.24 FIP

Two months?

  • Porcello: 2.55 ERA, 3.17 FIP
  • Verlander: 5.02 ERA, 4.26 FIP

The season?

  • Porcello: 3.09 ERA, 3.60 FIP
  • Verlander: 4.57 ERA, 4.08 FIP

The past 365 days?

  • Porcello: 3.54 ERA, 3.60 FIP
  • Verlander: 4.11 ERA, 3.73 FIP

The past 730 days?

  • Porcello: 3.86 ERA, 3.68 FIP
  • Verlander: 3.71 ERA, 3.44 FIP

Okay, once you get out to two years, Verlander looks like the better choice by a small margin. Beyond that, of course, Verlander looks more and more like the clear choice. But the Tigers will have to decide how much emphasis to put on the recent over the less recent.

Porcello started the game in total control, clearing the first inning on seven pitches, then striking out a pair in the second inning with front-door sinkers taken by left-handed batters. (He K’d Brett Gardner in the same fashion later in the game.) He allowed nine hits, but the contact was often light, with the nine being described thusly by GameDay:

  • Singles on groundball to shortstop
  • Singles on line drive to center fielder
  • Singles on soft fly ball to left fielder
  • Ground-rule double on a fly ball
  • Singles on soft groundball to third baseman
  • Singles on line drive to left fielder
  • Singles on groundball to shortstop
  • Singles on line drive to left fielder
  • Singles on soft groundball to left fielder (a strange two-contact hit, reminiscent of Hunter Pence’s freakish multi-parter in the 2012 postseason)

So three infield hits, an abnormal spinner through the infield, this bloop, three line drives hit the other way, and a line drive up the middle. Porcello worked out of the jams by inducing three double plays, tying Dallas Keuchel for the major-league lead with 25 on the season. His strike percentage for the year, at 66 percent, is a career best; so is his double-play rate, now over 30 percent.

Of course, there’s one complication: The Tigers lost Thursday, unable to score even a single run to support Porcello. They lost Wednesday, too, despite Verlander’s strong start. So there are no guarantees that the stretch run will be quite as relaxing as the playoff odds suggest.

Quick Hits from Thursday
One day, Bryce Harper’s struggles stirred talk of a looming demotion. The next day, his manager told everyone to pipe down. And the day after that, instead of boarding a flight to Syracuse, Harper became the toast of town in Washington, D.C.

The walk-off homer offered a friendly reminder of Harper’s prodigious talent and added some on-field punch to Matt Williams’ remarks. Harper is batting just .253/.336/.374, but he’s 21 years old. Midseason top-50 outfield prospects Josh Bell and Brandon Nimmo are taking their lumps at the same age—in Double-A.

Long before Harper’s heroics, Jacob deGrom reminded Mets fans that while he’s a 26-year-old rookie, he’s already done something that the more-heralded Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler couldn't, and that Noah Syndergaard, who’s still awaiting a call-up from Triple-A, can only dream about for now.

DeGrom carried a 66 1/3-inning streak of keeping opponents in the yard into yesterday’s game. He extended it to 67 1/3 with a scoreless first. Then Adam LaRoche led off the second inning with a double. And then, splat:

That two-run long ball snapped deGrom’s run, though not before he set a high bar for all future Mets rookies and put himself in the franchise’s record books. More saliently for Thursday’s contest in the nation’s capital, the blast gave the home nine a 2-0 lead.

But deGrom and the visitors wouldn’t go quietly. The pitcher picked up a leadoff single in the top of the third and scored on a double by Daniel Murphy, almost immediately cutting the Nats' edge in half.

The LaRoche-Desmond tag-team got the best of deGrom again in the last of the fourth. With one away, LaRoche cranked a ground-rule double and Desmond singled him home to make it 3-1.

Zimmermann and the bullpen squandered that lead in the top of the seventh. Wilmer Flores led off with a single and moved to second on a hit by pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Drew Storen took over for Washington and promptly uncorked a wild pitch that moved both runners into scoring position. A sacrifice fly by Eric Young Jr. and a single by Curtis Granderson did the rest.

Fine glove-work by Nieuwenhuis, who supplanted Juan Lagares in center field on a double switch, helped the Mets to preserve the tie through the 10th. But Terry Collins’ offense couldn’t crack Craig Stammen, who turned in three scoreless innings out of Matt Williams’ bullpen. Stammen’s fine relief set the stage for Harper’s game-winner.

***

The Blue Jays lead the American League East in scoring, but that’s hardly an indicator of their offensive punch with Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie missing from the lineup. Lawrie, who returned for one plate appearance in the first game of their series with Baltimore, was placed back on the disabled list with an oblique strain prior to the rubber match yesterday.

Injury scares continued when the game started, as Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez hit Melky Cabrera in the elbow with a 91 mph fastball in the first inning. Cabrera immediately jogged toward the dugout for trainer support, and ultimately left the game after being stranded on first. With a depleted lineup, the Blue Jays managed one run against Oriole pitching all night. It was just their ninth run in six August games.

J.A. Happ’s career-best 12 strikeouts were only stained by a Caleb Joseph homer in the fourth inning. With J.J. Hardy on second, Joseph struck a 2-0 fastball to left field for Baltimore’s only runs. It was Joseph’s fourth consecutive game with a home run. Not only has the minor-league journeyman provided substantial power filling in for Matt Wieters, he’s also emerged as one of the league’s best pitch framers, saving over 11 runs in 52 games.

It was yet another one-run win for Baltimore, as seven of their past nine wins have come. The Orioles and Blue Jays play six more times in September, including their final series of the season, but those games are increasingly looking less high-stakes as Baltimore leaves Toronto in the dust.

***

This year’s trade deadline was one of the more active ones in recent memory. For the Cincinnati Reds, however, it was relatively quiet, especially considering that they're in the hunt yet have Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips on the disabled list.

Recently, the Reds have been on a tear. They have won seven of their last 10 games after a 4-0 victory against the Indians yesterday. Homer Bailey was lights out, fanning eight over seven innings while surrendering four hits and one walk. He was backed up by Kris Negron, who went 2-for-4 to improve to an excellent .302/.333/.558 in his half-month stint manning second base. Billy Hamilton did make an out in a rundown (yes, he does have human legs), but also had a good day, with two hits, including that the aforementioned pickle triple that drove in a run.

***

Welcome to the majors, Javier Baez! The Cubs promoted the slugging prospect a few days ago, after he ripped 23 home runs in 104 games in Triple-A.

He started his day with a fly out to Corey Dickerson. In the 3rd, he extended a 1-0 Cubs lead to 2-0 by singling through the gap between short and third.

Then the Baez we have all been drooling over showed up. After hitting his first major-league home run in his debut game three days ago, he smoked one in the 6th inning to left field, and cracked another to right in the 8th. He certainly has flaws as a hitter (e.g. the 30 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A), but the power is here to stay.

***

Jon Lester made his second start for the Athletics yesterday and was nothing short of brilliant. He was perfect through five innings, striking five Twins in the process. A leadoff single by Kurt Suzuki in the sixth ended the perfection and started a bit of a rough patch but Lester got out of the jam to protect the A’s 3-0 lead. Lester continued to be Lester for the remainder of the game; he ended the night with a complete-game shutout, striking out eight while allowing three hits and two walks.

While a two-game sample is small for a pitcher, Lester seems to have increased the usage of his cutter in his two Oakland starts, following a similar trend to Jeff Samardzija since his arrival to Oakland. He may need a Sno Cone catch or two as help, but overall, he dominated the Twins, and is unfazed by the change of scenery and slight change in approach.

***

Does Wily Peralta ever get tired? He averaged over 97 mph on his fastball last night, but that may not be news as he was already averaging almost 96 mph in 2014 before yesterday’s start. Perhaps even more astoundingly, he was hitting his highest velocities past the hundredth pitch:

His efforts over 6 2/3 innings led to a Brewers 3-1 win over the Giants. Peralta struck out nine while giving up one run on seven hits and a walk. The Brewers struck first with a Ryan Braun double in the first that knocked in Jonathan Lucroy, but the Giants matched in the fifth on a Hunter Pence single to center. The Brewers responded an inning later with their final two runs, and the rest was history. While at times, Peralta has been viewed as an overperformer this season, the kid can throw, and he outdueled recent Giants import Jake Peavy this time around.

Defensive Play of the Day
Andrew Susac's career has started with a lurch, as the rookie catcher finished Thursday hitting .133/.188/.133 in seven games. "I knew it would be tough," he probably told his dad by phone after the game, "but I guess I should have known it would be tough to get a ball past elite defenders like Aramis Ramirez."

Wait, Aramis Ramirez? Aramis Ramirez:

It's not the first "from his knees" highlight of Ramirez' career; he's actually got four others in the MLB.com archives, two from 2010, one in 2012, and one on Opening Day this year. We might have found the one plus-plus skill Ramirez has on defense, or we might have simply discovered that once he hits the ground it takes him a very long time to get up.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Once upon a time, back in 2006, the Indians selected Chris Archer in the fifth round. More than two years later, they shipped him to the Cubs in a deal for Mark DeRosa. About two years after that, he moved on to the Rays in the seven-player swap that brought Matt Garza to Chicago. Tonight, Archer will face the Cubs for the first time in his major-league career, and he brings a 3.42 ERA with him into the Friday matinee at Wrigley Field. The 25-year-old is scheduled to duel Tsuyoshi Wada in the opener (4:05 p.m. ET).

Justin Masterson battled through six innings in his Cardinals debut, pitching well enough to give St. Louis a chance to beat Milwaukee, but only because the Redbirds pushed across nine runs. General manager John Mozeliak’s bet that a move to the senior circuit would help Masterson to succeed despite diminished fastball velocity takes a one-game recess tonight, when the Cards pay a visit to Camden Yards. Back on May 22nd, the Orioles tagged a wild Masterson for five runs on eight hits, two walks, and two hit batters in five innings of work. He’ll try to rein in his control in the return trip while squaring off with Chris Tillman (7:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday
The Braves have dropped a season-high eight straight games, the longest active losing streak in the majors, and they’ve plummeted to four games behind the Nationals in the East. This weekend’s head-to-head showdown offers Fredi Gonzalez’s squad a golden opportunity to make up some of that lost ground—or, if things continue to go awry, a chance to squander all but a remote possibility of repeating as division champs. Gonzalez plans to hand the ball to Aaron Harang in Saturday’s middle match and hope that the big right-hander can continue to stave off regression. The 36-year-old has allowed only one home run in his last four starts, but the Braves have come out on the losing end in all of them. Matt Williams will counter with Tanner Roark (7:10 p.m. ET).

Remember when Clay Buchholz racked up a 26-to-1 K:BB ratio over four starts between June 25th and July 18th? It’s okay if you don’t, because he’s done his best to give all of that good work back by issuing 13 free passes against just 10 punchouts in his three most recent outings. The outcome in the last two—five innings, seven runs, and a Red Sox defeat—has been the same. Buchholz, the lone soldier left from Boston’s Opening Day rotation, now faces a stiff test from Albert Pujols and the Angels. Why Pujols and not Mike Trout? The first baseman is batting .333/.374/.517 with 10 doubles, four homers, and just 10 strikeouts in 131 plate appearances dating back to the Fourth of July (9:05 p.m. ET).

Sunday
Have you been waiting for the regression monster to eat Dallas Keuchel? If you have, well, you’re still waiting: The 26-year-old’s ERA is down to 2.89, its lowest point since June 22nd. Keuchel has been charged with only two earned runs over his last three starts, both of which scored on solo shots. The sinkerballer has induced at least 13 groundballs in seven consecutive outings, and his 61.9 percent worm-killer rate tops all qualifying starters by nearly five percentage points (Tyson Ross is second at 57.1 percent). He’ll do his best to keep the ball on the dirt again with Nick Martinez and the Rangers in town (2:10 p.m. ET).

Jason Hammel blanked the Rays for 5 2/3 innings to pick up his first win in an A’s uniform earlier this week, but that doesn’t mean he pitched well. The righty was touched up for seven hits, handed out four walks, and recorded only two strikeouts; a pair of double-play balls enabled him to avert disaster. Most pitchers aren’t so fortunate: According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Hammel became just the 10th starter since 1914 to pack seven-plus hits and four-plus walks into 5 2/3 or fewer frames without coughing up a run. He’ll likely need to cut down on the baserunners to keep the Twins off the board when he locks horns with Phil Hughes in the finale (4:05 p.m. ET).

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam 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
Andrew Koo is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Andrew's other articles. You can contact Andrew by clicking here
Morris Greenberg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Morris's other articles. You can contact Morris by clicking here

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