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April 25, 2013

What You Need to Know

Red-Hot Potential

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Three things used to be certain about April: showers, Tax Day, and Mat Latos slipping into an early rut. The first has washed away a plethora of games in the early going. The second came and went, as usual, on April 15. The third? After the right-hander blanked the Cubs for seven innings in a 1-0 Reds win, that might not be so certain any more.

Year

April ERA

Rest of Season ERA

2010

6.20

2.52

2011

4.98

3.28

2012

5.97

3.09

2013

2.16

???

In each of his first three full major-league seasons, Latos needed a month to find his footing before morphing into one of the most effective starters in the senior circuit. The trend followed the 25-year-old from pitcher-friendly San Diego to hitter-friendly Cincinnati—after the Padres shipped him to the Reds for a monster package that included Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal—but he now appears determined to buck it. And PECOTA, which projected Latos to take a step forward this season, to 4.1 WARP from 2.6 last year and a career high of 3.2 set in 2010, is now looking rather shrewd.

Wednesday’s tidy effort against the Cubs, in which Latos scattered four hits and a walk while striking out four, brought his K:BB for the season to 33-to-5, a considerable improvement from his 185-to-64 finish in 2012. Through five starts, Latos has hiked his strikeout rate to 25.4 percent from 21.6 percent and halved his walk rate, to 3.8 percent from 7.6 percent, with the former being supported by a one-percentage-point increase (to 11 percent) in swinging strikes.

Latos has now permitted one walk or fewer in 10 consecutive starts (including two post-season starts) dating back to last September 22, the longest active streak in the majors after Cliff Lee’s 20-gamer ended on April 15. It’s unlikely that Latos has suddenly become a right-handed Lee, who was the only qualifying starter to sustain a base-on-balls percentage below 3.8 last year. But even a modest improvement in his walk rate coupled with a corresponding uptick in strikeouts should enable Latos to realize his four-win projection. And if both trends persist through the end of the season, he’ll have a strong bid to become the first Cy Young Award winner in Reds franchise history.

Matchup of the Day
The Yankees haven’t had much success against left-handed pitchers this year, combining for a .199/.263/.295 triple-slash line, in part because of the absence of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Five days ago, Joe Girardi’s offense managed to plate only two earned runs in seven innings versus Mark Buehrle, before securing a 5-3 victory in extra innings, due largely to a meltdown by lefty reliever Aaron Loup.

Tonight, the Yankees will get another shot at Buehrle, who has seemingly righted his ship after two rough outings at the outset of his Blue Jays career. Vernon Wells, who went 3-for-5 with a home run in that contest and is off to a surprising, .296/.367/.563 start, could prove pivotal to their success.

Wells’ ownage of Buehrle dates back to his own days in Toronto, when the veteran left-hander was a member of the White Sox. No active player with at least 50 career plate appearances against Buehrle can boast an OPS better than Wells’ 1.264; in fact, the next-best mark belongs to David Ortiz, and he is way down the chain at 1.022. Wells carries a 23-for-47 line with four doubles, a triple, two home runs, four walks, and only three strikeouts into tonight’s showdown, in which he will do his best to support Hiroki Kuroda.

The aforementioned home run, which came in the second inning of the game on April 20, was the result of a thigh-high sinker that stayed near the heart of the zone, one of the few hotspots remaining in Wells’ swing. The 34-year-old Wells, who appears to have been resurrected by the move to Yankee Stadium after two miserable seasons in Anaheim, has had far more trouble handling Buehrle’s cutter and changeup. But even backdoor offerings like this one, which ended up a triple on April 17, 2011, haven’t been immune to Wells’ bat, sending the 35-year-old back to the drawing board time after time.

Wells went 7-for-15 with two big flies during the three-game set at the Rogers Centre. After whiffing in four of his eight at-bats at Tropicana Field, he couldn’t ask for a better matchup to help him get back on track in game one of four in the Bronx (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Keep an eye on the radar gun when Justin Verlander takes the mound for the Tigers this evening in game two of their set with the Royals. The right-hander has averaged just 92.54 mph on his four-seam fastball in the early going, according to Brooks Baseball data, and though his results—a 2.13 ERA, 29-to-8 K:BB, and only one home run allowed in 25 1/3 innings—haven’t suffered, it’s a significant drop from his 95.07 mph average last year. Verlander fanned 12 Mariners in his most recent outing, and he’ll lock horns with James Shields tonight (1:08 p.m. ET).
  • Clay Buchholz has carried his outstanding spring training into the regular season, permitting no more than two runs in each of his first four starts, en route to a 0.90 ERA. The right-hander has allowed only 19 hits while fanning 29 batters in 30 innings, and he has an excellent opportunity to pad those numbers in tonight’s date with the Astros at Fenway Park. Carlos Pena, the only member of Bo Porter’s starting lineup that has significant experience against Buchholz, is just 6-for-33 with eight strikeouts in their past encounters (6:35 p.m. ET)
  • Trevor Cahill may be winless to date, but the Diamondbacks righty has shown signs of continued improvement in the early going, which, if maintained, should yield improved results down the road.

Year

K%

BB%

2010

15.1

8.1

2011

16.3

9.1

2012

18.6

8.8

2013

20.0

7.6

The 25-year-old is striking out more batters and walking fewer of them than he ever has in his major-league career, and much of the uptick can be attributed to his sinker (7.87 percent swinging-strike rate, 5.41 percent last year) and changeup (20.00 percent, 17.79 percent). He’ll try to sustain those trends in the series opener against the Rockies, who will send Jorge De La Rosa to the mound in game one of four at Chase Field (9:40 p.m. ET).

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

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