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August 11, 2015

What You Need to Know

August 11, 2015

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
There hasn't been much buyer's remorse in the days following the July 31st trade deadline, at least not among the contenders that struck big.

The Blue Jays, for instance, have defeated their primary rivals, the Twins and Yankees, behind excellent work from David Price, while adding another potent bat to their collection in Troy Tulowitzki. South of the border, the biggest splash came from Dayton Moore and the Royals, who hauled in Johnny Cueto from the Reds and Ben Zobrist from the A's. And if Monday's win over the Tigers is any indication, they've got nothing to complain about, either.

Cueto was solid but unspectacular in his first two starts for Kansas City, giving up three runs in six innings to the Jays and two in seven to the Tigers. Both of those outings came on the road, and both of them went into the books as Royals losses. Last night, Ned Yost sent his new ace to the hill for his Kauffman Stadium debut, a rematch with the Tigers, and the right-hander made an outstanding first impression.

Looking for his eighth straight homer-less outing, Cueto did that and more, holding Detroit off the board altogether in a four-hit shutout. The 29-year-old pounded the left side of the plate (catcher's perspective)

with a five-pitch mix, and when he missed, he missed to the left. Deviations from the game plan were few and far between. Outside of a J.D. Martinez double with one out in the second, the visitors barely mounted a threat.

The Royals, on the other hand, threatened from the get-go. Matt Boyd, who joined the Tigers in the Price deal, was greeted with a single by Alcides Escobar and another by Zobrist, followed by a two-run double by Lorenzo Cain:

Kendrys Morales singled home Cain two batters later, and before Boyd knew it, he and the road nine were buried in a 3-0 hole that proved insurmountable.

Just in case, Ned Yost's squad tacked on a fourth run with a three-single rally in the last of the seventh. While Cueto locked down the Tigers, the top five hitters in Yost's order all delivered at least two hits. Zobrist reached all four times he batted, with three knocks and a walk, and the 3-4-5 hitters each pitched in a double.

That was ample support for Cueto, who retired 11 of the last 12 foes he faced. He hit 94 mph with his 116th and final offering of the night, which induced a fly out from Victor Martinez, quelling any remaining concerns about his velocity and the health of his right elbow that cropped up ahead after a dud on July 19th.

Winners of four straight, the 67-44 Royals now hold a 12-game lead over the Twins. They're 38-18 at Kauffman Stadium, where they'd enjoy home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they retain the AL's no. 1 seed. And their new ace, who'll get the ball in Game One of each series if Yost gets his druthers, has taken quickly to his new digs.

Quick Hits From Monday
Between July 22nd and August 9th, Carlos Gonzalez mashed 12 homers in 17 games. Even with the outfielder's incredible power production, the Rockies went just 7-10 during that span.

Yesterday, Gonzalez cranked his 13th long ball in 18 contests, ordering a fourth-inning oppo taco on a 3-1 fastball from Jonathon Niese. That gave the Rockies a 2-1 edge over the Mets, which held through the seventh-inning stretch.

But while falling behind CarGo these days is a perilous endeavor, falling behind the Rockies is no big deal. After "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" played at Citi Field, Walt Weiss replaced Jon Gray, who was rock solid, with Justin Miller and Boone Logan, who were anything but.

Gray allowed just one hit, a Travis d'Arnaud solo shot in the fifth inning. Miller allowed a single to the second batter he faced, also d'Arnaud, who promptly took second on a wild pitch. A walk drawn by Michael Conforto filled the open base, and then Miller got to the cusp of holding the lead when Juan Uribe popped out. Except he proceeded to walk Ruben Tejada, and that moved Weiss to call for Logan for a lefty-lefty matchup with Curtis Granderson.

Good plan. As for the execution …

Nope.

Then the Rockies put on a moderate shift for Daniel Murphy, moving shortstop Jose Reyes, back in Queens with this third club since leaving the Mets, toward the middle and shading third baseman Nolan Arenado away from the line. There likely was some science behind that alignment, but a first-pitch fastball away gave Murphy an opportunity to beat the defense by slapping the ball through the now-gaping 5.5 hole. To wit:

Two-run single, 4-2 Mets. And, after clean frames from Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia, ballgame.

***

Gonzalez isn't the only NL West denizen on a home-run binge. Down in the desert, Welington Castillo is doing his damndest to keep up.

The twice-traded catcher has found himself right at home in Phoenix, where he clobbered seven jacks in 11 games ahead of Monday's meeting with the Phillies. Then he treated Aaron Harang to a two-strike power display in the series opener when the veteran hurler put a little too much hang under an 82 mph slider and Castillo sent it for a ride, all the way to the balcony overhanging the 413-foot sign in right-center field.

His solo shot was Arizona's second of the evening off Harang, coming an inning after Yasmany Tomas launched one in the fourth, and the D'backs wound up with eight runs on 12 hits against the right-hander before his 5 1/3-inning day was said and done. That put Rubby De La Rosa on cruise control, en route to a six-frame, three-tally textbook quality start.

On a night when every D'backs starter besides the pitcher had at least one hit, Castillo wasn't through punishing the Phillies. The 28-year-old had zero career triples in 1,304 plate appearances before Monday, but with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, Justin DeFratus gave him another two-strike slider, Cody Asche fell down retrieving the ensuing rocket into the left-field corner, and just like that

the "3B" column on Castillo's baseball card no longer contained a donut hole.

All that came before manager Chip Hale lifted his catcher for reliever Keith Hessler in an eighth-inning double-switch. And unlike the Rockies, who've squandered the bulk of CarGo's surge, the Diamondbacks are now 7-5 since Castillo made going yard a part of his near-daily routine.

***

Chris Sale took the mound Monday with a 7.61 ERA over his last four starts. Matt Shoemaker took that as a license to give up seven runs.

The Angels' starter left his team with an early deficit, as the White Sox kicked off the home half of the first with consecutive singles, the latter of which put Adam Eaton on third, whence he scored on a sacrifice fly by Melky Cabrera. Soon after that, Shoemaker began serving up homers.

Tyler Flowers got him first, leading off the third, and Avisail Garcia obliterated an 83 mph hanging breaking ball with one away in the fourth:

Two innings later, Garcia ran into another mistake

and this one was costlier, bringing home three South Siders to open up a 6-0 cushion for Sale.

If the left-hander had been shelled for seven runs in less than six innings again, Shoemaker would've been off the hook. But the 26-year-old was in no mood to turn in another clunker. Instead, Sale struck out four Angels in the first two innings and went on to toss 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball, punching out seven while walking two. He wasn't dominant—four of the Halos' five knocks against him went for extra bases—but he threw strikes and kept the ball in the yard, the latter of which could not be said of his opponent.

Sale notched 72 strikes in 104 pitches and spread the wealth almost equally, with 18 called, 17 whiffs, 18 foul balls, and 19 pitches put into play. He didn't miss as many bats as he does when he's at his best, but he was plenty effective to outduel Shoemaker.

Nate Jones wrapped up the 8-2 victory with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

***

Game one of three between the Nationals and Dodgers ended with Doug Fister on the mound. You might recall that Fister was booted out of the Washington rotation last week in favor of rookie Joe Ross, and he was relegated Monday to mopup duty with the visitors up 8-0 in the last of the ninth.

Fister gave up three runs—all unearned, even though they scored on a Carl Crawford homer, because that followed an Ian Desmond throwing error—but he also struck out the side, notable because his K rate before moving to the bullpen was just 13 percent, fifth-lowest among NL starters with at least 80 innings.

The bat-missing woes instead wandered over to the Dodgers' side, where Brett Anderson pitched five innings and recorded only one strikeout. Anderson got 13 outs on the ground, which is nice, but he was also charged with seven runs on 10 hits and three walks. He faced seven Nationals batters in the sixth inning without retiring any of them.

That stood in stark contrast to the effort turned in by Gio Gonzalez, who blanked the Dodgers for eight frames by scattering seven hits and a base on balls. Gonzalez didn't permit Los Angeles to string together two knocks in a frame until the sixth, when an Alberto Callaspo infield single put runners at the corners. An Alex Guerrero ground out ended the threat.

Beyond the Nats' sixth-inning five-spot, they also scored three times on the strength of Desmond. The shortstop drew first blood by hooking a curveball inside the left-field foul pole for a two-run blast in the second. Desmond's second big fly, at J.P. Howell's expense, brought in Washington's eighth and final run of the night. He now has 14 homers on the year, with the thump representing a silver lining on an otherwise dark .224/.273/.384 contract-year cloud.

The Nats will hope that the 29-year-old's first two-tater showing of the season sparks a late-summer surge, and that the season-long eight-inning outing from Gonzalez does the same for the lefty. He's now limited opponents to three or fewer runs (and two or fewer earned runs) in eight consecutive starts, but he hadn't notched a sixth-inning out in any of the previous three. Gonzalez did that and then some Monday, and Desmond's bat alone would've propelled Washington to victory, even sans the sixth-inning rally.

Matt Williams' team stayed 1½ games behind the Mets in the East, while the Dodgers saw their lead over the idle Giants trimmed to 2½. The Dodgers have dropped four straight for the first time in 2015, and they're just 12-25 in the aggregate against the other NL contenders—Cardinals (2-5), Cubs (2-2), Giants (3-9), Mets (3-4), Nationals (2-2), and Pirates (0-3)—this year.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Besides the offense, Gio Gonzalez had some help from his defense yesterday, including this gem from Yunel Escobar:

What to Watch on Tuesday
Drew Hutchison is 10-2. Drew Hutchison has a 5.42 ERA. These two things shouldn't be able to coexist, but they are not only not mutually exclusive, they're both true.

The straw that stirs this Wins Are Not A Useful Stat drink is the fact that Hutchison wears a Blue Jays uniform. He's averaging seven runs of support per start. Seven. That's a half-run more than the next-most-fortunate starter, his teammate Mark Buehrle, and more than a run better than that afforded to the most fortunate non-Jay, Colby Lewis at 5.87. Kendall Graveman (3.33), who was traded from the Jays to the A's and will pitch for Oakland this evening, is getting less than half the help that Hutchison is.

Per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the last player to finish a season with an .833 winning percentage or better and an ERA over 5.42 in 22-plus starts was … no one. Hasn't been done. So, something's got to give. If it doesn't tonight, then this might happen:

There's a decent chance that by the time Greinke starts his Tuesday night game, that he and Drew Hutchison will have the same record (11-2).
— High Heat Stats MLB (@HighHeatStats) August 9, 2015

Tune in to see if it does (7:07 p.m. ET).

***

Five games separate the Cardinals and Pirates in the National League Central, and if the Bucs intend to make a run at the Redbirds, they'd do well to sweep—or at least win—this week's three-game showdown at Busch Stadium. That, of course, is easier said than done, since St. Louis has the best record in baseball and will send Carlos Martinez to the rubber in the opener.

Martinez has seen the Pirates twice this year, and the contrast between the outings could scarcely be sharper. At PNC Park on May 9th, the right-hander was torched for a season-high seven runs in 5 1/3 innings; he matched a season-high with four walks that day, and even seven strikeouts couldn't bail Martinez out of trouble. Then, exactly two months later, there were no more certified pre-owned bargains at the CarMart: The righty returned to Pittsburgh and fired 7 1/3 scoreless frames, stranding four hits and two walks while fanning eight.

The difference resided in the right-hander's ability to command his sinker. On May 9th,

Martinez misfired low and away to left-handed batters, throwing just seven of 14 sinkers for strikes. On July 9th,

he repeatedly spotted the pitch in the lower-left quadrant of the zone (catcher's perspective), getting 23 strikes in 31 tries and nine groundball outs.

The 23-year-old Martinez sits at 96 and can touch triple digits with his four-seam fastball, the 10th-highest velocity among pitchers who've thrown the heater 200 or more times this year, but here's a dirty little secret:

All that gas hasn't spooked major-league hitters one bit. The changeup is great, the slider is a beast, and the sinker is tough to lift for extra bases, but when Martinez uses his four-seamer? That's a gift to the batter.

And on May 9th, with his sinker going every which way except into the hitting area, Martinez was forced to go to the straight fastball, which was pounded for seven of the eight hits he allowed and didn't miss a bat.

With 131 strikeouts and a 2.57 ERA in 129 1/3 innings, Martinez has emerged as a legitimate front-line starter for Mike Matheny, ably filling Adam Wainwright's shoes. He has a good chance to keep doing that while dueling Jeff Locke this evening, as long as his sinker doesn't let him down (8:15 p.m. ET).

***

Finally, the late slate on the West Coast features a couple of fine matchups: It's righties Joe Ross and the aforementioned Zack Greinke in Los Angeles (10:10 p.m. ET), and lefties Scott Kazmir and Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco. The latter is the opener of a two-game quickie between the Astros and Giants, with A.J. Hinch's club looking to shake off an offensive rut and Bruce Bochy's still licking its wounds from a weekend beating in Chicago.

Kazmir, who ceded his junior-circuit ERA lead to former teammate Sonny Gray, can regain it with a strong effort at AT&T Park, where he tossed seven scoreless innings on July 10, 2014, his only career start against the Giants. Bumgarner has faced the Astros four times, but not since they moved to the American League. The southpaw reeled in a dozen strikeouts in the most recent meeting, on June 12, 2012, when one of the few hurlers who can make #PitchersWhoRake a trending topic on Twitter slugged his first career home run (10:15 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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