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August 14, 2014

What You Need to Know

August 14, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
On Tuesday, the Phillies stymied the Angels for five innings, only to watch them erupt for seven runs in the sixth. Yesterday, White Sox starter Jose Quintana worked around a leadoff triple by Buster Posey in the fourth inning to hold the Giants scoreless through six.

That gave the South Siders’ offense ample time to solve their old mate, Jake Peavy, who was seeking his first win in a Giants uniform. Adam Dunn did ...

... and at the seventh-inning stretch, it seemed his splash bomb would be sufficient for the White Sox to earn a sweep on their two-game swing through San Francisco.

Pablo Sandoval flied out to begin the last of the seventh. Then Michael Morse and Adam Duvall followed with singles that put runners on the corners with one away. The Giants had already failed twice to plate a runner from third with fewer than two outs, and they were on the brink of going 0-for-3 in that department.

Joe Panik hit a broken-bat slow bouncer to Jose Abreu and the first baseman fired home well ahead of pinch-runner Gregor Blanco. Catcher Tyler Flowers tagged Blanco out, and the White Sox were still up 1-0. Before 2014, the story would have ended there. Now, though, we’ve got pesky Rule 7.13, and with his squad scuffling, Bruce Bochy had the potential for a run-scoring technicality on his mind.

At this point, the ball is already in Flowers’ glove, and Blanco is about to sink into a long and futile slide. But notice where Flowers’ left leg is: It’s right in line with the plate, obstructing the entire front edge and denying Blanco a lane.

Flowers pivots to make the tag; when he does, his left foot opens up the back portion of the plate for Blanco to touch. He tags Blanco well before the runner can attempt to nick the dish with his left foot or hand and in plain view of the umpire. Common sense dictates that this should be an out.

Rule 7.13 says otherwise.

Robin Ventura came racing out of the first-base dugout to voice his displeasure with the replay verdict to crew chief Fieldin Culbreth. There wasn’t much Culbreth could do to calm the second-year skipper, but that didn’t deter Ventura from kicking dirt on the plate in one of the most animated post-replay arguments we’ve seen to date. A minute or two later, Ventura was on his way.

But he’d be back. Amid all the commotion, the trailing runner, Adam Duvall, advanced to third, giving the Giants a chance to take the lead with another groundball or sacrifice fly. Ventura wasn’t having it. He called for another review, on which the crew in New York correctly decided that Duvall should return to second.

By then, Quintana had been standing around, chucking warmup tosses, and dilly-dallying for about seven minutes. Whether or not the delay played a role, the lefty wasn’t the same after it.

He got Brandon Crawford to fly out, but then punchless pinch-hitter Joaquin Arias left the bat on his shoulder and wound up with a four-pitch walk. That was all for Quintana, which meant that the White Sox bullpen adventure was about to commence with Ronald Belisario at the helm.

Angel Pagan singled. Hunter Pence singled. Buster Posey singled. And speaking of adventures, Adam Dunn turned an inning-ending fly ball into a two-run, three-base error by attempting to call off center fielder Leury Garcia. With that blunder, a team that had nothing but bagels through at least five frames had dropped a seven spot en route to a rout for the second straight day.

Credit Flowers for setting aside his displeasure with the outcome of the play at the plate and speaking candidly with reporters about it after the 7-1 defeat. Dan Hayes, who covers the White Sox for CSN Chicago, transcribed the catcher’s quotes. The money lines come right at the outset:

"I don’t think anybody has an understanding of this rule. Apparently they’re interpreting this thing extremely black and white with no context of the play—infield, outfield, base runner, where he’s at. [...] It’s one thing if he makes contact with me before I have the ball, but that wasn’t the case. He was still seven-plus feet away. It had no impact on him whatsoever."

It sure didn’t, but it’s difficult to come up with an effective new rule, much less to do so in a way that allows field and replay umpires to contextualize its application. As we learned with the catch-rule fiasco early in the season, the advent of replay necessitates the application of rules by the letter of the law. There is little disincentive for a manager to challenge a play on which his runner is ruled out at the plate. There’s a reversal in the cards if the catcher’s foot was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the potential to disrupt the pitcher with a prolonged examination of a complex play offers a fine consolation prize if the out isn’t the third in the inning.

Each disputed application of Rule 7.13 provides another bullet point for Major League Baseball to consider when it revises its wording this offseason. The most burning questions are on whose judgment the matter of context should rest, and—if it’s left to the plate umpire’s discretion—under what circumstances that judgment should be subject to further review.

In the meantime, we can only hope that plays involving Rule 7.13 are few and far between until the end of October. A handful of logic-defying calls in a 162-game season might prove beneficial in the long run. But the specter of a World Series–turning technicality grows more fearsome with each one.

Quick Hits from Wednesday
The list of pitchers who’ve delivered outstanding efforts against the 2014 Athletics on fewer than 100 pitches is short. Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, who got through 7 2/3 innings and permitted Bob Melvin’s patient and productive lineup only one run on May 10th, is the lone starter who’d recorded an out in the eighth without crossing the century mark.

On Wednesday, Roark got some company in the person of Jason Vargas. The first-year Royal didn’t just finish the eighth with the limited allotment; he finished the game. A three-hit shutout, to be exact, or, if you prefer, a “Maddux.”

Vargas got early run support from second baseman Omar Infante, who launched a two-run blast in the third:

The Royals would tack on one more in the fifth, and the 31-year-old southpaw did the rest.

After needing 23 pitches to notch his first three outs, Vargas did not exceed 13 in any other frame. He retired the side with single-digit offerings in five of the nine innings, and he used only five to slam the door in the ninth.

Vargas took a somewhat unorthodox approach to the A’s offense, pumping fastball after fastball over the inner half of the plate to Oakland’s seven right-handed or switch-hitters. He didn’t have much command of his breaking ball, so the visitors only needed to concern themselves with the high-80s heater and low-80s changeup. And still they couldn’t crack Vargas’s code, as he struck out four and walked none.

Some questioned Royals general manager Dayton Moore’s decision to tender Vargas a four-year contract, but the former Angel has more than earned his $8 million paycheck with 1.7 WARP to date. Wednesday’s gem was both Vargas’ first complete game of the year and his most impressive showing in Royal blue.

***

If you’re going to pitch in Great American Ball Park, you’d better bring your best fastball command. Reds veteran Mike Leake should know that by now. Red Sox rookie Anthony Ranaudo, who was spotted a 2-0 first-inning lead, almost found out the hard way on Wednesday afternoon.

Seventh-place hitter Skip Schumaker was up with nobody on and one out in the fourth, and he worked the count full. Here’s where Dan Butler wanted the payoff pitch:

Here’s where Ranaudo threw it:

And here’s where it ended up. Lesson learned? Not quite:

If you can’t spot your fastball at the knees or paint the corners, even Schumaker—the owner of four homers in 881 plate appearances since the end of the 2011 season—and Leake, the opposing pitcher, can take you deep in the cozy Cincinnati yard.

Ranaudo got a reprieve because, in the fifth inning, Leake fell victim to his home park, too. He missed up with a heater and away with a curve. With the count 2-0 on Mike Napoli, a runner on first, and two away, Leake’s 90 mph offering caught too much of the dish:

Napoli’s homer capped a three-spot that gave Ranaudo a 5-3 lead. It did not, however, give him the ability to spot his fastball:

A seventh-round pick by the Red Sox in the 2006 draft, Kris Negron didn’t quite have the thump to carry the ball past the high wall to the left of center field, but he settled for his first career triple at his original employer’s expense. Todd Frazier drove Negron in with a sacrifice fly to bring the Reds to within a run, but that was as close as they’d get in the 5-4 defeat.

It was Cincinnati’s 16th setback in 25 games since the All-Star break and their 10th one-run downer in that span. Bryan Price’s squad is now 17-28 on the year in such tightly contested affairs. No other major-league club has dropped more than 24.

***

For seven-and-a-half innings in Baltimore last night, the story was the successful return of Michael Pineda from a teres major strain that had left him on the disabled list for more than three months.

Pineda retired the first 12 Orioles he faced. In the meantime, his battery-mate, Francisco Cervelli, got the Yankees on the board with a third-inning bomb. But Chris Tillman kept the visitors at bay from that point on, and Nelson Cruz, the first batter in the bottom of the fifth, spoiled the fun.

As Pineda’s velocity waned, Cruz cranked a leadoff double. Two batters later, Steve Pearce singled him over to third, and the next hitter, Ryan Flaherty, brought Cruz home with a sacrifice fly. It took a fine play by third baseman Chase Headley for Pineda to get out of the fifth.

Most managers likely would’ve chosen a middle reliever or multi-inning arm to bridge the gap to the setup crew. Instead, Joe Girardi opted to bring his most dominant bullpenner, Dellin Betances, into the game in the sixth. Betances gave up a leadoff single to Nick Hundley, then recovered to strike out the side. He got through the seventh without a hitch, too, though Girardi didn’t. The skipper was tossed for arguing an interference call on Stephen Drew. And all the while, the Yankees were stuck on two.

Before getting the thumb, Girardi decided to let Betances, a former starter, begin the eighth inning with Shawn Kelley tossing lightly in case things came unglued. They did.

With nobody on and one out, Jonathan Schoop tied the game with one swing. The second baseman has treated the Yankees the way the mouthwash whose name he shares handles gingivitis. He carried a .385/.407/.808 line against New York into the game. Of his 11 long balls, four have come at the Bombers’ expense.

This one chased Betances and brought Kelley to the bump. Four batters and a slider that didn’t slide later, the Yankees were toast:

Adam Jones’ three-run dinger gave Zach Britton ample cushion to overcome his erratic command. Britton walked Mark Teixeira with one away, ahead of a Carlos Beltran double. But Headley’s RBI groundout only plated one run, and that was all the Yankees would get.

The Orioles have won their last two and eight of their past 10. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have lost three in a row and the Yankees have fallen in four straight. Add it all up and Baltimore now enjoys a season-high 7 1/2-game lead in the American League East.

***

Here’s something we haven’t seen in a while.

Yup, that’s a Joe Mauer home run, his first since May 4th, a 50-game span that wraps around a 40-day stint on the shelf with an oblique strain. It’s also his first big fly off a left-handed pitcher since he took Jose Quintana yard on August 16, 2013.

The solo shot opened the scoring in the sixth inning and the Twins scored twice more before the Astros got on the board. Kyle Gibson held Houston to just one run in 7 2/3 innings at Minute Maid Park, walking two and striking out four to trim his ERA to 3.96.

Casey Fien and Glen Perkins wrapped up the 3-1 win for the road team.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Nick Hagadone needed a little help to preserve a scoreless draw in the second game of the doubleheader between the Diamondbacks and Indians. Ryan Raburn provided it:

The Tribe ultimately ceded the nightcap, 1-0, in 12 innings. On the bright side, Cleveland won the front end of the twin bill, 3-2, behind eight innings of two-run work from ex-D’back Trevor Bauer.

What to Watch on Thursday

  • Max Scherzer has worked 15 innings and allowed a total of three runs over two starts this month. The Tigers, amid their ongoing second-half tailspin, have lost both of them. Scherzer can’t do much more to aid his team’s struggling offense in its bid to win behind him, though he is 13-for-79 (.407 OPS) at the plate, not quite a gimme for Pirates starter Francisco Liriano. Scherzer set a career high with 15 strikeouts versus the Pirates on May 20, 2012, serving Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, as well as the since-departed Nate McLouth, with a hat trick each. He will try to carve up the Bucs again in the matinee at PNC Park and hope that his offense can get him and the team back into the win column (1:08 p.m. ET).

  • The finale of the four-game battle between the Athletics and Royals features an intriguing duel between right-handers Jeff Samardzija and James Shields. Losers in two of the first three tilts at Kauffman Stadium, the A’s have won five straight behind the former Cubs ace and have come out on top in six of his seven assignments since the early-July blockbuster that brought him to Oakland. The 29-year-old did not see the Royals on their recent visit to the East Bay, but Shields had the pleasure of flummoxing Bob Melvin’s lineup for eight innings of two-run ball on August 3rd. He followed that effort with a four-hit shutout over the Giants and will try to keep on rolling this afternoon (2:10 p.m. ET).

  • Trivia time: Of the major leaguers who’ve logged at least 30 at-bats this month, only two have yet to strike out. Can you name them?

    One of the two has the night off, so let’s get him off the board straightaway: Robinson Cano. The other faces a tall task this evening in his bid to keep his punchout-free streak alive. Had Cano opted to stay in the Bronx instead of bolting for Seattle, he would have shared a city but not a borough with his only partner in the crime of denying Ks to enemy pitchers. You now know that it’s a Met, which means that he’ll have to dig in against Stephen Strasburg as the Nationals wrap up their visit to Citi Field. The player in question fanned 18 times in his first 90 career plate appearances, all of them recent enough to be fresh in Mets fans’ memories, but three games into his most recent promotion, he stopped whiffing altogether.

    If you haven’t yet solved the riddle, it’s rookie shortstop Wilmer Flores. The 23-year-old is riding a modest four-game hitting streak, but he’ll need to do better than a .568 OPS to warrant playing time over slicker-fielding options at the toughest infield position. Not striking out is a fine start, but Flores also hasn’t punched an extra-base hit in his last eight games. He’ll try to solve Strasburg in support of Dillon Gee tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).

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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