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July 10, 2015

What You Need to Know

July 10, 2015

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
He's baaaaaaack.

No, not Casey McGehee, though he's reportedly returning to Miami after three calamitous months with the Giants. Of much greater significance to the Marlins is the fact that Jose Fernandez is back to doing this.

The Tommy John surgery survivor slugged a home run in his return from the shelf last week. Then, last night, in his second big-league start of 2015, Fernandez spun a curveball that made the major-league leader in total bases flail like a fool.

That hellacious yakker was just one of the many electric offerings that left the 22-year-old's right hand Thursday, when he carved up the Reds over seven scoreless innings. Fernandez struck out nine without walking a batter, and he's yet to throw ball four since coming off the disabled list, junking the notion that pitchers need time to regain their command following surgery.

With 72 strikes in 94 pitches, 23 whiffs induced, and a reach-back velocity that flirted with triple digits, Fernandez left few questions unanswered while welcoming Cincinnati to South Beach. The only lingering one might be his endurance, with a shred of skepticism permitted solely because Fernandez's fastball ticked down toward 95 in the seventh, when the Reds notched back-to-back one-out singles. But the Marlins' ace got out of that jam by coaxing a 6-4-3 double-play ball, setting the stage for Carter Capps and A.J. Ramos to finish off the shutout.

One run would have sufficed for the Marlins on Thursday, and they got that out of the way in the bottom of the first, sparked by Dee Gordon's bat and legs. The leadoff man singled, stole second, stole third, and scored on a two-out double by Justin Bour. Just in case, Gordon helped manufacture another tally in the fifth, picking up an infield single, moving to second on a Christian Yelich walk, stealing third, and scoring on a twin killing. It's the second time Gordon has swiped three or more bags in a game this season, and the first since May 22nd, when he stole four.

That was all Fernandez needed to improve to 14–0 at Marlins Park, where he owns a 1.17 career ERA and 168 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings. Fernandez is the first starter in major-league history to go unbeaten in his first 22 home starts.

He went under the knife with that streak at 20 and no guarantee that he'd return to the hill, much less that he'd pitch well enough some 14 months after surgery to extend it. Now, with the record in hand and one of the league's best breaking balls at his disposal, there's little doubt left:

He's baaaaaaack.

Quick Hits From Thursday
Fernandez wasn't the only young righty chucking unhittable stuff Thursday. Carlos Martinez saw his curve and raised him this changeup, which will keep Pedro Alvarez up at night for weeks. With an 11 mph velocity drop from Martinez's fastball and 10 inches of horizontal movement, that cambio is one of the few offerings that could rival the hook Fernandez flung at Frazier.

Despite routinely hitting the high 90s and touching 101 with his heater, Martinez induced just one swing-and-miss with the hard stuff. His curveball drew five in 32 tries. The changeup topped both, with six in 15.

Together, those three pitches stymied the Pirates over 7 1/3 innings. Martinez allowed four hits and two walks, and struck out eight on 108 pitches, 68 of them strikes. Beyond the punchouts, He also got eight outs on the ground, so aside from doubles by Gregory Polanco and Travis Ishikawa, the Bucs seldom drove the ball with St. Louis' starter on the hill.

The Cardinals didn't have any extra-base hits Thursday, but they scored four times in the fifth inning nonetheless. Mike Matheny's offense strung half of its six singles together in one frame, and that just happened to be an inning in which Jeff Locke helped out with a walk and hit batter. Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina each plated a pair, and Molina stole second—his first theft since May 12, 2014—before being stranded there.

That rally gave Martinez and the bullpen ample cushion to halt the Pirates' winning streak at five games in the first of four tilts between the Central-division rivals. Andrew McCutchen thwarted the shutout bid with a monster solo shot in the ninth,

but his 447-footer to dead center barely made a dent as the Cards prevailed, 4–1.

***

David Price might not have thrown any changeups quite as filthy as Martinez's, but he threw a whole bunch of them last night. More, in fact, that he ever had before:

The 41 change-ups David Price threw tonight versus the Twins are a career high (204G, 199GS).
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) July 10, 2015

Forced to respect the southpaw's mid-to-high-90s gas, the Twins were utterly baffled by the off-speed offering. Which, naturally, led Price to keep pulling the string.

Those 41 changeups came in 117 deliveries, and 31 of them went for strikes, 28 swinging. Nine of those hacks caught nothing but air, and even when Paul Molitor's batters managed to put the changeup into play, they had nothing to show for their efforts. The Twins collected five hits off Price in eight innings, four on fastballs and one on a cutter. They went 0-for-13 on the change, in large part because Price consistently spotted it around the knees and away from right-handed hitters:

Unlike Fernandez and Martinez, Price gave up a couple of runs Thursday, but neither of them was earned. A fifth-inning error by Nick Castellanos opened the door for both of them.

Those unearned tallies briefly gave the Twins a 2–1 lead, but Detroit countered quickly in the top of the sixth. Two singles put Anthony Gose on third base for Ian Kinsler, who grounded into a run-scoring fielder's choice that tied the game. The Tigers then pulled away in the eighth, hitting three doubles in a four-batter span, with RBI credited to Kinsler and Yoenis Cespedes.

Joakim Soria nailed down the 4–2 win.

***

While we're on the subject of changeups, Felix Hernandez has a pretty good one, too. And he had a nifty track record versus the Angels to go with it.

King Felix was 5–0 with a 0.93 ERA in his last nine starts against Mike Scioscia's club, so when the Mariners touched up Garrett Richards—who'd gone 3–0 with a 0.97 ERA in his previous five meetings with the M's—for 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings, trouble was afoot for the Halos.

Seattle only scored four times on Richards' watch, with two runners thrown out at home, but the inefficient attack still yielded plenty of support for Hernandez, who was in no mood to let the Angels score. In the top of the seventh, with the Mariners leading 4–0, the Angels mounted a comeback bid with a one-out bunt single by Erick Aybar followed by back-to-back walks. Trouble is, that got Hernandez angry, and he proceeded to fan Carlos Perez and coax a ground out from Efren Navarro to strand all three runners.

Felix was finished after that, having permitted five hits and those two bases on balls while punching out six. Fernando Rodney spoiled the blanking by serving up a homer to Kole Calhoun, but the Mariners scored three times in the eighth and went on to win 7–2.

***

Up in Chicago, Jeff Samardzija doesn't use a traditional changeup. Almost never has, really:

But we'll forgive him because he tossed a four-hit shutout anyway.

The right-hander flummoxed a Blue Jays club that has suddenly come upon hard times, disposing of John Gibbons' offense in 108 pitches. It was Toronto's sixth loss in eight games, eighth in 11, and 12th in 19, a rut that's dropped the Jays all the way down to .500, at 44–44.

Robin Ventura's squad also has 44 losses, but it has played five fewer games. The folks upstairs, led by general manager Rick Hahn, greatly appreciated Samardzija's pitch to potential trade deadline suitors after a disappointing first half on the South Side of Chicago.

The 30-year-old took the hill Thursday with a 4.33 ERA, though much of that could be attributed to the White Sox's league-worst defense. Samardzija's DRA was a more palatable 3.80, and the blanking at U.S. Cellular last night brought the two closer together, with his ERA now at 4.02.

That happened in part because Chicago's defense finally got its act together. Gordon Beckham, playing short for just the 13th time in his big-league career, chipped in this gem in the eighth:

Meanwhile, Robin Ventura's squad went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, but that didn't stop the White Sox from giving Samardzija the support he needed. Adam Eaton tripled to begin the sixth, and then scored on a passed ball charged to Russell Martin. Melky Cabrera's solo blast made it 2–0, the eventual final score.

***

Out west in Los Angeles, Zack Greinke worked the lower part of the strike zone with a five-pitch menu

and the Phillies didn't find a whole lot to their liking, hitting into 12 groundball outs. They milked just one hit off the right-hander in eight fruitless offensive innings, as Greinke faced one more than the minimum and K'd eight.

While some of his counterparts around the league held their foes off the scoreboard yesterday, Greinke has been doing it for the better part of a month. He's turned in five straight starts with a goose egg in the "R" column, the most by any pitcher since Ryan Dempster had five in 2012.

Greinke's scoreless streak now stands at 35 2/3 innings, which is somehow still less remarkable than his ERA, down to 1.39 heading into the All-Star break. He's the first pitcher to tote an ERA lower than 1.40 through 100-plus innings since 1968, when—as Dylan Hernandez, the Dodgers' beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out—"the mound was five inches taller than it is today."

The Dodgers' offense posted three two-spots in the 6–0 victory at Chavez Ravine, getting homers from Yasiel Puig, who drove in four, and Adrian Gonzalez, who picked up the remaining two RBI.

***

Before moving on, let's recap the aforementioned mound work. Seven scoreless from Fernandez. Seven and a third from Martinez. Seven more from Hernandez. A shutout from Samardzija. And eight frames without an earned run surrendered from both Price and Greinke.

Add that all up, and you get 46 1/3 innings of ER-free ball from six of the 20 starters who toed the rubber.

Not a bad day to be a fan of great pitching …

***

… and we haven't even gotten to Cody Anderson, who's out there making history:

.@Indians Cody Anderson: 1st pitcher in modern era to allow 1 R or fewer in 6 IP or more, in each of first 4 appearances (via @eliassports)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 10, 2015

With the exception of a third-inning tater by Hank Conger, the Indians' rookie kept the Astros at bay, as the Cleveland offense bided its time against Brett Oberholtzer.

The Tribe finally broke through in the sixth with four straight extra-base knocks. Francisco Lindor kicked it all off with a wall-scraping dinger that tied the game at one run apiece. Consecutive doubles by Michael Brantley and Ryan Raburn gave the Indians the lead, and a triple by Carlos Santana upped it to 3–1. The home team failed to cash Santana in from third, but the Astros were finished scoring, so the offense was absolved of that sin.

Anderson recorded two outs in the top of the seventh before giving way to the bullpen, which allowed just one more hit and one more walk. Both went onto the line of closer Cody Allen, who navigated the jam to notch his 18th save.

The Defensive Plays of the Day
With King Felix cruising and Garrett Richards scuffling, the Mariners might've run away with Thursday's contest. Only three outs at the plate prevented that one from becoming a rout:

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Few starters have been better in recent weeks than the Red Sox's Clay Buchholz, whose erratic first two and a half months of 2015 have given way to one of the most dominant stretches of his career. The mercurial right-hander has led Boston to victory in each of his last four starts, limiting foes to just three earned runs in 31 innings on the strength of a 23-to-2 K:BB ratio and zero home runs allowed. Tonight, the suddenly surging Buchholz takes on a Yankees club that battered him for 10 runs (nine earned) in 3 1/3 innings back on April 12th. Michael Pineda will go for New York in the series opener at Fenway Park (7:10 p.m. ET).

Friday-Saturday
Mike Leake and Mat Latos might both sport different uniforms before July is out, and the right-handers will both pitch this weekend at Marlins Park. Scouts for pitching-needy teams can kill two birds with one stone and spend some time out on the beach between attending tonight's contest (7:10 p.m. ET) to watch Leake and Saturday's afternoon date to see Latos.

Leake has greatly enjoyed his forays outside of Cincinnati this year, logging a 2.95 ERA when toeing the rubber at venues other than the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park, where his body of work (5.92 ERA) leaves much to be desired. At his best when pitching to weak contact, Leake has actually posted a much-higher strikeout rate (7.3 per nine) at home in 2015 than on the road (4.4), a small-sample exacerbation of his career split (6.3 in Cincy, 5.5 on the road), which is likely a byproduct of his desire to avoid contact in his cozy home yard.

Latos, in part because of the timing of his starts vis-à-vis his health and velocity, has seemed equally picky about their setting. He's been rocked for a 6.92 ERA in eight starts in front of the Marlins' home crowd, though a good deal of that damage came in his Miami debut, a seven-run calamity in which he lasted just two-thirds of an inning. Now that the 27-year-old's fastball has perked up toward the mid-90s, he's faring much better, including holding the Cubs to just one hit in seven innings on July 5th. Latos will try to keep going strong against his second professional club as he auditions for those angling to become his fourth (4:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday
Two of the American League West's most promising young hurlers lock horns for the first time Sunday in the series finale between the Angels and Mariners.

Andrew Heaney, who debuted with the Marlins in 2014, has been as good as advertised in his early action with the Halos. Through three outings, the southpaw has racked up a 17-to-3 K:BB ratio across 20 1/3 innings, logging a quality start each time. The only game in which Heaney surrendered more than one run might still be the most impressive of his bunch, as it came in the perilous confines of Coors Field, where the ninth-overall pick in the 2012 draft held the Rockies to a pair of tallies in 7 1/3 frames.

On the other side of the ledger sits Taijuan Walker, now in his third tour of duty with Seattle after coming off the board 43rd overall in the 2010 draft. It took Walker some time to settle in at the major-league level, but he's a year and a half younger than Heaney and already has 28 games under his belt in the bigs. The last of those was a three-homer, five-run drubbing at the hands of the Tigers, but the righty entered that clunker on a roll, and the Mariners have come out on top each of the last six times he's gotten the ball.

Walker kept the Angels to just a Mike Trout solo shot over seven innings on June 26th, enough to outduel Matt Shoemaker, and he'll aim to match that effort at Safeco on Sunday (4:10 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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