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April 14, 2015

What You Need to Know

April 14, 2015

by Chris Mosch

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The Monday Takeaway
Earned runs are a fickle statistic. By now you’re aware of the pitfalls of evaluating a pitcher by his ERA and the benefits of considering the factors that pitchers have actual control over. Jordan Zimmermann’s final line on Monday afternoon was a textbook example of why it’s best to err toward defensive independent pitching when evaluating pitching performance.

Zimmermann wasn’t his sharpest against the Red Sox during Monday’s matinee, as his fastball command wavered at times and the right-hander found himself behind in the count on a handful of occasions. That’s already not a great start when facing the Red Sox offense—PECOTA projects Boston to be the best offense in baseball by True Average. But the Nationals defense continuously gave away free outs and bases to the Red Sox, resulting in an early trip to the showers for the 28-year-old.

That being said, the first miscue of the day by the Nationals was actually on Zimmermann. With defensive shifts becoming a regular part of the game, spring training has also become a time for teams to practice untraditional scenarios that may come up because of the shift. One situation in particular is the pitcher covering third base on a steal of second base with a full shift on a left-handed batter to prevent a heads-up baserunner from going first-to-third. Dustin Pedroia was alert enough to pull it off last year against the Angels and his teammate Mookie Betts caught Zimmermann napping to pick up the double steal on Monday:


David Ortiz singled home Betts moments later on a ball that one-hopped the Green Monster, so the miscue didn’t actually end up costing the Nationals a run. But that play and a Danny Espinosa bobble that cost Zimmermann an inning-ending double play

set the tone for what followed in the next two innings.

Zimmermann started off the second inning by getting Shane Victorino to ground out softly to Yunel Escobar at third base. Two pitches later, he induced a fairly routine grounder to short off the bat of Xander Bogaerts, only to watch Ian Desmond’s throw pull Ryan Zimmerman off the bag. Desmond has committed five errors through Washington’s first seven games.

Two batters later, Bogaerts came around to score on a three-run blast by Betts. Take a gander if you’re into lightening-quick bat speed.

Again, it wasn’t exactly Zimmerman’s best day on the mound, and that showed when he started off the third inning by plunking Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. He then appeared to catch a break on a first-pitch fastball he left up in the zone to Mike Napoli, who got under the pitch and hit a towering fly to warning track. Michael Taylor inexperience playing in front of the Green Monster was apparent.

The misplay loaded the bases for Victorino, who promptly popped out for the first out of the inning. Bogaerts singled home a run on a bloop single to make it 5-0. Things continued to spiral out of control for Zimmermann after he got Sandy Leon to hit a routine fly ball to right field, only to watch miscommunication between Taylor and Bryce Harper result in another cheap single (the sun might have also played a role).

At this point, Zimmermann should be out of the inning. The Red Sox should have scored one run in the third inning with a couple of hit batsman and a softly hit single. Instead, the bases were loaded with one out. Up next was Betts, whom Zimmerman got to hit a soft grounder to shortstop, only to watch Desmond squander away a potential force out.



In a somewhat surprising move, Matt Williams decided to pull the plug on Zimmermann’s day. The right-hander was only at 70 pitches and while he wasn’t at his sharpest, he wasn’t pitching especially poorly either, despite tying a career-worst eight runs allowed (seven earned) in 2 1/3 innings. In any case, Williams opted to bring in Tanner Roark, who ate up 3 2/3 innings in relief of Zimmermann and spared the Nationals bullpen from what could have potentially been a disastrous start to a series opener.

While Washington’s eventual 9-4 loss was a performance they’d like to put behind them, Mookie Betts put on a show during the home opener that exemplified just why the Red Sox are so excited about the future of their young center fielder. You’ve already seen the double steal and the three-run home run, but before either one of those plays, the 22-year-old robbed Harper of a home run that was ticketed for the Boston bullpen.

Quick Hits from Monday
Jon Lester’s streak of not attempting a pickoff has been discussed at great length ever since the Royals ran wild on him during last year’s American League Wild Card game. The topic gained national traction once again when it was discussed ad nauseum on ESPN’s broadcast of Lester’s Opening Night start, when the Cardinals stole four bases against him without as much of a throw over. That prompted reporters to ask Lester about whether he had the yips and he quickly dismissed the notion as much ado about nothing, noting that he worked on his pickoff move during spring training and had actually attempted a pickoff throw during a minor-league game this spring.


On Monday’s episode of Effectively Wild, Ben and Sam discussed the possible culmination of the streak with Lester scheduled to take the hill against the Reds and, more notably, Billy Hamilton. That showdown never happened, with Hamilton scratched before the game with a sore left index finger, but that didn’t prevent any Lester-related pickoff drama from going down.

The Cubs and Reds each pushed across three runs in the first inning and Zack Cozart led off the second with a grounder through the left side for a single. Lester struck out Mike Leake and then started off Kristopher Negron with a first-pitch ball before doing what he hadn’t done in a regular season game since April 30, 2013.

Look at that! Not bad. A couple feet wide, but it looks like Lester might actually have a decen—

Luckily for Lester, Jorge Soler bailed him out by gunning out an over-aggressive Cozart at third.

There were no more throws over by Lester during the start and no stolen base attempts, although David Ross nearly picked off Brandon Phillips, who had taken an aggressive lead against Lester the very next inning. The Red second baseman reached again in the sixth inning and was clearly anxious to try and get into Lester’s head.

Lester’s next start will come against the Padres, who lack any notable burners, but that’s what should make the matchup even more intriguing. There’s little doubt that speedsters like Billy Hamilton are going to take off against Lester until he can prove that he can competently control the running game. But Monday’s events had Phillips champing at the bit despite the 33-year-old being seven-for-13 on stolen base attempts over the past two seasons. Whether or not guys like Matt Kemp, Justin Upton or Derek Norris test their luck against Lester should make for quite the interesting subplot this weekend.

As far as the game itself, Lester departed after six innings down 6-3, but the Cubs got one back in the sixth when Chris Coghlan took Mike Leake yard. In the eighth inning, Soler evened the score, crushing his second long ball of the night.

Soler nearly played walk-off hero in the bottom of the 10th, as he laced a single through the 5.5 hole with Anthony Rizzo on second. However, Rizzo broke back to second base, thinking the ball might be caught, and he was held at third base. That turned out to be for naught, however, with Soler scoring the winning run later in the inning on Arismendy Alcantara’s walk-off single.

***

The Tigers entered their series against the Pirates one of two remaining undefeated teams through the first week of the season. The offense was clicking on all cylinders, averaging nearly eight runs per game during that span and the top of the way-too-early American League statistical leaderboards was filled with Tigers hitters. On Monday, Detroit ran into a buzzsaw on Monday in the form of Gerrit Cole, who displayed impeccable fastball command and had both of his breaking pitches working.

Cole established his mid-to-high 90s fastball early in the count and relied on the pitch heavily (70 percent fastballs), climbing up the velocity ladder as the day wore on. A power pitcher who pounds the bottom of the zone can be an absolute nightmare for hitters and given Cole’s pitch chart it’s no wonder that the Tigers weren’t able to muster much against him.

The UCLA product spent the first six innings in cruise control, striking out eight and allowing just two Pirates to reach base: Nick Castellanos on a single in the second inning and Alex Avila on a two-out walk in the fifth. Cole’s biggest test came in the fourth inning when he and Miguel Cabrera faced off in a 10-pitch battle. At one point, Cole reached back for a 100.7 mph and Cabrera fouled off four subsequent 3-2 fastballs before chasing a slider out of the zone.


Things began to unwind for Cole in the seventh, with a pair of singles and a walk leading to a bases loaded jam with no outs. Clint Hurdle gave Cole the hook after 94 pitches (63 strikes) and went to right-hander Jared Hughes, who promptly induced a double play and a foul out to hold Detroit to just one run in the inning.

As for the offense, Josh Harrison had Cole’s back early on. Harrison became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh with his full-throttle approach and breakout 2014 campaign. With a packed crowd in PNC Park for the home opener, Harrison got the fans out of their seats on the first pitch in the bottom of the first:

Harrison scored on an Andrew McCutchen sacrifice fly in the fourth inning for Pittsburgh’s second run of the day and the Buccos added three more in the seventh on home runs by Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart.

The Tigers bats made a return appearance in the ninth against Mark Melancon, who entered to get some work in a 5-1 game. Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera led off the inning with back-to-back two-baggers to set the stage for J.D. Martinez, who continued his early season attempt to quell talk of regression from last season’s breakout.

Martinez’s fourth home run of the season cut the lead to one and the Pittsburgh bullpen quickly started throwing as Yoenis Cespedes singled to left moments later. But Melancon buckled down, first getting Nick Castellanos to ground out into a 5-4-3 double play and then striking out Victor Martinez to secure the 5-4 win for Pittsburgh.

***

With the Tigers dropping their first game of the season, Kansas City moved into first place in the American League Central and is the last unbeaten team remaining in baseball this season. A close game that featured a pair of fine defensive plays by Alex Gordon and Alex Rios quickly turned into a blowout.

The Royals entered the eighth inning up 5-3 but blew the game open with six runs on three walks, two hit batsman, a pair of singles and a fielding error. Needless to say, the Minnesota faithful were not pleased by the effort in the home opener and even showered the team with boos at one point during the sixth inning. The loss dropped the Twins to 1-6.

As for what this means for the Royals, it’s clearly still too early to ascertain what their true talent may be. But their winning streak to start the season has earned them a 4 1/2 game lead on both the Indians and White Sox, which does gives them an early cushion over a couple of division foes that they’ll need to outlast if they want to earn a playoff berth. It also provides numerous fun facts courtesy of Rany Jazayerli:


***

The distinction between command and control is one that is often made when it comes to pitching, with control being the ability to get the ball over the plate (i.e. limit walks) and command referring to a pitcher’s ability to hit the catcher’s target or throw a pitch where he intends to throw it. Brandon McCarthy displayed fantastic control against the Mariners on Monday night, turning in just the third 10-strikeout, no walk outing of his career and throwing 70 of his 98 pitches for strikes.

McCarthy clearly had little trouble finding the strike zone but his command also wavered on a few occasions, leading to four home runs served up, including a pair off the bat of Nelson Cruz.

Cruz’s second home run was less about McCarthy missing his target and more about Cruz’s pure man strength, but both of long balls served up to Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley were pitches that the Dodgers right-hander would have liked to have back.

McCarthy’s outing turned out to be a historical oddity, with it being the only start since 1914 that a starting pitcher struck out at least 10, issued zero walks and gave up at least four home runs. He departed after seven innings with the game tied at five apiece and a battle of the bullpens ensuing into the 10th inning.

Andre Ethier led things off against Domonic Leone with a double in the right-center gap and moved up 90 feet after a pair of walks to Adrian Gonzalez and Howie Kendrick. With the bases juiced, Lloyd McClendon brought in Tyler Olson, who promptly struck out Carl Crawford for the second out of the inning. That left Alex Guerrero with the opportunity to play hero.

It’s safe to say the Cuban infielder’s season is already off to a better start than it was last year.

***

Michael Pineda was inconsistent at times against the Orioles during his outing against the Orioles, paying for the occasional ball left up and target missed, such as on this Adam Jones home run that broke a tie game and gave the Orioles a 4-2 lead in the sixth inning.



But Pineda got his fair share of empty swings throughout the start, generating 16 swing-and-misses and nine strikeouts while not issuing any walks over 6 1/3 innings. Pineda’s fastball-slider combination is filthy by itself and his developing changeup can be nearly impossible to hit when it’s on, as Eno Sarris explored last week. We got another glimpse of how scary Pineda can be with a quality third offering during this strikeout of Chris Davis in the first inning.

But after Jones’ home run, Pineda was staring down a potential loss. Wei-Yin Chen turned the ball over to Tommy Hunter after tossing six innings of two-run ball but the Baltimore reliever loaded the bases with two outs, setting the stage for a pinch-hit appearance by Stephen Drew:

Drew launched Hunter’s 3-1 mistake over the right-center fence to give the Yankees a two-run lead. The Orioles managed a fifth run against Pineda, but Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller kept the division foes at bay, combining for 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief and a 6-5 Yankees win.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Ben Revere’s outstanding diving catch to rob Curtis Granderson of extra bases on Monday really took the phrase “putting your body on the line” to the next level.

Unfortunately for Revere, his best efforts couldn’t help the Phillies overcome 6 1/3 shutout innings by Jacob deGrom in the Mets home opener. Despite deGrom not bringing his ‘A’ game, lacking his normal sharp fastball command, and picking up just one swing and miss with his breaking balls, he held the Phillies to seven singles and a walk during the outing. He struck out three and threw 64 of his 99 pitches for strikes. For someone who didn’t come to the ballpark with his best stuff, it was still quite a fine performance by the sophomore pitcher.

What to Watch on Tuesday

—If you’re looking for a strong pitching matchup to kick off your evening, look no further than Cleveland, where Carlos Carrasco will attempt to build on his 10-strikeout start against the Astros last week when he takes the mound opposite Jose Quintana of the White Sox. The Indians and White Sox were popular sleeper picks during the spring but both squads have stumbled out of the gate to 2-4 records. If the American League Central is going to be as tightly contested as expected, neither team can afford to dig itself into too deep of a hole even this early in the season. It’s obviously not time for either team to panic yet but nevertheless, Carrasco and Quintana will try to right the ship for their respective club (7:10 p.m. EST).


Kendall Graveman was a popular breakout candidate following an impressive spring that earned him a spot in Oakland’s rotation. However, Graveman—who was acquired in the Josh Donaldson trade this offseason—didn’t have quite the debut he envisioned for his new club last week against the Rangers, getting rocked for eight runs (seven earned) and failing to make it out of the fourth inning.

Graveman’s bread-and-butter pitch is a low-90s sinker and he showed off his groundball tendencies during the spring. He complements it with a low-80s slider and a high-80s cutter that he began to work into his repertoire last year.

Given Graveman’s pitch-to-contact and groundball tendencies, a matchup on Tuesday against the Astros might not be the most ideal matchup despite their swing-and-miss nature. As discussed in The Book and re-examined last offseason by Andrew Koo, fly-ball hitters tend to have a sizable match-up advantage against groundball pitchers. Koo wrote at the time:

Authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin found that fly-ball hitters had an advantage over groundball hitters, simply because they are better hitters—you can’t homer on grounders, after all. They also found that fly-ball hitters are especially good against groundball pitchers, because the former tend to swing under the ball while the latter want the hitter to swing over the ball.

As it turns out, Jose Altuve and Jake Marisnick are the only Astros regular position player who didn’t post an above-average fly-ball rate last season with Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena and Chris Carter all finishing the 2014 season with fly-ball rates at least one full standard deviation above the league average. Graveman might rack up a few more strikeouts on Tuesday than you’d expect from a guy with a 6.1 K/9 in the minors but it could come at the cost of a ball or two leaving the yard (8:10 p.m. EST).

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

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