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April 12, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

You've Never Been This Far Before

by Jay Jaffe

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In this age of pitch counts and innings caps, every starting pitcher has a limited number of bullets. Even among the hardiest hurlers, nine years have passed since a starter topped 260 innings, and eight since one went past 140 pitches in a game without having either a no-hitter on the line (Edwin Jackson) or simply being Livan Hernandez. These days, it's a rarity for any hurler to come within 10 percent of those marks in a game or a season, and not surprisingly, the more fragile sorts pull up far short. So nobody came out to Citi Field on Wednesday afternoon expecting the matchup between the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg and the Mets' Johan Santana would yield complete game efforts or deep pitch counts, particularly with both pitchers working their way back from 2011 seasons largely lost to injuries. But in their second starts of the season, on a gray day with game-time temperature at a brisk 53 degrees, the two opposing managers tested their aces' limits, and both held up after firing all of their bullets, keeping their opposite offenses to a combined one run through 5 ½ innings before the bullpens took over.

Santana didn't throw a single major-league inning last season as he recovered from September 2010 surgery to repair a tear in the anterior capsule of his left shoulder. Despite his dogged rehab efforts, the two-time Cy Young winner made just two minor-league appearances, spaced more than five weeks apart and totaling five innings before being shut down due to recurring soreness and fatigue. Steering clear of the cycle of rehab futility, he'd worked his way back from oblivion this spring, never being hit hard enough to require some retrenchment, some curbing of enthusiasm. While his lower velocity drew plenty of comments and left reason for concern, Santana survived the Grapefruit League circuit, and on Opening Day gave the Mets and their fans reason for hope by stringing together five shutout innings against the Braves, throwing 84 pitches, including 13 swing-and-miss strikes; high-80s velocity or no, the stuff plays thanks to his movement and ability to change speeds, with his devastating changeup still effective. Santana’s effort kicked off the first of four straight wins to open the season, something to lift the spirits of a downtrodden fan base.

Strasburg spent most of last year rehabbing from September 2010 Tommy John surgery, making six minor-league starts before returning for a September cameo. Though his five big-league starts totaled just 24 innings, he was dominant, striking out 24, walking two, and allowing five runs (four earned). He was strong on Opening Day as well, spinning seven innings of one-run ball against the Cubs, striking out five while throwing 82 pitches. The Nationals announced back in January that they plan to cap him at 160 innings this year, just as they more or less did with Jordan Zimmermann last year—he threw 161 1/3 innings—as he returned from 2009 Tommy John surgery. They don't plan to space those innings out to allow him to pitch in a September race, which they may well find themselves in the thick of given the addition of a second wild card, though we'll see if they stick to that party line if he's flagging in July and a three-week breather looks like what the doctor ordered.

On this day, neither pitcher was facing full-strength lineups. The Nationals have thus far been without Mike Morse, who bashed a career-best 31 homers last year; he's been dealing with a strained lat since early March, and on Monday suffered a setback during a rehab assignment, leaving the ballgame due to problems throwing the ball. With him out of service, and lefty-hitting center fielder Roger Bernadina sitting in favor of righty Xavier Nady (with Jayson Werth sliding over from right field to center), the 5-6-7 slots in Washington's order featured Mark DeRosa, Adam LaRoche, and Nady, a trio that combined to hit .228/.300/.314 with seven homers in 497 PA while spending 278 days on the disabled list for wrist, shoulder, and hand injuries. Catcher Wilson Ramos sat after the previous night's game—a 6-2 win by the Nats, handing the Mets their first loss of the year—in favor of Jesus Flores.

On the Mets' side, David Wright was out of the lineup due to a fractured righty pinky he suffered while diving back to first base on Monday night. The Mets think he'll be able to avoid the disabled list, but given that they have absolutely zero credibility when it comes to managing injuries over the past few years, the best-case scenario is probably amputation to stop the spread of gangrene. Then again, one could argue that gangrene has already set in via the form of fill-in Ronny Cedeno's bat; that's a career .246/.287/.354 hitter in for a .301/.381/.509 hitter, a downgrade of roughly 0.3 runs per game as far as PECOTA is concerned. Elsewhere, with center fielder Andres Torres on the disabled list due to a strained calf, the team is taking an extended look at 2008 third-round pick Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a rookie whose 2011 breakout was curtailed by labrum surgery. His presence in the lineup on Wednesday gave the Mets six lefties against Strasburg (including Santana); for what it's worth, lefty hitters have fared slightly better than righties in Strasburg’s brief big-league career, .208/.257/.312 versus .212/.243/.274.

Both pitchers labored early. Santana struck out leadoff hitter Ian Desmond on a low changeup but couldn't put away Danny Espinosa after digging him an 0-2 hole; the second baseman battled back and drew an eight-pitch walk. Santana went 0-2 on Ryan Zimmerman as well, and got him to bite on a high 88 mph fastball for strike three on the sixth pitch of the at-bat. By that point he'd already thrown 18 pitches, and his inning was extended when Jayson Werth's sharp grounder to Ruben Tejada wasn't turned into an out; the shortstop elected to go to second for the force, and while the replay looked as though the throw might have beaten the runner, umpire Todd Tichenor ruled him safe. Espinosa would bail him out, however; four pitches into DeRosa's at-bat, he attempted to steal third for no good reason and was gunned down by Josh Thole. In all, it was a 27-pitch inning for the lefty, with just 15 strikes.

Santana’s second frame wouldn't even go that well. Given a second chance, DeRosa singled up the middle, and after LaRoche popped up, Nady singled to right-center. DeRosa took third despite a strong throw from Lucas Duda, with Nady advancing to second. Santana couldn't get Jesus Flores to chase a few low pitches and ended up walking him to load the bases for Strasburg, who came in just 1-for-28 in his career. Though the pitcher never took his bat off his shoulder, Santana still needed six pitches to put him away, and immediately followed that by throwing a changeup in the dirt that bounced away from Thole, allowing the game's first run to score. He recovered to strike out Desmond for a second time, again on a changeup, but the bill for the damage was another 26 pitches. Later, Santana would cite the colder weather as a factor in his struggles, in that he had trouble getting a grip on the ball early in the game.

Strasburg needed 26 pitches to get through the first inning himself. He didn't get a single swinging strike, netted just 10 strikes for the entire frame, and at one point barked at home plate ump Larry Vanover, who wasn't particularly generous with the lower boundary of the strike zone to either pitcher in the early going. (On Twitter, several people complained Strasburg was being squeezed.) He allowed the first two batters of his day to reach base, Tejada with a sharp single to center field off a 96 mph heater, and Daniel Murphy with a four-pitch walk. He fell behind Duda trying to get him to chase a pair of off-speed pitches in the dirt, and escaped only by getting him to line out. Likewise, Strasburg fell behind Ike Davis 3-1, but he got the Mets' first baseman to look at a high changeup and a low, inside curveball for called strikes.

Strasburg walked Thole on seven pitches to lead off the second inning, with ball four touching 97 mph, but from there he found his rhythm. He whiffed Nieuwenhuis on four pitches, capping it with a called strike on a 96 mph heater low and away, went back to his curveball to freeze Cedeno, then got Santana to fly to left, coming in at a relatively economical 19 pitches for the inning.

Having combined for 98 pitches over their first two innings, the two aces finally began looking like the pitchers in the catalog, needing a combined 79 pitches (40 for Santana, 39 for Strasburg) to work the next three innings. With his 89 mph fastball dancing, Santana reeled off strikeouts of Espinosa (looking, low and inside), Zimmerman (swinging, low), and LaRoche (hacking, a few inches outside the zone), and whiffing Strasburg with a changeup in that span. At one point, he retired 10 straight hitters before yielding back-to-back two-out singles to Desmond and Espinosa in the fifth. He escaped that jam by inducing Zimmerman to pop up into foul territory on the first-base side on the second pitch of that at-bat. Davis leaning over into the stands to snag the ball; to start the inning, he'd done the same against Flores while reaching over the dugout railing.

Likewise, Strasburg's roll to end the second was the beginning of a streak in which he retired 10 straight hitters, and 13 of 14 into the sixth inning. He racked up strikeouts of Duda (on a 90 mph changeup—yes, faster than Santana's fastball—after touching his day's max, 98, with his fastball immediately before), Davis (curveball in the dirt), Bay (changeup, low and inside), Santana (flailing at a curveball), and Tejada (looking at an outside curveball, definitely a bit off the plate) along the way.

The Santana strikeout came at a pivotal moment in the game. Through five, the Mets' southpaw had thrown 93 pitches, and given manager Terry Collins' suggestion from the day before that he'd be capped at 95, it figured his day was done. But when Cedeno was hit by a 93 mph fastball with one out and his team down by a run, rather than call for a pinch-hitter, Collins sent up his pitcher and ordered him to bunt. Given that Cedeno was the first Met to reach base since the second inning, this was an absolutely futile waste of an opportunity; based on last year's numbers, the run expectancy from a successful sacrifice would have dropped from .503 runs to .314. Collins would later say that he was concerned about the short bench with Wright unavailable, but that still left lefty Mike Baxter and righties Justin Turner, Scott Hairston, and backup catcher Mike Nickeas. Turner, at .258/.325/.362 against righties in his career, represented the best available option, but Collins squandered what little chance his team had.

Needless to say, the Mets didn't score there, and while keeping Santana in the game allowed Collins to send him back out for the sixth, his day was done after issuing a six-pitch leadoff walk to Werth. In all, his 99 pitches were his longest outing since August 28, 2010, his penultimate start before going on the DL, and he generated 14 swings and misses, including nine on his four- and two-seam fastballs, again proving that even with sub-90 velocity, he's got ample stuff to fool hitters. Alas, stretching him to face that extra batter nearly led to another run when reliever Manny Acosta came on to issue a pair of walks to load the bases with no outs. Fortunately for the Mets, Nady would line out to Murphy, who threw to second to double DeRosa off the bag, and then Flores flied out to end the threat.

Strasburg was at 84 pitches through five innings, so it wasn't too surprising he was back for the sixth. He needed seven pitches to induce Murphy to fly out, then walked Duda on five pitches, and gave up a single to Davis—his first hit of the year, one at-bat shy of tying Todd Pratt for the franchise's season opening 0-fer of shame at 19—on his 102nd pitch of the day. Through his first 18 big-league starts, he'd never gone into triple digits, but Davey Johnson was sailing him into uncharted territory. Strasburg rewarded the decision by striking out Bay looking at a 95 mph fastball, though the left fielder barked at Vanover with cause, as the pitch was as far off the plate as any that was called for a strike all day long. In any event, Strasburg didn't have to work much harder, as Thole flied out to center on the next pitch.

That wrapped up Strasburg's day at 108 pitches, with nine swings and misses, four of them on the changeup. He would yield to pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the seventh. Facing Acosta, he grounded out, but Desmond drilled a double to center field, Espinosa walked, and then new reliever Ramon Ramirez figured the more, the merrier, walking Zimmerman to load the bases. After striking out Werth, he walked DeRosa as well, forcing in a run. Somewhere, George Stallings muttered "Oh, those bases on balls," and rolled over in his grave yet again.

That was about the way the rest of the game went. The Mets' bullpen (Acosta, Ramirez, Jon Rauch, and Miguel Batista) was absolutely brutal, while the Nationals' pen (Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett, and Henry Rodriguez) was stellar, allowing Washington to pull away as the game stretched past the three-and-a-half hour mark. Compare and contrast:

Pitcher

IP

H

R

ER

BB

SO

Strasburg

6

2

0

0

3

9

Santana

5

5

1

1

3

8

Nationals RP

3

1

0

0

1

6

Mets RP

4

4

3

3

7

2

Collins, who was ejected after the sixth inning when he came out to pull a double-switch and ended up getting his money's worth with Vanover over Bay's second strikeout, would shake his head and say, "Once in awhile, you've got to go protect somebody. When we're walking 10 guys in a game, I've got a lot of guts to go out there and argue balls and strikes when we're not throwing it over."

The Nationals' strong relief work took place against the backdrop of closer Drew Storen undergoing surgery to remove a bone chip on Wednesday. He could be out until the All-Star break; Johnson plans on Rodriguez and Brad Lidge sharing the closing duties, and top set-up man Tyler Clippard staying in place so as to allow him to pitch multiple innings. Clippard had pitched the eighth and Lidge the ninth on Tuesday, albeit in a non-save situation, so on this day it was Rodriguez's turn to shut the door, even though the Nats' final run had taken away the save opportunity. With a fastball ranging from 96 to 99 mph, he got Thole to ground out weakly, went 3-0 on Nieuwenhuis before recovering to strike him out looking, and then positively blew away Cedeno with 97 mph high cheese. Game over, man.

With that, the two teams moved into a tie for first place in the NL East at 4-2. Even with the small sample sizes in play, the Nats compiling that record on the road, and with a +10 run differential, has to rate as more impressive, if not more indicative of their talent than the Mets doing so at home with a −2 differential. That said, both teams had something positive to take from their ace's work in Wednesday's encounter. Limited though their bullets may have been, they made them count.

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

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