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August 15, 2014

What You Need to Know

August 15, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Max Scherzer last struck out at least 14 batters on May 20, 2012 and the Pirates were on the receiving end of his nastiness. In the intervening 28 months, only one pitcher—Yovani Gallardo on July 15, 2012—so thoroughly carved up the Bucs.

Yesterday, we found out that the Missourian’s assault on Pittsburgh two years ago was no fluke. Scherzer and the Pirates are simply a match made in strikeout heaven.

Gregory Polanco batted first and went down swinging. Travis Snider and Josh Harrison followed suit. And, as if striking out the side once weren’t enough, Scherzer did it again the very next inning, catching Ike Davis looking before making Pedro Alvarez and Jordy Mercer look foolish to strand Starling Marte, who had doubled.

Scherzer might have racked up three more Ks in the third inning, but the catchers conspired to deny him the opportunity. Chris Stewart led off with a single, but after Michael Martinez took strike three, Alex Avila gunned down his counterpart attempting to steal. Polanco whiffed again to end the inning.

The 30-year-old Tiger picked up one more strikeout in the fourth and added two in the fifth, running his total to 11. That’s nice and all, but it wasn't doing the home nine much good, because you can’t win if you don’t score.

Enter J.D. Martinez.

The outfielder’s solo shot gave Scherzer the lead. His bases-loaded walk in the ensuing inning tacked on an insurance run. And his infield single in the eighth extended the advantage to 3-0. A two-run knock by Nick Castellanos made the lead bullpen-proof, though Phil Coke did his best to make it a game again by serving up a two-run jack to Gaby Sanchez in the ninth.

Scherzer’s brilliance rendered that late long ball too little, too late. He might have been better served pitching to contact at times and chasing a shutout instead of his personal strikeout record, but efficiency has never been the name of the right-hander’s game. It took him more than five years to notch his first gem, and no. 2 was not in the cards on Thursday afternoon.

Of course, one reason Scherzer needed 121 pitches to record 24 outs in the series finale is that the Pirates swung at and missed 23 (19 percent) of them. The former first-round pick’s fastball, which averaged a shade under 94 mph and topped out at 97, blew by the Bucs’ bats nine times in 54 tries. His slider and changeup were even better.

The 85-88 mph breaking pitch yielded 18 strikes in 22 spins, and 15 of those 18 were of the swinging variety. The changeup, thrown at essentially the same speed, went 16-for-24 in the strike-earning department, and each of those 16 strikes came on a swing, too. There are good strikes and bad strikes because some strikes are hits. On Thursday, all of the 34 strikes produced by Scherzer’s preferred secondary offerings were good.

Fourteens were wild in the 5-2 decision. Scherzer punched out 14 to gain win no. 14 on the 14th day of August in the year 2014.

***

Brewers starter Mike Fiers couldn’t match Scherzer in the win department, in part because yesterday’s meeting with the Cubs was only his second start of the year, and in part because he’s not quite as accustomed to running roughshod over major-league lineups. But in the series finale at Wrigley Field, Fiers channeled Elisha Otis to grab 14 Ks of his own.

Whether Fiers’ over-the-top release point baffled the Cubs or Rick Renteria’s hitters just lacked the discipline to lay off, the elevator fastball was the right-hander’s best friend. The four-seamer averaged just 90.3 mph in the outing, but despite the middling velocity, it racked up 14 whiffs for Fiers in just 67 tries. Nine of those 14 whiffs were on pitches well above the strike zone. All the bright red squares in the heart of the box, representing called strikes in perilous spots, are further evidence of the extent to which Fiers had the Cubs on their heels.

Unfortunately, the Cubs’ imprudent patience inflated Fiers’ pitch count to 106 at the end of six. He allowed only three hits and walked only one, but the lengthy at-bats prevented him from pitching deeper into the afternoon.

The flip side of that coin is that the six-inning, 14-strikeout effort put Fiers in exclusive company. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he became the eighth pitcher in the last century to compile at least that many punchouts without recording an out in the seventh.

Oddly enough, the last starter to join the club before Fiers did was Scherzer, who mowed down 14 A’s in 5 2/3 innings on May 30, 2010. Scherzer and Fiers are the only pair in the octet to have earned their membership cards without permitting a run.

And by joining forces on Thursday, they became the first pair to fan 14 on the same day since May 25, 2001.

***

Before we get to the other action, a trivia question for you to chew on: Both of the pitchers who K’d 14-plus on May 25, 2001, came away with one-hit shutouts. Who were they? (You’ll find hints at the end of every section—because Sam Miller called this “the hardest trivia question of all time”—and the answer at the end of the post.)

Hint 1: Neither of the two is Randy Johnson. But if you immediately thought “Randy Johnson,” pat yourself on the back, because he struck out 14 eight times that year. May 25th just wasn’t one of the days.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Bryce Harper doesn’t always hit homers, but when he does, he prefers Mets pitching:

The 21-year-old has gone yard thrice since July 19th, and each of those blasts has come at the Amazins' expense.

His mammoth shot on Thursday was the 29th the Nationals have hit in their last 11 games at Citi Field. It was their seventh in three games there since the All-Star break, during which time the Mets have managed only three more. Adam LaRoche’s first-inning shot put Terry Collins’ club in a hole. Harper’s encore put them away.

Stephen Strasburg wasn’t messing around in the finale: He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 25 Mets he faced en route to what would have been seven shutout innings, save for an Ian Desmond error. The right-hander settled for seven one-run frames over which he walked one and struck out eight.

Coupled with the Dodgers’ 6-4 victory over the Braves, the 4-1 decision in Queens—which capped a three-game sweep—gave the Nats a six-game lead in the East.

***

And the Braves might want to look out below, because the Marlins are suddenly nipping at their heels.

After holding the Reds to two runs (one earned) across five innings in his 2014 debut, Brad Penny reverted to looking much like you’d expect a 36-year-old with only one big-league start since 2011 to look. He was the anti-Strasburg: Just nine of 23 Diamondbacks saw first-pitch strikes, and Penny walked as many (three) as he struck out.

But the veteran was able to keep the Marlins in the game by limiting the damage to four runs in five innings. Diamondbacks starter Chase Anderson gave up three in six. Brad Ziegler, who’s been in a major rut since the All-Star break, squared it up by coughing up a run in the eighth.

With the game on the line in the ninth, Kirk Gibson went to Bradin Hagens, who was making his major-league debut. The 25-year-old did the job for one inning, matching the goose egg posted by Mike Dunn, but asking him to do so a second time proved a bridge too far.

Garrett Jones walked to begin the last of the 10th and Jeff Mathis moved him to second with a single. Then Marcell Ozuna sent the crowd home happy:

The 5-4 victory was no. 60 of the season for the Fish, leaving them just a game shy of the Braves’ 61-60 ledger. It was also win no. 10 for Dunn.

Take a second to digest that: We’re in mid-August, and a reliever has cashed in on one-sixth of his team’s wins to date. Dunn, who had a career total of 10 wins in 236 appearances coming into 2014, is now even on the “W” leaderboard with Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, and Justin Verlander.

***

The last of four contests between the A’s and Royals also came down to the bullpens, but not before another dose of replay drama:

It’s the bottom of the seventh, and Kansas City, trailing 3-2, has runners at second and third with one out. Ryan Cook throws over to third, where Lorenzo Cain is called safe. But hold your horses. Bob Melvin challenged, and ...

... appeared to have a reasonable case:

Not strong enough in the eyes of the replay crew in New York, however, which determined that the call should stand. As Neyer pointed out, Cain looked out, but it’s tough to find a frame in the video that shows his tagged arm off the base conclusively. Josh Donaldson’s left-foot placement could not have been better for the Royals.

Moments after that review, Jarrod Dyson drove in Cain on an 0-2 mistake. The next batter, Norichika Aoki, whacked a two-run triple to give the Royals the lead. Three batters later, Billy Butler singled to break the game wide open.

Wade Davis, Jason Frasor, and Greg Holland wrapped up the 7-3 win that kept the Royals half a game ahead of the Tigers in the Central. The A’s dropped a half game to the idle Angels and now have a two-game lead in the West.

***

When Trevor Rosenthal got the ball for the top of the ninth at Busch Stadium on Thursday, the Cardinals led the Padres 4-2. They’d just scored twice in the eighth on a double by Jon Jay after getting seven solid innings from John Lackey and were on the road to victory.

That road turned out to be a rocky one with Rosenthal behind the wheel.

He kicked it off by allowing a single to Yasmani Grandal. Rymer Liriano flied out, but Alexi Amarista singled to put the tying run on base. Then Chris Nelson drew a walk, and suddenly, the go-ahead run was 270 feet away. Bud Black sent pinch-hitter Jake Goebbert up and got what he was looking for ...

... sort of. Goebbert singled, but after Grandal scored, Shane Robinson gunned down Amarista. Black begged to differ, to no avail: The replay crew upheld home-plate umpire Bob Davidson’s call, and the Padres' skipper got tossed for arguing it.

There are a few intriguing elements at this juncture, which you can find by going to 1:31 in the embedded replay. It’s the point at which catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s glove comes closest to Amarista, though it’s unclear whether he ever actually makes contact with the runner’s back. What is clear, however, is that Davidson couldn't possibly have made a visually informed call from his position on the other side of the dish.

In essence, Davidson guessed and his guess was “out.” None of the replay angles was definitive enough to say otherwise. The challenge system isn’t foolproof, and on this occasion, it may have let the Padres down.

But while their manager was gone, the visitors were still alive. Rosenthal walked the next batter, Will Venable, to load the bases for Tommy Medica. Alas, Medica fanned to end the game.

What’s odd about all this is that Rosenthal allowed five runners to reach base in the inning and gave up only one run. That’s tough to do. And it’s even tougher to earn a save in the process. Per the Play Index, the only other pitcher who can boast such a save is John Franco, who pulled it off on August 2, 1993.

***

Hint 2: One of the two pitchers did it for a team that was victimized by either Fiers or Scherzer, against the team that enjoyed the 14-strikeout performance on Thursday. So it’s either a Cub who mauled the Brewers or a Pirate who sailed past the Tigers.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Take it away, Torii Hunter:

***

Hint 3: Since 2000, there have been six 14-plus-strikeout outings authored by Japanese-born pitchers. Yu Darvish boasts five of them. The other one came on May 25, 2001.

What to Watch this Weekend

Friday
If you read yesterday’s WYNTK, you learned that Robinson Cano was one of two major-league batters who haven’t struck out while logging 30-plus at-bats this month. The first-year Mariner, who stands alone after Wilmer Flores K’d on Thursday, has an excellent chance to extend that run in this evening’s matchup with Rick Porcello and the Tigers. Cano has seen Porcello 23 times and in those trips, he’s 7-for-20 with two doubles and three walks. Not once in those 23 plate appearances has he gone down swinging or looking. Porcello will try to cool off the sizzling Cano while taking on James Paxton, who’s fanned 22 in 22 2/3 innings through his first four starts this year (7:08 p.m. ET).

The Phillies’ visit to AT&T Park begins with one of the weekend’s best on-paper duels. Left-handers Cole Hamels and Madison Bumgarner are set to go at it in San Francisco, where the friendly confines have been surprisingly unfriendly to the 25-year-old Giant. Bumgarner owns a 1.72 ERA in 14 road starts this year, but he’s been shelled to the tune of a 5.60 ERA in 11 starts in his home yard. Hamels, who’s rocking what would be a career-best 2.37 ERA if he carries it through the end of the regular season, hasn’t seen his results vary by venue. He struck out 10 Giants over eight innings of one-run ball in Philadelphia on July 24th, part of an ongoing five-start streak in which he’s pitched at least seven frames and allowed no more than one run each time out (10:15 p.m. ET).

Saturday
Stay tuned to that Mariners-Tigers series at Comerica Park on Saturday for what might be an even tastier matchup: Felix Hernandez against David Price. The Mariners ace ran his stretch of seven-plus-inning, two-or-fewer-run starts to 16 last week, and Seattle is 12-4 behind him since it began. The Tigers, meanwhile, have yet to see the best of their marquee deadline acquisition. Price gave up two homers in his Tigers debut and four runs in six innings in his second shot since coming over from the Rays. This will mark Price’s first time pitching in front of the Comerica Park crowd as one of their own (7:08 p.m. ET).

As that game comes to an end, switch over to the Brewers-Dodgers affair for your weekend Clayton Kershaw fix. The Mariners have managed to lose twice despite their no. 1 starter’s incredible consistency over the past three months. That’s not the case for the Dodgers, who’ve won 13 straight Kershaw assignments, a span over which the left-hander has compiled a 1.16 ERA in 101 innings. Kershaw held the Brewers to one run in eight frames at Miller Park on August 10th. He’ll square off with Yovani Gallardo in his bid for a personal sweep of Milwaukee (9:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday
The A’s are in Atlanta this weekend, which is notable because Sunday’s finale is their last date in the Eastern Time zone until the end of the regular season. Once this road trip is complete, Bob Melvin’s squad comes home for five, and travels to Anaheim and Houston to finish August. Sixteen of the Athletics’ 27 September tilts will be played at the O.co Coliseum; its road trips are to Chicago, Seattle, and Texas. Jon Lester, no stranger to the East Coast from his time with the Red Sox, gets the ball against Mike Minor to wrap up the three-game set on Sunday Night Baseball (8:05 p.m. ET).

***

Trivia Answers: Hideo Nomo and Kerry Wood.

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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