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March 11, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Day Two at HoHoKam

by Christina Kahrl

MESA, Arizona—Thursday, March 10 marked the Cubs' observance of Ron Santo's passing in HoHoKam. With so many tributes to come—including a statue at Wrigley Field, perhaps a pointed reminder not only of the love for him in Wrigleyville, but also of the signal failure of the BBWAA and however many iterations of the Veterans' Committee to include him among Cooperstown's bronzed ranks—yesterday's affair was more no-frills, as the Santo family got to speak about the man they loved to an audience already in a loving mood.

Perhaps the only sour note was that the Cubs weren't allowed to wear special #10 hats in Santo's honor—the MLB fashion police were duly offended by the lack of an MLB logo. Apparently, Bob Watson's dictatorial writ in all matters sartorial extends all the way to Arizona, right down to exhibition action. Who says the NFL is the only “no fun league”?

But with these proceedings out of the way, the day's action initially pitted the Tribe's Justin Masterson against Randy Wells. This struck me as a particularly interesting contrast, in that both pitchers are big right-handers—Masterson is 6'6", Wells an inch shorter—who work without plus velocity. Masterson throws a little harder, sitting on the right side of 90 on his four-seamer, where Wells averages just below. Both have had their moments, and both have their believers as far as their capacity to get better. Starting from the premise that I'm obviously not a scout, in terms of their mechanics, they couldn't be more different: Wells is more over the top, while Masterson is more slingy and seems to throw with what's called "scapular loading."

Guy
GS
IP
BABIP
GB/FB
UBB%
SO%
HR%
SNLVAR
SNWP
RA9
SIERA
Masterson 29 180 .330 2.2 8.6% 17.5% 1.8% 1.9 .454 5.35 3.83
Wells 32 194.1 .315 1.2 6.9% 17.1% 2.3% 3.6 .497 4.49 4.13

Between Masterson's strikeout and ground-ball rates, he gets love from projection systems and SIERA alike, because he's doing things associated with success, even if neither stat knows anything in particular beyond the broad strokes of performance analysis. Even after Wells' big 2009, performance and predictive metrics like PECOTA seem to favor Masterson, instead suggesting that Wells has simply found his level as an entirely employable back-end rotation piece. Compare also last year's assortments:

Dude
Sinkers vs RHBs
Four-seam Fastballs vs RHBs
Slider vs RHBs
Change/Other vs RHBs
Sinkers vs LHBs
Four-Seam Fastball vs LHBs
Slider vs LHBs
Change/Other vs LHBs
Masterson 53.3% 21.0% 23.7% 2.0% 43.6% 35.2% 15.9% 5.4%
Wells 20.6% 32.2% 37.3% 9.9% 33.5% 21.6% 12.1% 32.9%

We usually get regaled with how one unbeatable ace or another has this wonderful thing or another going for him. That's nice, but this is how the other half lives, or the half that's in the front rank behind the game's top hundredth of a percentile. As a group, they generally have to survive on the strength of their fastball location. Masterson's bread and butter is his sinker. It's perhaps surprising that he uses changes of pace against lefties so infrequently; given that he has also struggled to get them out on his career (with a +188 OPS differential against them), you can also see something of the repercussion of not having a reliable off-speed offering against them so far. Wells, in contrast, predominantly relies on gas (what he has) and the slider against the same-handed, and sinkers and changes against lefties, or two different pitches against each group of batters.

These make for two different ways to skin the proverbial cat, and it's interesting that, of the two, Masterson gets wishcasted for better things while Wells actually delivers them. Perhaps that's aided by the absolute certainty that he'll be employed at the front end of the Tribe's rotation, while expectations for an ex-catcher like Wells seem set low, to the point that his job might even be at risk, but I also wonder about the systemic issues with predictive modeling built on preconceived virtues derived from aggregated metrics. Masterson's overall numbers might seem fine for some things, but his delivery is something that's always going to leave him exposed to lefties picking up his pitches. As long as that's a problem, he's not really going to turn the corner in a division that just added Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn.

Regardless, yesterday both of the seemingly mediocre men were remarkably effective. Masterson faced the minimum in three innings, striking out five (including his first four in a row), while Wells faced just two batters over the minimum in four frames. After the game, Wells was self-assured about his execution, noting that he had "a real good feel for the sinker and change"—the two pitches he uses most against lefties, whom he held to 0-for-7, with a Travis Buck walk representing the pinnacle of success.

Both men gave way (in one way or another, either eventually or immediately) to other rotation aspirants, as Jeanmar Gomez took over for Masterson and tossed another three shutout innings, while Andrew Cashner closed out the game for the Cubs by drawing the last four frames. Here, the difference couldn't be more stark; Cashner is considered a blue-chip prospect in whatever role the Cubs employ him in, while Gomez is more of a quality candidate for an established fourth starter someday. Both breezed through their opponents, not surprising since both saw a good chunk of B-list talent (and worse). Cashner's one mistake—leaving something over the plate that Jayson Nix could pull hard into the uttermost reaches of the left-center gap's cheap seats—put the game's first run on the board in the sixth. We'll see how far it goes, but with Mike Quade's recent comments that he'd rather favor the men he might lose if he cuts them over those who are optionable, that seems like code for initial veteran victories during roster selection.

For all that, the game had an outcome. As much concern has been devoted to the Cubs' defense this spring, Indians defense is what decided the outcome, as obviously raw Taiwanese import Chun-Wei Chen blew the lead by participating in a wild pitch, an error, and a passed ball in the eighth to help bring the Cubs' Marquez Smith across the bag after a one-out double. The ninth was decided by the always exciting Vinnie Pestano's fielder's choice: he chose poorly on a Fernando Perez sac bunt, throwing to second too late to peg James Adduci, almost living up to past Rod Beck comparisons by getting two outs, but losing the game on a first-pitch Brett Jackson single to the opposite field.

Jackson's hit was especially interesting since it almost represents a response to concerns over his passivity at the plate, at least as far as a single at-bat is supposed to mean anything. But it also made for this day's contrast to the previous day, as he delivered where Josh Vitters did not—with two men on and one out directly before Jackson's sharply lined safety, Vitters had to settle for an opposite-field popup. Jackson's single also came after he'd failed to flick a foul ball far enough foul to the opposite field his first time up. (In another bit of blue-chip bid-doggery, the man making that tough play was Lonnie Chisenhall.) Maybe he's working on going the other way, maybe not, but we'll see in the weeks to come.

Notes: The contest for Cubs right-handed bench bat tightened up, but that might be because nobody looked good yesterday from among Jeff Baker, Reed Johnson, and Lou Montanez. ... Concerns over the Cubs' defense probably got worse with Blake DeWitt deflecting a single into center field in the fifth, and Tyler Colvin's flubbed receipt of a pickoff throw to first. ... Is it just me, or is starting Jason Donald at third for the Tribe just an admission that scoring runs isn't really one of their highest priorities in the early going?

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

Related Content:  Justin Masterson

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