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October 1, 2015

What You Need to Know

Cardinals Clinch; Cardinals Are Doomed?

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway

It’s been a good-news, bad-news kind of month for the Cardinals. They’ve locked up the National League’s top seed but could limp into the playoffs with a depleted roster. They got Adam Wainwright back yesterday but lost Carlos Martinez to a shoulder injury and Stephen Piscotty to a concussion. And while they’ve persevered through medical adversity throughout the season, the latest concerns might only make the climb steeper next month.

Starting pitchers are the name of the game in the senior circuit. The Dodgers have Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs boast Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. The Mets are loaded with young firearms. And the Pirates have the magic of Ray Searage to maximize a Gerrit Cole-led rotation with a little less name value but plenty of punch.

Then, there are the Redbirds. Martinez stepped in as the ace when Wainwright went down. And in the wake of Martinez’s injury, there’s still Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn and John Lackey—a credit to the depth assembled by general manager John Mozeliak. That troika could hold its own against most of the teams that stand between the Cardinals and the pennant. But if another member goes down, the best regular-season squad might enter October as an underdog to reach the Fall Classic.

Which brings us to Wacha, once a down-ballot Cy Young option who posted a 0.92 ERA in six starts between the trade deadline and August 28th. Then, the calendar flipped to September, and the 24-year-old cooled with the fading summer weather. Wacha’s walks spiked, and the flyballs he allowed started flying over fences. Missing bats became a struggle. He recorded just one K in five innings against the Brewers his previous time out.

Most of those issues stem from shoddy command, and Wacha showed no improvement in that area on Wednesday:

That’s not the chart of a pitcher who’s hitting his spots. Most of the in-zone dots are near the middle, and there are dozens of misses far and wide. What, exactly, is behind this mess, which came on suddenly and has now persisted for nearly a month, isn’t clear. But there is one cause for consternation—or, at least, one item to ponder.

Take a look at these two charts:

Over the course of the season, Wacha’s release point on virtually all of his pitches has trended leftward (center-field-camera telecast perspective) and upward. Here’s what that looks like in screengrab form, on two fastballs, both thrown to Neil Walker at PNC Park, the left one on May 8th, the right one yesterday:

As the horizontal-release-point chart suggests, Wacha has drifted slightly to the left on the rubber, but not enough to explain the dramatic shift. As the vertical-release-point chart indicates, Wacha’s hand is further above his head when he lets go of the ball in the pitch on the right. In other words, his arm angle is less obtuse (the arm is more vertical from shoulder to hand), which not only leads to the higher vertical release point, but also the more leftward horizontal release point. In the interest of full disclosure, the pitch on the left was a foul ball, and the one on the right was this home run:

In light of that last note, it’s important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. Additionally, the gradual drift in the release-point data may indicate an adjustment made by the Cardinals coaching staff over time, and may not be the manifestation of fatigue or injury.

It’s also worth pointing out that Wacha isn’t the only Cardinals starter who’s seen his release point drift upward during the summer. Here’s Martinez:

And here’s Lynn (breaking pitches omitted for clarity):

Still, neither of their release-point changes has been as stark as Wacha’s, because of the horizontal bump accompanying the vertical one. While it’s unclear whether the these data hold the answer to the right-hander’s troubles, what is clear is that the Cardinals are running out of time to find a fix.

Wacha was gone after four innings Wednesday, having allowed six runs on four hits, including Walker’s solo shot and Francisco Cervelli’s grand slam:

Armed with a 6-1 lead after four innings, Cole barely broke a sweat. He went seven, holding the Redbirds to two runs on seven hits, one of them Matt Carpenter’s 28th homer of the season. Cole only struck out two, but he got ahead and stayed ahead, throwing 20 of 27 first pitches for strikes and 73 of 100 overall. The Bucs went on to win 8-2.

The good news for the Cardinals is that the NL Central became theirs with an 11-1 romp in the second leg of the twinbill. Tyler Lyons blanked the Bucs for seven innings, and by the time he exited, the Cards were up 9-0. Jason Heyward’s grand slam

keyed their assault, snatching the Pirates’ dreams of a doubleheader sweep early on.

If the standings were all that mattered, everything in St. Louis would be peachy. The Cardinals have clinched the division for the third year in a row, they’re the first team in the majors to reach 100 wins, and home-field advantage through the NL playoffs is theirs. Nothing anyone does over the weekend can take any of that away.

But given the competition, starting pitching is likely to rule the day in October. And the Cardinals, who turned out to have the deepest group of reliable starters in the senior circuit from April through August, might have the shallowest when it matters most.

Quick Hits from Wednesday

Like the Cardinals, the Blue Jays entered Wednesday with a chance to clinch their division by winning one game out of a doubleheader. But while the Cards’ rotation has gotten thinner, the Blue Jays’ have grown deeper.

Marcus Stroman, who like Wainwright missed most of the year with a leg injury, picked up where he left off when he was activated from the disabled list earlier this month. And while Wainwright will pitch out of the bullpen, Stroman—who’s 10 years Wainwright’s junior—has set his sights much higher.

The right-hander got the ball in the opener of yesterday’s twinbill, his fourth big-league start of 2015, and did more than his share in one of the most resounding clinchers you’ll ever see. Stroman went eight innings and kept the Orioles just one run on five hits and two walks. He struck out a season-high eight and got 13 more outs on the ground, the product of nearly spotless execution with his two-seam fastball and slider:

That’s the chart of a pitcher in complete control, pounding the knees with his sinking fastball and coaxing fruitless swings with his primary breaking pitch. One of his few mistakes became a Steve Pearce homer in the seventh. He could’ve made a bunch more without jeopardizing the victory.

Toronto’s offense was in high gear all afternoon, capitalizing on defensive miscues to build a comfortable middle-inning lead

and swinging for the fences late. Edwin Encarnacion clubbed his 37th big fly of the year,

Jose Bautista notched the big 4-0,

Justin Smoak went oppo for his 18th,

and Ryan Goins reached base all six times he batted. Together, they turned the Jays’ clincher into a 15-2 laugher.

The shoe was on the other foot in game two of the twinbill, where the O’s starter, Kevin Gausman, dominated for eight innings of 10-strikeout ball and benefited from a four-homer outburst. The hosts cruised to an 8-1 rout, and Chris Davis, who accounted for half of the fireworks display, now leads the league with 45 long balls on the year.

But the Jays—who trotted out a Grapefruit League split-squad lineup—couldn’t care less. They’re the kings of the AL East for the first time since 1993.

***

More one-sided twinbill action? Indeed.

The third doubleheader featured the Indians and Twins, both still in the hunt to snatch a Wild Card berth, and both badly needing the other to get out of the way. That didn’t happen.

Minnesota knocked Carlos Carrasco around in game one, getting a double and a homer from Joe Mauer to chase the righty after just three frames. Carrasco’s counterpart, Kyle Gibson, was outstanding, striking out nine in six shutout innings. The Twins rolled, 7-1, and had reason to hope that a sweep might propel them up the standings.

But the Tribe had other ideas. Cleveland scored early and often at Mike Pelfrey’s expense in game two, sending him to the showers after just 1 2/3 innings, tagged with six hits and two walks. J.R. Graham and Brian Duensing couldn’t fully stanch the bleeding, and it was 7-0 Indians after four. Cody Anderson kept it that way for seven, working around four walks by limiting Minnesota to just two hits. Ricky Nolasco poured fuel on the fire late, serving up a three-run homer to Jose Ramirez, and the Indians blew out the Twins, 10-2.

***

The late-night results in the AL West contests only exacerbated the consequences of the split. While the Twins are still hanging by a thread, the Indians are now officially eliminated from postseason contention.

The Astros saw to that in a barnburner at Safeco Field. Scott Kazmir, who’s stumbling toward the finish line, kept on stumbling in Seattle, lasting only 4 1/3 innings while still stuffing seven hits (two homers), two walks, two wild pitches, and a hit batter into his eventful evening. Seattle led 6-3 after five.

But bullpen games are risky business. Relievers are volatile, and on any given day, some might be on, while others might off. Tony Zych handled his starting assignment with aplomb, striking out four in 2 2/3 scoreless frames. Mayckol Guaipe and Logan Kensing coughed up three runs in the next two. After Rob Rasmussen did his job in a specialist capacity, Lloyd McClendon called on J.C. Ramirez, who could not have done his any worse.

A half-inning after Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz went back to back

to turn a 3-2 deficit into the aforementioned 6-3 lead, Ramirez gave up a bunt single to Carlos Gomez and walked Luis Valbuena. Then, with Chris Carter at the plate, he made a catastrophic 0-2 mistake:

While the Twins (presumably) punched walls and cursed Ramirez with four-letter words, the 6-6 draw held until the top of the seventh, when Danny Farquhar took over on the mound for Seattle. With one away, he gave up a triple to Evan Gattis, who now, somehow, has 11 three-baggers and nary a steal to his name. As if to underscore just how unlikely that is, A.J. Hinch proceeded to remove Gattis—owner of 11 triples on the year, mind you—for pinch-runner Jonathan Villar, who scored the eventual winning run on a Texas Leaguer off the bat of Colby Rasmus:

Hinch’s bullpen has endured many a meltdown in recent weeks, but the relief corps performed splendidly in the wake of Kazmir’s latest clunker. Josh Fields and Tony Sipp each gobbled up four outs, setting up Will Harris, Oliver Perez, and Luke Gregerson to slam the door. Gregerson needed just six pitches to secure his 31st save and the critical 7-6 victory.

***

Critical because, if the Astros are going to track down the Rangers, they need to keep up with them first, and Texas won again on Wednesday. Jeff Banister’s lineup laid the lumber on Tigers starter Matt Boyd, who gave up dingers to Adrian Beltre,

Robinson Chirinos,

and Mike Napoli

before calling it a day with two down in the third. Yovani Gallardo—5 2/3 innings, nine hits, two runs, one walk, five strikeouts—wasn’t great, but he was a lot better than Boyd, and the Rangers won 6-2 to stay 2 ½ games up in the West.

***

The lone losers in that division were the Angels, whose stay in second place in the West and in the second Wild Card slot was brief. Like the Astros, they were involved in a seesaw affair, though the early story in this one was Barry Zito’s possible ride off into the sunset.

After getting shelled by the Giants on Saturday, Zito held his own in Anaheim, serving up homers to Mike Trout and David Freese but otherwise avoiding big damage. That was easier said than done considering the veteran southpaw issued four walks in as many innings, but the runs column on his line was blemished only by the two solo shots.

For some reason, making four errors was all the rage yesterday: The Orioles did it, the Astros did it, and the Angels decided they wanted a piece of the action, too. It cost them in the seventh inning, which began with Anaheim ahead 5-3. Eric Sogard reached on a leadoff miscue by second baseman Taylor Featherston, and a three-hit, two-walk rally later, the A’s were up 7-5.

Defense would bite the Halos again in the eighth, after Marcus Semien thumped a one-out triple. The next batter, Coco Crisp grounded to first, and…

…whoops.

That E3 made it 8-5 A’s, and the Angels would come to rue allowing that insurance run. Carlos Perez homered in the eighth. Kole Calhoun homered in the ninth. But like the Halos’ first two homers, that pair was also worth just one run each.

Thus, despite slugging five homers, the Angels fell a run short. Per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the 8-7 loss marked the ninth time in franchise history that the Halos have been defeated despite going yard five or more times. The A’s have been responsible for three of them.

And, at least for now, they’re also responsible for knocking Mike Scioscia’s team out of playoff position.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Starlin Castro had four hits, including a big fly, yesterday, and he also chipped in this gem

in support of Jon Lester. The lefty said thank you very much, and went on to carve up the Reds over eight innings of three-hit, one-run ball. Lester struck out nine without walking a batter, and with 207 Ks on the season, he now holds the Cubs southpaw single-season record. The Cubs went on to win 10-3, moving to within 2 ½ games of the Pirates in the race to host the Wild Card playoff.

What to Watch on Thursday

After removing Tim Hudson mid-batter on Saturday in Oakland, where the retiring right-hander couldn’t throw a strike to save his life, Bruce Bochy opted to give Hudson a shot at ending his illustrious career on a higher note. That opportunity comes this afternoon at AT&T Park, in the series finale between the Dodgers and Giants.

There isn’t much but pride on the line, with the Giants eliminated Tuesday, though San Francisco could play spoiler for Los Angeles, which is still jockeying for playoff position with the Mets. Brett Anderson will oppose Hudson today looking to do his part to grant Don Mattingly’s club home-field advantage in the Division Series. The southpaw hasn’t done much of anything to further that mission in his last two outings, both of which involved five-plus runs and 10 hits in less than five innings. Anderson is winless with a 5.64 ERA in five career starts at AT&T Park (3:45 p.m. ET).

***

Rich Hill began the 2015 season in indie ball, pitching for the Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks, before the Red Sox liked what they saw from the lefty and brought him back into the fold. With Boston out of contention, Hill got his first chance to start in the big leagues since 2009 with the Orioles. That went well, so he got another. And that went well, so he got a third. And that one was his best yet.

Outing no. 3 of Hill’s 2015 big-league campaign was a two-hit shutout. It was also his third straight start with at least 10 strikeouts and no more than one walk, making him the second pitcher in franchise history to accomplish that feat. The other was Pedro Martinez.

It turns out, the longest-ever streak of starts with 10+ strikeouts and 0-1 walks is currently active, and it doesn’t belong to Hill. Its owner is Stephen Strasburg, who happens to be toeing the rubber in Atlanta minutes after Hill does in the Bronx. Hill will take on CC Sabathia in the last game of the year between the Red Sox and Yankees, looking to force an unlikely draw with the Nats righty in the record books (7:05 p.m. ET). Strasburg will duel Ryan Weber, aiming to play keep-away by extending his streak to five (7:10 p.m. ET).

***

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Rangers’ late-season surge into first place has been the torrid bat of Shin-Soo Choo, a disappointment in his first season in Texas who’s suddenly emerged as the club’s offensive star. Choo was 41-for-100 in September entering play yesterday, with six doubles, a triple, five homers, and more walks (21) than strikeouts (19). He now owns a .296 True Average on the season, up from .267 last year and much more reminiscent of some of the South Korean’s best seasons in Ohio.

Choo has absolutely obliterated fastballs this year, batting .335 and slugging .631 against four-seamers to drive his overall performance. The 32-year-old has authored 15 of his 21 homers on the hard stuff, and the Rangers will hope that he can keep on clobbering it for four more days as they wrap up their regular season with a critical series against the Angels. It’ll be Andrew Heaney against Derek Holland in game one (8:05 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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