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May 4, 2015

What You Need to Know

Jake!

by Ian Frazer

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The Weekend Takeaway
Is this the season that the #process finally pays off for the Astros? The odds still aren’t fantastic—40.6 percent adjusted odds to make the playoffs, as of Sunday—but they’re sure as heck better than they were at the beginning of the season, and they’ve shot up 25 percentage points since last Saturday.

The Astros beat the Mariners 7-6 on Sunday with the help of two Evan Gattis home runs, the second of which was a solo shot in the bottom of the eighth to break a 6-6 tie. The win completed the series sweep for Houston, and it was the team’s 10th straight win, the second-longest streak seen this season.

This isn’t just good luck, at least as far as the numbers know. It might even be the opposite. As of Sunday, the Astros’ first order win percentage, which uses the Pythagenpat method to calculate a team’s winning percentage based on its run differential, put the Astros at .661, a step down from their .708 percentage at the time. But move on to the second and third order percentages, which substitute overall offensive performance for runs and factor in the team’s opponents, and a different picture is painted, that of a winning percentage of .728 or .725.

The Astros’ success can primarily be attributed to their hitting—as of Sunday, their offensive VORP of 66.0 was second in the majors, while their pitching VORP of 18.0 was 12th—and that success can primarily be attributed to two dudes, Jose Altuve and Jake Marisnick.

Altuve’s average actually dropped 15 points during the series against Seattle, and that was while collecting three hits. He's showing that last year probably wasn’t a fluke, and that he is indeed a beast.

Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wrote about Altuve’s adjustments and improvements here, and it basically comes down to improved discipline and contact ability, spurred in part by a tweak in his load and timing mechanism. Altuve has also been more selective on outside pitches, which seems to have helped him balance out his batted ball tendencies.


It makes sense, if you think about it: Choosing better outside pitches to hit results in better contact on those pitches, resulting in more positive outcomes on balls hit that direction.

There are a few disconcerting tendencies with Altuve so far, like that he’s hitting fewer line drives and more fly balls, but more of those fly balls are finding the seats so far. It should be fascinating to see how pitchers adjust to him as the season progresses.

Marisnick has been even better at the plate than Altuve this season, with a .413 TAv as of Sunday, the third best in baseball. Marisnick’s plate discipline has been downright turrible in the past—between the Marlins and Astros in 2014, he struck out 67 times and walked just eight—but this season, it’s, uh, better, with 10 strikeouts and five walks.

Per PITCHf/x, Marisnick’s contact rate on inside pitches has improved nearly seven percentage points from last year. Other encouraging signs, via batted ball data on FanGraphs: More grounders, fewer fly balls and more dingers per fly ball. Also, Marisnick made a mighty nifty catch on Saturday, as you’ll see further on.

Marisnick’s hit tool—or rather, the lack of a reliable one—was a common knock against him as a prospect, but early returns this season are promising, and should Marisnick continue on a similar trajectory and George Springer pick it up a little bit, the Astros could field two of baseball’s most exciting young outfielders.

Quick Hits from the Weekend
Want to know how you beat an unfavorable PECOTA projection? A strong bullpen. Recent examples include the Royals of 2013 and 2014, the Orioles of 2012 and, so far, the Yankees of 2015. The numbers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have put up so far are simply silly.

We’ll start with the conventional stuff. The duo has allowed one run in 28 innings and struck out 48. They have allowed nine hits. Opponents have hit .068 against Miller and .120 against Betances.

As of Sunday, Miller was first in the majors with a 53.5 percent contact rate allowed. He struck out two more hitters that night. Betances was fifth, with a percentage of 62.2. Miller’s outside contact rate was 32.1 percent. The lefty’s main weapon in that part of the zone is his sweeping slider, which has drawn contact just 29.2 percent of the time, as of Sunday.

On Saturday, Betances turned in the duo’s masterwork. He entered with two outs in the eighth and proceeded to fan Mike Napoli on four pitches. In the ninth, Betances struck out the side, coming one pitch away from throwing an immaculate inning.

In the words of Ben Lindbergh: …Play Index? All right, let’s do it. From 1914 to the present day, only one relief pitcher has recorded four strikeouts on 14 or fewer pitches, and that one pitcher was Dellin Betances on Saturday, May 2nd. Guys struck out four in 15 pitches, most recently Sean Doolittle on May 6th last year, but never 14.

This wasn’t just Betances’ best outing of the season: It was one of the most dominant relief outings of all time.

***

While the Cardinals swept the Pirates and moved to 18-6 on the season, which gives them the best winning percentage in baseball, the set took basically everything they had. The three games, all one-run victories coming on walk-offs, took 35 innings in all.

St. Louis’ bullpen threw 15 1/3 innings and allowed two runs, both in Sunday’s 14-inning grinder. That game had two dramatic dingers: Jung Ho Kang’s off Trevor Rosenthal in the top of the ninth, which was the first of Kang’s career and sent the game to extras:

Then Pedro Alvarez’s go-ahead homer in the 12th:

And Kolten Wong’s walk-off shot in the 14th:

This weekend’s three wins are a continuation of a theme for the two teams. Of the Cardinals’ last 15 walk-off wins, eight have been against the Pirates, per MLB.com.

And while the old maxim of a win being a win is still true, this series victory has a chance to be of the Pyrrhic variety for the Cardinals, as noted by BP staffer Matthew Trueblood.

***

This weekend was a big one for prospects. Cubs second baseman Addison Russell, BP’s no. 2 prospect entering the season, hit his first career home run on Friday, a solo shot off Wily Peralta. The dinger turned out to be the difference in the game, which the Cubs won 1-0.

On Saturday, Russell collided with Anthony Rizzo while going for a bleeder in short right field, but both players stayed in and played on Sunday.

Chicago ended up losing the series two games to one to the Brewers, which didn’t affect the Cubs’ second-place spot in the division but allowed the 18-6 Cardinals to pull further away in first.

Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart, whom BP ranked the No. 17 prospect in baseball before the season, made his debut on Saturday after Ryan Hanigan broke a knuckle in his right hand Friday night.

Swihart struck out against Nathan Eovaldi in his first plate appearance, but in his second time up beat out a grounder in the hole, flashing some very un-catcher-like speed in the process, for his first career hit.

Swihart walked and struck out in his next two plate appearances, then was 0-for-4 with two whiffs on Sunday.

The Padres called up catcher Austin Hedges, BP’s 23rd-ranked prospect, from Triple-A El Paso earlier on Sunday. Hedges, who hit .324 in the minors in 2015, isn’t considered an especially exciting prospect on the offensive side, but he has the tools to qualify as one of the top defensive talents in baseball. He joined the team in San Francisco on Sunday and will be available against the Giants on Monday.

Defensive Play of the Weekend

The Astros and Mariners combined to hit nine home runs in this game, and this would probably have been a 10th in every single other MLB park. According to baseballsavant.com, Logan Morrison hit this pitch 420 feet, which is the distance of the center field fence at Comerica Park, the second furthest fence in the game.

Collin McHugh’s reaction after the play was initially one of joy and surprise, but it quickly morphed to the expression pictured above. He doesn’t look happy, exactly, and maybe he’s not, and maybe that’s because he knew that now he had to buy Jake Marisnick dinner, and McHugh knows that Jake Marisnick has a certain preference for illegally prepared pufferfish at back-alley Japanese restaurants, which he will of course insist the McHugh share with him. Jake Marisnick likes to live dangerously, and Collin McHugh does not.

What to watch on Monday

The A.L. West this year has essentially been the Astros plus a pile of mediocrity. The closest team to .500 behind Houston is the Angels, who are 11-14. They send Matt Shoemaker to the mound against Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. Shoemaker hasn’t been good this year—a 5.41 DRA, for one—but he has so far shown the same uncanny ability as last year’s 16-4 season to get wins, compiling a 2-1 record so far. Could Shoemaker possess a certain special characteristic that drives his team to success? It could be his inspiring backstory of having ascended to the majors after going undrafted out of Eastern Michigan. Or maybe he’s just getting lucky, but we know that never happens in baseball.

***

Clayton Kershaw has thanked us for dedicating an entire day to his name by compiling a 3.87 DRA so far. Thanks, guy. Kershaw’s ERA is, at 3.73, the worst it has been at this point in a season in his career since it was 5.46 on May 1, 2009, the season during which he started to throw a slider. Monday will be a better opportunity than ever for Kershaw to right the ship, because he faced the Brewers, who are very, very bad! The Brewers—who also just fired manager Ron Roenicke—are batting .227 as a team so far this season, but .182 against left-handers, which is the worst in the majors by a wide margin. So things are looking up for our friend Clay.

***

The Cubs head to St. Louis for what could be the most important series of the season to date for both teams. The Cubs will try to rebound from a disappointing series loss to the Brewers, while the Cardinals have an immediate turnaround after that taxing series against the Pirates. St. Louis will also have to contend for the first time with the absence of Adam Wainwright: Carlos Martinez—he of a 3.54 DRA, which is actually better than what Wainwright had produced—will get the ball in the series opener, but Tyler Lyons will make a spot start in place of Wainwright in the second game. Lyons has given up 28 hits in 21 2/3 innings this season for Memphis in the Pacific Coast League. The Cubs are scheduled to go with Travis Wood on Monday, Kyle Hendricks on Tuesday and Jon Lester on Wednesday.

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