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August 22, 2016

What You Need to Know

Flaherty, Floperty

by Ashley Varela


The Weekend Takeaway
The first time Ryan Flaherty stood on the pitcher’s mound, he played for the Deering High School Rams in Portland, Maine. The second time, he played for the Baltimore Orioles in Saturday’s 12-2 loss to the Astros.

There’s a reason managers call on position players to pitch during the final gasps of a blowout loss and not a two-out, bases-loaded ninth inning of a one-run nailbiter. Unfortunately for Orioles fans, it had less to do with distracting them from an imminent loss and more to do with Baltimore’s exhausted bullpen, which covered 13 ⅓ of 18 innings between Friday and Saturday’s games.

Jitters got the better of Flaherty during the first at-bat of the ninth, which began with a changeup to Jason Castro and ended with the Astros’ second home run of the night:


Locating pitches didn’t get any easier as the inning wore on. Thirteen of Flaherty’s 19 pitches landed outside the strike zone, and only five registered as strikes. George Springer and Alex Bregman struck back-to-back doubles, driving in the Astros’ 12th and final run and marking their sixth two-run inning.

One at-bat later, however, Flaherty appeared to regain both his composure and some semblance of control. It took him just three pitches to finish off the inning: one for Tyler White, who flied out to right field, one for Carlos Correa, who lucked into a hit when Pedro Alvarez bobbled the ball, and one for Evan Gattis, who hacked at the first pitch for an inning-ending forceout.

This is probably as good a spot as any to point out that Flaherty contributed far more productive plays over the course of the evening, including this whizzbanger of a throw to retire Gattis in the eighth. And, while he may not have a future as a major-league pitcher, now is hardly the time to quibble over a 10-2 loss vs. a 12-2 loss with Baltimore just 1 1/2 games ahead of the Mariners in the wild card race. Then again, if Baltimore’s rotation continues to excuse themselves early from starts, it might not be the last time a game falls into the hands of a position player this season—and, rumor has it, J.J. Hardy and Pedro Alvarez could be next in line.

Quick Hits from the Weekend
The only pleasure greater than watching a non-pitcher pitch is watching a pitcher hit. (Say that five times fast.) As if Max Scherzer didn’t already have enough on his plate this season, what with maintaining a 2.79 DRA, elevating a 5.3 WARP, and helping shelter dogs find new homes, he also extended his hitting streak to five consecutive games with a pair of RBI singles against the Braves this weekend.

What looked like a routine start for Scherzer coincided with the shortest start of Tyrell Jenkins’ major league career. The Atlanta rookie dealt 3 ⅓ innings with eight hits, nine runs, and Scherzer’s first single of the night, preceded by a phenomenal fake bunt and succeeded by Trea Turner’s three-run jack:

Turner’s home run was the cherry on top of a franchise-best nine-hit, eight-run inning, but the Nationals gave most of the runs back when the bullpen collapsed in the final frames of the game. In the end, the Nats’ 11-9 victory rested on two plays: a Max Scherzer RBI single in the seventh, lifted on the first pitch off of Ryan Weber’s sinker,


and a sacrifice fly by Ryan Zimmerman in the eighth, his first RBI since his return from the 60-day disabled list.

***

Had you tilted your head a little, squinted, and tried to ignore the bleached blonde goatee hanging from his chin, you might have spotted the Felix Hernandez of 2014 standing on the mound Saturday night. It’s no secret that Hernandez has lost a little of the mojo that helped fill the King’s Court every week, but there are signs that Seattle’s former ace might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

According to Brooks Baseball, Hernandez’s velocity has tanked on all of his pitches this season, most noticeably dropping his sinker from a 92.2 mph average in 2015 to 90.9 mph in 2016 and his cutter from 92.4 mph to 90.0 mph. Not only has he been working with a less effective pitch repertoire, but his BB/9 rate is up to 3.8 on the year, a career-worst mark, and his K/9 rate is down to 7.8. It’s worth pointing out that Hernandez was sidelined for a solid month and a half after he suffered a midseason calf injury, and the handful of starts he’s made since his return from the DL have been less than stellar: a 3.80 ERA, a 3.8 BB/9 rate, and an 8.2 K/9 rate in 47 ⅓ innings pitched.

This, however, was the Felix Hernandez who showed up to Safeco Field on Saturday:

Every offspeed pitch registered a mile or two faster on the radar gun, and Felix lasted eight innings for just the second time in 2016, a feat made even better by the two runs, walk, and eight strikeouts he inflicted on the Brewers. Hernandez kept the game scoreless through the first seven frames, and not a single Brewer made it further than second base until the eighth inning.

Against Milwaukee’s Wily Peralta, the Mariners backed Hernandez with a strong showing of their own, thanks in part to a pair of homers by Leonys Martin and Mike Zunino and the six-run collapse of the Brewers’ pitching staff in the seventh and eighth innings. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the bat boy replaced all of their bats with lightsabers, either (though it does raise a few questions about MLB’s strict ban on intergalactic weapons at the ballpark):

Lost velocity and command can take a toll on a pitcher, not to mention a club that expects at least one solid performance out of their pitching staff every five days or so. While it takes more than one quality start to transform a season or reverse the effects of time and aging, it could be the beginning of a much-needed turnaround for Hernandez.

***

Not all home runs are created equal, and on Sunday, Albert Pujols stared a particularly important home run in the face during the Angels’ 2-0 shutout.

With Yankees right-hander Chad Green on the mound, a .249/.315/.429 slash line under his belt, and a six-game hitting streak on the line, Pujols plucked a fastball from the inside corner of the strike zone

and sent it hurtling at 101 mph toward the center field wall in Angels Stadium. Alas, the most crucial component of a home run is its landing spot, and this one didn’t quite clear the fence like Pujols hoped it would:

Had Pujols’ blast exited the outfield, it would have been career no. 584, good for 10th on the all-time home run list. As it currently stands, the Angels’ slugger is still tied with Mark McGwire at 583 career homers. There are worse places to be.

Defensive Play of the Weekend
It’s been eight years since Brett Gardner could reasonably be described as anything resembling a spring chicken, but he’ll be damned if he lets young whippersnapper C.J. Cron hit one out of Angel Stadium on his watch.

What to Watch on Monday
It’s been a long couple of months without Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers have done everything possible to prove themselves a cohesive, capable club in his absence. On Saturday, Kershaw threw a successful bullpen session in Cincinnati, the first major sign that he might be ready for major league action soon. The news couldn’t come at a better time for the Dodgers, who clinched first place in the NL West after shutting out the Reds on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, they’ll pit left-hander Scott Kazmir against Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey while the Giants take an off day before their next road trip to Los Angeles (12:35 ET).

***

Before the Astros won their four-game set against the Orioles on Sunday, they debuted designated hitter Yulieski Gurriel, who signed a $47.5 million dollar contract with the club just five weeks prior to his major league premiere. Although it’s been less than a month since Gurriel played his first professional baseball game on U.S. soil, he didn’t seem to have any trouble adjusting to the competition, and smoked a single off of Baltimore starter Yovani Gallardo in his first career at-bat.

Time will tell whether or not Gurriel can replicate the .335/.417/.580 slash line he put up in 15 seasons with the Cuban National Series and Japan Central League, but until then, the Astros will likely be counting on him to provide a little pop in the lineup when they go toe-to-toe against Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals on Monday night (7:05 ET).

Ashley Varela is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ashley's other articles. You can contact Ashley by clicking here

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