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September 8, 2015

What You Need to Know

September 8, 2015

by Ian Frazer

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The (Long) Weekend Takeaway
The National League East was sort of a race again, until it wasn't.

This weekend, the Nationals took three games from the epically awful Braves (I'll get to them in a bit) while the Mets dropped two of three to the Marlins in Miami. On Saturday, Matt Harvey threw a wrench into just about everything and seemed to put the very existence of time and space in doubt. Harvey is quickly creeping up on the 180-inning limit suggested by Dr. James Andrews, and if he were to keep pitching at his current pace he'd hit that before the Mets (presumably) begin the playoffs. Harvey was mum on his plans beyond Tuesday's scheduled start against the Nationals.

But who really had the sway in Harvey's innings limit: Andrews or Scott Boras? Does Harvey have any free will left to exercise? How much of this is the media's fault: 90 percent or 100 percent?

Harvey squashed the rumors himself on Sunday when he posted an article to The Players' Tribune titled "I Will Pitch In The Playoffs." Well, will it be from the bullpen, or the rotation? And what if the Mets don't make the playoffs? Coming into Monday, their lead was just four games on the Nationals with almost a month to go in the season. The Wild Card is basically an NL Central race. Whoever from the East is in the playoffs will be there because they won the division.

The Mets beat the Nationals 8-5 in a day game on Monday, and while they are five games ahead in the division, it feels more like 10. The suddenly extremely hittable Max Scherzer gave up two dingers in the second and one in the fourth, and the Mets took a 3-0 lead. Here's the first one, from Michael Conforto, the more accomplished of the two Oregon State alums to be mentioned in this article. (An internet high five if you can find the other one!)

But the Nationals surged back, getting a grand slam from Wilson Ramos and an RBI double from Jayson Werth to pull ahead, 5-3, in the bottom of the fourth.

The Nats have had a lot of those moments, more than we can count, really, where they pull ahead in an unexpected way or hold the line in a big jam, where it seems like the momentum boost that could turn their season around. Their own Wilmer Flores post-crying walk-off jack, if you will.

But that turnaround has never come. In the fifth inning yesterday, Scherzer gave up consecutive doubles to Ruben Tejada and Curtis Granderson. With two outs and runners on second and third the next inning, Matt Williams made the justly maligned decision to let Scherzer hit. He grounded out to second, and when he came back out for the sixth, he gave up a leadoff double to Yoenis Cespedes, balked him to third base, and then allowed a fly ball to left to let Cespedes come home.

That tied the game, and though Scherzer exited after that inning, the combined efforts of Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Casey Janssen, and Matt Thornton couldn't maintain the tie. David Wright singled to center to drive Ruben Tejada home, and that was all the lead the Mets needed.

Has anybody had a worse stretch run than Janssen? Yeesh. Well, after a discouraging loss like that, you just need your players to keep their heads up, preach the "one game at a time" platitudes and be optimistic, right? Well, anything but what actually happened would be better.

Harper on the atmosphere/fans: "Well, they left in the 7th, so that was pretty brutal.."
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) September 7, 2015

Oof! In a way, I don't blame them, because I know from personal experience that brutal Beltway traffic can pop up out of nowhere.

***

If this reddit post is to be believed, Matt Kemp's 200th career home run, hit on Friday against the Dodgers, came at a perfectly serendipitous moment. It's like that Seinfeld episode with Paul O'Neill and the sick kid, only this one doesn't leave you with the queasy feeling that comes from watching a sitcom based on the horrible lives of horrible people.

A post like this might also serve as a sort of reminder that Matt Kemp is quite good at baseball. The Padres have been gradually fading into the San Diego sunset, but since the All-Star break, Kemp has posted a .915 OPS (it was just .674 before) with a .251 ISO. In roughly half the plate appearances, he's hit three more home runs, totaled just three fewer RBIs, and walked just one fewer time than he did before the break.

Kemp hasn't changed where he hits the ball, necessarily, just its launch angle. With a swing with as much built-in loft as Kemp's, fly balls were to be desired as an indicator that Kemp was getting extension on the ball and driving it, rather than getting cut off and being reduced to grounders. That's been the biggest change between halves for Kemp: He went from hitting 1.6 ground balls per fly ball to less than one per fly.

The Padres were swept by the Dodgers this weekend and lost to the Rockies on Monday, but Kemp had hits in all those games and a home run in two. Here's the one he hit on Friday that purportedly provided the capper to that lucky couple's wedding.

***

For all the attention and praise the Blue Jays' trade deadline bonanza earned them, the imported talent hasn't allowed them to pull away in the A.L. East. Yes, the ageless Yankees are still sticking around, at half a game back with their win over the Orioles and Toronto's loss to the Red Sox on Monday.

The teams went blow-for-blow this weekend, with the Yankees taking two out of three from the Rays and the Blue Jays winning their series against the Orioles by the same margin. Luis Severino put in yet another excellent start on Friday, going 6 1/3 innings and allowing a run to drop his ERA to 2.04. More advanced stats aren't quite as favorable to Severino, however, as he owns a FIP of 3.95 and a DRA of 3.35. Severino still has the imperfect control of a 21-year-old, but he's getting there. And Friday's start was quite good.

After a fantastic outing—seven innings, three hits, one run, and eight strikeouts—from David Price on Saturday in which the Blue Jays provided Price a measly five runs of support, Toronto got back to obliterating the ball on Sunday. The Blue Jays mashed eight hits, three of them dingers, off Chris Tillman in the first three innings of Sunday's contest, then smacked Chaz Roe around for three runs in a third of an inning of work. One of those aforementioned homers came from Troy Tulowitzki, and it landed in a fan's hat.

The Yankees took over the task of beating the Orioles on Monday, using homers from Alex Rodriguez, John Ryan Murphy, and Greg Bird to grab an 8-6 victory. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, felt the sting of one of the many whompings they've dealt out themselves in an 11-4 loss to the Red Sox. But really, what team hasn't given up a couple big hits to Jackie Bradley Jr.?

About a month ago, the answer to that question would be "literally every team," but over the last calendar month, Bradley has completed perhaps the most shocking turnaround of any player in baseball this season. In the first month in which he has gotten consistent playing time this season, Bradley has absolutely mashed, to the tune of a 1.163 OPS in August and 11 hits in 22 at-bats so far in September.

Here's what Red Sox manager Torey Lovullo said: "I think that there's a general overall confidence that he can walk up to the plate in any count and hit any pitch in any part of the at-bat. That is from a lot of hard work behind the scenes that he's put in. Inside of it, the front foot is down surveying the strike zone, able to take a balanced approach to the ball."

As for Bradley himself: "I'm just getting good pitches to swing at and making solid contact."

Gee, thanks pal. A lot of this turnaround is due to mechanical adjustments and an adjusted mental approach for Bradley, but he also had some plain bad luck in the first half, like a putrid .150 BABIP. That number has shot up to .429 in the second half, and that's not even including the four hits he had on Monday. There's upward regression, and then there's this.

***

No team is in safer position for a playoff berth than the Royals, but their prized trade deadline offseason acquisition is making room for concern in Kansas City. Johnny Cueto has actually been kind of bad since joining the Royals, with his a 4.86 ERA and 61 hits allowed in 50 innings.

Christina Kahrl has a solid breakdown, and an important point of it seems to be that Cueto has lost something on his slider in terms of both command and bite. Combine that with some possible front-side leaking, which would affect the location and movement of Cueto's fastball, and it's easy to see how bad results could follow.

Cueto's start Sunday was one of them. He gave up seven hits and five runs in three innings to the White Sox, and the Royals lost 7-5. Kansas City was actually swept by the Sox this weekend, but the rest of the division is so mediocre that they still have an 11-game lead.

This article by Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star is a bit more in-depth and personal, with input from Cueto. But it still doesn't offer any straight answers. I mean, there probably aren't any. That's just how these things go, and the Royals had better hope it gets corrected before the playoffs roll around.

Defensive Play of the Weekend

I think, because Bartolo Colon is round and swings the bat like it's a tree trunk filled with concrete, that people fall into the trap of calling him unathletic. I think that's completely false, and that Bartolo Colon is far more athletic than you or I could imagine. He isn't too fast, but the ease of movement in everything he does, his hand-eye coordination, and the body control required to throw as many strikes as he does is utterly incredible. And to do this? I mean, I can't imagine he practiced this. He probably just saw the opportunity and executed, and because he's an athlete, it worked. If Bartolo Colon were a tight end, we'd say he was a "playmaker." You know, that might not be such a bad idea … anybody want to call the Jets for me?

What to Watch on Tuesday
In getting shelled for six runs on seven hits in one inning by the Royals last Thursday, Tigers lefty Matt Boyd entered a very rare pantheon of crappiness. Boyd, as you might know if you're a Tigers fan or an obsessive follower of former Oregon State Beavers, is a rookie this year; he debuted on June 27th. In his second start, when he was still with the Blue Jays, he faced the Red Sox and gave up seven runs on six hits in exactly zero innings. Boyd was traded as part of the David Price deal, and after six games in July with the Tigers, he had the catastrophe start that I just mentioned.

By having two starts in the first 10 games of his career in which he went an inning or less and gave up six or more runs, Boyd joins a group consisting of him and just three other players. Those players are Ryan Hancock, Ed Durham, and Mark Brownson. Hancock and Brownson have 13 career starts between them, and while Durham had a 9.27 ERA in his debut season with the Red Sox, he was actually pretty good in his five seasons after that. Also, those seasons were 1929–33.

So, make sure you tune in tonight at 7:08 as the Tigers face the Rays to find out whether Matt Boyd will follow in the footsteps of Mark Brownson or Ed Durham. Or maybe he'll follow in those of Clayton Kershaw! But probably not.

***

Tonight will see two pitchers with the same last name get starts: Jon Gray of the Rockies and Sonny Gray with the A's. The first day on which the two pitchers both started was August 28th. Jon faced the Pirates and gave up three runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. Sonny faced the Diamondbacks and gave up four runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings. I'll call that a win for The Son King. On September 2nd, Jon gave up four runs on 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Diamondbacks. Sonny gave up six runs on eight hits against the Angels. I'll give that one to The (Jonathan) Gray Wolf. On Tuesday, we have a Gray Day again, with Jon facing Colin Rea and the Padres at 10:10 and Sonny facing Scott Kazmir and the Astros at 10:05. In the third installment of the Battle of the Grays, who will reign supreme? Who will come a step closer to earning the name "Black?" Nobody's done that since Vic Black back in 2013.

***

Happy Raisel Iglesias Day! It's one of the lesser-known holidays, since it's only observed by certain groups of Cincinnati citizens, but the festivities include 2.5 percent off all menu items at Skyline Chili and a Reds baseball game started by Mr. Iglesias himself. The second-best Cuban player on the Reds has been scorching hot lately, picking up 10 or more strikeouts in three straight starts. He has thrown seven innings in all those starts and given up three, four, and three hits, respectively. In Iglesias' starts, he seems to have exchanged movement on his slider for movement on his fastball, as we can see on Brooks Baseball. The former is sliding less, the latter is running more. His changeup and sinker, however, are generally the same.

Only Chris Sale has had a longer streak of 10-plus-strikeout games than Iglesias this season. That should be reason enough to watch him against the Pirates at 7:10 tonight. And then, if you're feeling extra-pedantic, you can check my hypothesis on the movement of his pitches. So much to watch for!

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