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May 24, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

St. Louis Cardinals @ Kansas City Royals, 5/22/05

by Jonah Keri

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MISMATCH-UP OF THE WEEK: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals...wait a minute, this isn't Jim Baker's column? Well, no, actually it's the return of Prospectus Game of the Week.

Unlike Jim's twice-weekly oeuvre, in which he previews both top-notch match-ups and lopsided potential laughers, GotW was meant to pick choice battles, riveting team match-ups, interesting pitching battles--something compelling. The other mandate of GotW, however, is that every team must be covered at least once during the season. Since a Royals/Devil Rays breakdown could cause narcolepsy among non-members of the Gotay and Cantu families, a Show-Me State tilt seemed appropriate.

Of course, there's the beauty of baseball: Over a long season, any team can beat any other team on a given day, no matter how wide the spread in talent between the two. With the Cards coming into Sunday's game atop the NL Central at 27-15 and the Royals bringing up the rear in the AL Central at 12-31, any surprises would be welcome.

SS David Eckstein .311
DH Larry Walker .272
1B Albert Pujols .335
CF Jim Edmonds .282
RF John Mabry .327
2B Mark Grudzielanek .336
3B Abraham Nunez .286
LF So Taguchi .246
C Einar Diaz .233

Most broadcasts I've chronicled this year (through the magic of MLB Extra Innings) have, when listing both teams' lineups, showed only batting average next to the player's name. One could argue that on-screen space is limited, and BA at least provides a metric everyone can understand that fits easily into the frame. Maybe. But looking only at batting averages, are we to conclude that Mark Grudzielanek is the best hitter on the Cardinals? That John Mabry is vastly superior to Jim Edmonds?

Reducing the lettering size of players' names and expanding the lineup stats to include on-base and slugging averages would take little effort on the part of TV production crews. Let's start a movement to get networks to post triple-slash stats--if we all send our local baseball carrier a two-line e-mail asking politely, maybe we can affect change. I never thought I'd see OBP posted on the scoreboard at venerable Dodger Stadium, but it happened--this can, too. Such small changes go a long way to educating the baseball fan base. (This concludes the Official Game of the Week sermon; a close runner-up was a pre-game Royals ad featuring Angel Berroa, David DeJesus and...Tony Pena. Enough ink has been spilled on the extra-marital scandal that forced him out of the manager's chair earlier this month, but for U.L. Washington's sake, get the man off the promos already!)

The Royals' starter is Ryan Jensen, making his first big-league appearance of the year after injuries prompted his call-up from Triple-A. Signed as a minor-league free agent out of the Giants system in November, Jensen went from 13-game winner in 2002 to throwing just 13 1/3 innings in 2003-04. The Royals needed pitching depth, though, so they took a chance. A finesse righty with an assortment of off-speed pitches, Jensen added a new weapon to his arsenal while stranded in Fresno for two years--a knuckleball. No Charlie Hough he, Jensen added the knuckler to his repertoire rather than adopting it as his main pitch. That's an extreme rarity in today's game; as infrequently as you'll see a Steve Sparks or Tim Wakefield throwing mostly knucklers on a major-league mound nowadays, fewer pitchers still will mix the knuckler with the standard fastball/slider/curve/change-up menu. It makes sense, if you think about it: If pure knuckleballers have trouble controlling the pitch, imagine how tough it must be for a pitcher who only practices and throws it occasionally.

Before the game, Jensen displayed the variety of grips he uses for his six pitches (two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, curve, slider, change, knuckler). It's a fascinating feature that ends with his key to success: "A located fastball for a strike is the best pitch you can ever have." Jensen doesn't have it against leadoff hitter David Eckstein, as he misses on two heaters to go to 2-0. Eckstein comes into the game hitting .311 with a .391 OBP--this is exactly the situation he wants to be in, his likelihood of getting on base in front of Larry Walker, Albert Pujols and Edmonds rising. But Jensen battles back with another fastball to go to 2-1. A slider down induces a groundout to third base. Just like that, Jensen's first major-league game in two seasons has begun.

Jensen starts Larry Walker with two more fastballs, then snaps off a big curve that has Walker way out in front for strike two. Two things jump out right away: Jensen's not afraid to mix different pitches on different counts, and he's a very quick worker--both among my favorite traits when watching a pitcher operate. After another fastball is fouled off to keep the count at 1-2, Jensen shakes off catcher John Buck's sign, then accepts another. Could he? Would he? Yes--it's a wobbling butterfly that floats up and away from Walker--strike three! Buck looks nearly as perplexed as Walker as he snags the pitch with his glove facing down, not knowing where it's going to break. I already had my one diatribe for the year on knucklers and why more failed pitching prospects should learn them last month, so I'll just add this: Get more knuckleballers in the game, because it's damn entertaining to watch...

...and then Jensen hits Albert Pujols with an 0-2 knuckler, as if to squelch aspiring Niekros before they can finish grooming their fingernails to throw the pitch. Jim Edmonds follows with a four-pitch walk, and suddenly a routine first inning now looks like the kind of trouble you'd expect from a 29-year-old soft-tosser making his return to the bigs after two years away. John Mabry then makes Jensen sweat. The righty gets away with two hanging curves mixed with a fastball to move the count to 1-2. Six pitches later, Jensen's thrown everything but the slider, Mabry's still up, and the count is full. The payoff pitch? Slider, down and in, swung on and missed, strike three. I am officially rooting for Ryan Jensen.

SS Angel Berroa .253
CF David DeJesus .257
DH Mike Sweeney .322
1B Matt Stairs .267
RF Emil Brown .224
3B Mark Teahen .246
LF Matt Diaz .235
C John Buck .202
2B Ruben Gotay .232

Other than the general crappiness of the lineup, what jumps out here is deploying Berroa--.291 OBP and all--in the leadoff spot. Of course Berroa's hitting .310 since interim manager Bob Schaefer moved him there, so who knows? There are few viable options anywhere on the roster as is. Berroa works an eight-pitch at-bat of his own, then lines a single to right on a low fastball from Royals starter Jeff Suppan--In Bob We Trust.

David DeJesus, one of the best young players in a Royals organization largely devoid of top-shelf talent, is the #2 hitter. The idea of moving DeJesus to the second slot, Lefebvre explains, is to take advantage of the hole on the right side with a lefty hitter when Berroa reaches base. This makes some sense--if the hitter can pull the ball, of course. DeJesus doesn't, hitting a tailor-made double-play ball to Eckstein...only Eckstein boots it, and everyone's safe. Eckstein looks disgusted with himself.

He may get a reprieve, though. Mike Sweeney pops out on a tricky 0-1 change-up. Then Suppan breaks out his nastiest pitch, a big, sweeping curve that bites into the dirt when it's working. Cleanup hitter and notable Canadian Matt Stairs tries to pull the pitch, tapping out to first for the second out. Only Emil Brown--the replacement-level poster child for not letting heady spring training performances influence roster decisions--stands in the way of Eckstein escaping his gaffe, and the inning.

Suppan's curve looks poised to send Brown back to the dugout. A big yakker on 1-1 has Brown flailing at air for strike two. Suppan then comes back with another curve, low and off the plate, which Brown fouls off to stay alive. Next pitch--a slider, identical location to the last pitch. Brown reaches out and slices it down the line for a two-run double. In pitching, as in real estate, it's location, location, location. Suppan bought a semi-detached termite ranch on a charming half-acre minefield with that pitch.

It gets worse for the Cards. On Suppan's 30th pitch of the inning, rookie third baseman Mark Teahen laces a double down the left-field line to make it 3-0. Eckstein comes over to talk to Suppan, but instead of comforting the pitcher, it's Suppan patting Eckstein reassuringly, telling him they'll get those runs back. Meanwhile, the Cards' shortstop looks despondent. Three runs doesn't look too awful, though, when Matt Diaz goes to 2-0, then hits an easy bouncer to Eckstein for the third out...only Eckstein throws it wide of first for another error, scoring Teahen. Color man Paul Splittorff astutely notes that Pujols was leaning the wrong way when he stretched for the throw and probably should have made the play, even given the off-target delivery. Meanwhile Eckstein looks like he wants to crawl into a hole for a week. Suppan throws his second poorly-located slider of the inning, this one a hanger over the plate on 2-0 that Buck lines over the right-centerfield wall for a two-run homer to make it 6-0 Royals. Make it a month of solitary for Eckstein.

Can the Cards come back? This is a team that led the National League in runs scored heading into Sunday's game. It's also a vastly diminished lineup without Scott Rolen. The All-Star third baseman's injury--he's out a minimum of six weeks after suffering a slight tear in the labrum of his left shoulder--has reduced the Cards to playing Abraham Nunez, the same Abraham Nunez with a career line of .237/.304/.312. Tony La Russa's fetish for multi-position, no-hit utility men is going to come back and bite him eventually. Of course if Walt Jocketty keeps adding big bats to the lineup and the rest of the NL Central can't even muster a second over-.500 team, William Hung at third base may not make a difference.

It will on this day, though. After Jensen was forced to wait 27 minutes while the Royals batted in the first, the Cards let him off the hook with a 1-2-3 Grudzielanek/Nunez/So Taguchi inning of futility. (While we're here, La Russa's efforts to spot Reggie Sanders in advantageous match-ups is admirable--but should the Cards really play Nunez and Taguchi over Sanders, given that Mabry can play third base?)

There's little in the way of taut situations or rollicking action to speak of for the next seven innings. Suppan would go on to strike out five in five innings' work, all on that nasty curveball. The nine hits and two homers he gives up around those strikeouts showed his inability to get batters out with his other pitches. Actually, that's not entirely true. The Royals hit four grounders during the course of the game that should have gone for routine outs. Unfortunately all four turned into errors--one by Grudzielanek, three by Eckstein (giving him four for the series, seven in his last 10 games). Meanwhile Jensen earned his first big-league win in three seasons, going five respectable innings, yielding two runs, three hits and three walks, with three strikeouts. The Royals would go on to win easily, 9-2. Mismatch-up of the week? Sure--just not the way people expected.

Some quick thoughts:

  • As Royals devotee Rany Jazayerli notes, K.C. has a shot at assembling the worst one-run record over the span of a decade by any team in modern major-league history. Thanks to BP's James Click, here are the franchises with the worst records in one-run games over a 10-year span dating back to 1900 (overlapping teams) eliminated:
    1904-1913 Brooklyn Dodgers: 195-309 (.387)
    1925-1934 Boston Braves: 194-293 (.398)
    1922-1931 Philadelphia Phillies: 172-255 (.403)
    1995-2004 Kansas City Royals: 164-204 (.406)
    The 1995 Royals were pretty good in one-run situations; if you replace 1995 with 2005, the 1996-2005 Royals stand at 145-233, or .384. Barring a turnaround, the 1996-2005 Royals would be the worst one-run team in the history of baseball.

  • In addition to the pre-game feature showing Jensen's grips for each of his six pitches, the broadcast did a great job of utilizing their multiple camera angles and their editing capabilities. Royals cameras showed freeze-frame shots of Jensen's grip just as he was releasing the slider, curve and knuckleball that Jensen used to get his three strikeouts.

    Later, when Leo Nunez came into the game, the cameras showed a great slow-motion sequence of the young pitcher going through his delivery. The 21-year-old Royal reliever--who looks about 12 given his baby face and 6'0", 160 pounds-when-soaking-wet frame--looked to have a violent delivery at first glance. But when play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre asked his broadcast partner about Nunez's mechanics, Splittorff showed Nunez's balance at the top of his delivery, as well as the young pitcher's consistent release point. Being something of a closet junkie when it comes to pitching mechanics, I found the analysis both insightful and amazing to look at--no small feat for a medium that pays John Kruk's salary. Lefebvre and Splittorff did a commendable job throughout the broadcast.


Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will feature the Baltimore Orioles playing host to the Detroit Tigers, Sunday May 29, 1:30 p.m. ET (Channel 737 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Two lefties with different pedigrees will do battle, as erratic but intriguing prospect Wil Ledezma battles rejuvenated former failed prospect Bruce Chen. Swipe some left-handed pinking shears and tune in.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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