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April 24, 2012

Prospectus Game of the Week

The Accounts and Descriptions of this Game

by R.J. Anderson

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The three biggest factors in determining the appeal of a baseball game on television are the starting pitchers, the ballpark, and the announcers involved. I like games that feature at least one interesting starting pitcher, a clean-looking ballpark, and announcers with good chemistry, regardless of whether they excel in wit or insight. More often than not, a good blend of those three attributes leads to an engaging ballgame. 

Friday night’s game between the Giants and the Mets looked favorable using that rubric. Start with Jonathon Niese and Barry Zito, two southpaws off to strong starts, then move on to Citi Field, which looks great on TV. From there, you get to choose between two of the best broadcasting crews in the game. There are no wrong choices when the options are Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow or Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling, but there also is no sense in limiting oneself, so I decided to alternate throughout.

Kuiper and Krukow got the start, and went to work introducing the lineups, which looked like so:

San Francisco

  1. Angel Pagan CF
  2. Melky Cabrera RF
  3. Pablo Sandoval 3B
  4. Buster Posey 1B
  5. Brett Pill LF
  6. Hector Sanchez C
  7. Emmanuel Burriss 2B
  8. Brandon Crawford SS
  9. Barry Zito P

New York

  1. Ruben Tejada SS
  2. Daniel Murphy 2B
  3. David Wright 3B
  4. Ike Davis 1B
  5. Jason Bay LF
  6. Scott Hairston RF
  7. Kirk Nieuwenhuis CF
  8. Mike Nickeas C
  9. Jonathon Niese P

My breakout pick for the season, Niese, took the mound as his numbers flashed on screen: 12 2/3 innings pitched, seven hits, five walks, 12 strikeouts, and a 2.13 earned run average; not too shabby. The scouting report on Niese comes with the knowledge that he throws a tailing fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup.  Niese isn’t afraid to come inside against right-handed batters, either.

Niese delivered a fastball to former Met Angel Pagan and the game was underway. It didn’t take long for an ominous feeling to stir. Pagan smoked a liner into right field that Scott Hairston happened to run down. Then Niese and catcher Mike Nickeas had a mix-up, with the pitch eluding Nickeas and instead striking home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley in the shin. At this point, Krukow offers one of his trademarked umpire scouting reports. Danley, per Krukow, rules over a tight zone while favoring the first-base side of the plate. In other words, righties should protect the outside of the plate—particularly against these southpaw pitchers. Brooks Baseball’s umpire cards suggest the latter part of Krukow’s report is inaccurate.

Niese recovers to get Melky Cabrera to ground out on an off-balanced swing and strikes Pablo Sandoval out on four pitches. That means it’s time for Zito and the Mets crew.

***

Cohen introduces Zito as “the retooled Barry Zito.” The reasoning is simple enough—Zito changed his delivery during the offseason with help from pitching-mechanics guru Tom House. Zito, you may notice, no longer has a pronounced windup. When I showed resident A’s fan Jason Wojciechowski Zito’s new delivery, he asked why I chose a pitch from the stretch.  The official explanation for Zito’s tweaking is to generate more hip and core rotation, though, as the Mets booth notes, Zito’s velocity is mostly unchanged.

Speaking of auspicious starts, Cohen notes that Zito has walked one batter in his previous 16 innings on the season. Zito proceeds to walk Ruben Tejada. then Cohen chimes in with another factoid about Zito: he previously had not allowed the first batter of any inning to reach base. Zito winds up walking David Wright after retiring Daniel Murphy, then goes to a full count on Ike Davis. These are not cases where Zito’s control is giving him fits, but rather cases where he seems to be nibbling after getting ahead 0-2.

Darling calls one of Zito’s offering a “screwball-change” along the way, and that affords me the opportunity to link to Ken Arneson’s great piece from 2007 on Zito’s approach.  Davis pops out and Jason Bay lines out, ending the inning, but not before Darling points out something else about Zito—his arm wrap:

 

***

I flip back to Kuiper and Krukow as the camera zooms in on the Mets’ outfield tribute to Gary Carter. It is fitting that they eventually pan to Niese, though neither seems to know about Carter’s impact on Niese’s career. The story goes like this: Carter saw footage of Niese during the latter’s high school days. At the time, Carter was managing in the Mets system, so when New York popped Niese, Carter called the lefty and implored him to sign. Sure enough, Niese shunned the University of Cincinnati for the Mets.

Nice story aside, Niese runs into trouble almost immediately. Buster Posey lines the second pitch he sees through the infield for a hit. Brett Pill takes the fourth pitch of his at-bat and cranks it into deep left-center field for a flyout. Hector Sanchez singles on Niese’s third offering to him, and now there are two on with only one out. The good news for Niese is that the bottom of the order is due up. The bad news is that he not only falls behind Emmanuel Burriss, but he walks him on back-to-back questionable calls. You would be right to assume that Danley’s tight zone may have contributed, but you’d be even more correct in fingering Niese and Nickeas as the culprits:

 

Mike Fast would be spinning yarn in his Houston office if he saw this. Krukow is taking up the mantle for Fast as he points out that Nickeas just cost his pitcher a call. Sure enough, it looks that way. Nickeas’ glove has to move almost the entire width of the plate to catch the ball, which is more on Niese than the backstop, but Nickeas does himself little favor by shifting his weight, dropping his head, and receiving the ball awkwardly in the glove. Krukow points out that Nickeas’ glove webbing needs to be pointing the other way on the pitch, and it sounds a bit like what Tom House wrote in The Diamond Appraised: “Catch the low strike with the glove up, and you'll probably get the call; roll the glove over, and you'll lose it.” Nickeas lost it:

Krukow continues to prove his worth as an observant onlooker by pointing out Niese’s body language. David Wright must’ve noticed Niese shaking his head, too, because he trots to the mound to give his pitcher a breather. Wright’s efforts don’t help much, as Brandon Crawford strikes a pitch about as well as he can, but Kirk Nieuwenhuis makes the catch and prevents Posey from scoring. Zito is up and goes down quickly on strikes and Niese avoids damage.

Alas, Niese cannot run from trouble all day. Pagan is due back up and Niese misses with a first-pitch curveball. Without context, it would seem that Niese rode his fastball and sinker the first time through the order, then began pitching backward the second time through. That isn’t the case, however, as Niese threw two first-pitch curves in the previous inning. His next pitch to Pagan is a fastball middle-in and the former Met takes advantage of the new, shallower fences for his first home run of the season.

Cabrera follows up Pagan’s homer with a line-drive hit of his own and suddenly Niese is on the rocks. Kuiper calls Pablo Sandoval “Pandoval” moments before Sandoval hits a liner past the shortstop. Then Posey doubles into right-center, plating Cabrera and sending Sandoval to third. Sandoval promptly scores on a wild pitch. Just like that, it’s 3-0 Giants.

**

Zito seems to be rolling now. He has thrown 28 pitches over the past two innings after tossing 29 in the first inning alone. Wright and Davis are retired, but Bay works his way into a 3-1 count. From there, Zito leaves a changeup in a spot where Bay can look like his old self and crushes it into the seats for a home run.

An inning later, Kirk Nieuwenhuis takes a 1-0 offering to left-center, and suddenly it’s a one-run game. Nieuwenhuis is becoming a cult figure for the Mets fan base, as he continues to take advantage of his shot in the majors. For those who don’t follow the Mets religiously but want to get in on the fun, here is what Kevin Goldstein wrote about Nieuwenhuis when ranking him as the 11th-best prospect in the system:

The Good: Nieuwenhuis can beat teams in a variety of ways. He showed much-improved plate discipline in 2011 to go with average hitting and power skills. He plays the game hard and has good instincts on the base paths and in the field to go with an average arm.
The Bad: Nieuwenhuis is seen by many as stuck between positions. He doesn't have the speed to play centerfield every day, and his power is in the 15-18 homer per year range, so he doesn't profile well for a corner. Strikeouts have always been a big part of his game.

Nieuwenhuis damage aside, Zito escapes a bases-loaded threat without yielding another run.  Zito’s day still ends as Matt Cain pinch-hits for him in the top of the sixth, meaning that his line is finished at five innings, four hits, two runs, three walks, two strikeouts, and two home runs allowed on 100 pitches.

***

Meanwhile, Niese is done after six innings as well: six innings, seven hits, three runs, two walks, five strikeouts, and a homer on 109 pitches.

***

Guillermo Mota enters for the Giants. The Mets broadcast welcomes him with this exchange:

Hernandez: “Didn’t Mike Piazza chase [Mota] into the outfield one time?”

Cohen: “Twice.”

***

The absence of Brian Wilson means Bruce Bochy has to get creative with his bullpen management. Entering the bottom of the ninth inning, Bochy inserts Santiago Casilla. Casilla’s job is to retire the right-handed batters due up in Bay and Hairston. From there, the warming Javier Lopez should close the door on lefties Nieuwenhuis and Josh Thole. The best-laid plans can fall apart, and Casilla gives up a single to Bay on the second pitch of the at-bat. With Lucas Duda, a lefty, announced as the hitter, Bochy bounces out of the dugout and brings in Lopez.

Lopez coaxes a flyout from Duda for the first out of the inning. He then walks Nieuwenhuis, but not before uncorking a wild pitch that allows Bay to advance to second base. Thole is up and battles Lopez to a full count. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Thole hits a ball towards Burriss, who dives, but comes up just short. Tied game, and out comes Bochy to replace Lopez with Sergio Romo. It’s safe to say that Romo replaces Wilson in at least one regard—beard-making—and Romo does his best Wilson impersonation on the mound by working out of a first-and-third jam thanks to a fielder’s choice (Nieuwenhuis was thrown out at the plate) and a timely strikeout.

***

You always know that the Giants catcher is a threat to put his team ahead, and sure enough, Hector Sanchez comes through in extra innings with a single that plates the go-ahead run. The Mets rally in the bottom half of the inning, putting the tying and winning runs into scoring position against Romo. But Clay Hensley enters and put an end to any comeback hopes, retiring Bay and Duda and settling both teams’ records at 7-6, with three games to go in the series.

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

Related Content:  Barry Zito,  Jonathon Niese

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