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May 6, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Hot Starters

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
Last Thursday, the Red Sox became the first major-league team to notch 20 wins, and over the weekend, the Cardinals and Rangers joined them by sweeping the Brewers and the aforementioned Sox, respectively. Each of those squads has taken a different path to the league’s top win total through 31 games—the Tigers and Royals, who are both riding four-game surges, still could win their 20th before losing their 12th, because of rainouts and off days earlier in the year—and today’s Takeaway is a quick look back at their ascents to first place.

The Cardinals: Road Warriors
Faced with 19 away games in their first batch of 31, the Cardinals haven’t been daunted by the task of racking up victories in front of hostile crowds. Since a season-opening series loss at Chase Field, Matheny’s team has won or split each of the road sets that it has completed, including sweeps at Nationals Park on April 22-24 and at Miller Park this past weekend. Perhaps as compensation for their early travel schedule, the Cardinals were fortunate to play their first six games against the Reds at Busch Stadium, and they won four of them, accounting for much of the 2 ½-game gap that currently separates the National League Central’s top two teams.

While the early frequent-flyer-mile load means a whole lot of home dates to come, the Cardinals will play 10 of their remaining 13 games versus the Reds at Great American Ball Park, where Dusty Baker’s team is 12-4. And the Redbirds aren’t done traveling yet; they’re making a two-game jaunt up to Wrigley Field, sandwiched between off days today and on Thursday, before returning to St. Louis for a 10-game homestand. The key to their early success: A league-best 2.21 rotation ERA, which Jaime Garcia fortified with eight innings of one-run ball on Sunday afternoon.

The Rangers: Rotation Question Marks? What Rotation Question Marks?
The Tigers may have the junior circuit’s best starting pitching ERA (3.04), but the Rangers (3.15)—who play in a ballpark far less friendly to arms than bats—actually ranked ahead of the 2012 pennant winners heading into Sunday’s games, when Justin Verlander fired seven shutout frames versus the Astros and Yu Darvish allowed three runs to the Red Sox. And while Jim Leyland’s team, with a stable of established right-handers in Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister, were expected to field one of the league’s best starting fives, Ron Washington’s squad most certainly was not.

In fact, as recently as April 19, Dallas Morning News beat writer Evan Grant pointed to “a real crisis” in the rotation, spurred by a spate of injuries and general manager Jon Daniels’ unwillingness to splurge in free agency over the winter. Since that radio interview, the Rangers are 10-5, and they have limited opponents to three or fewer runs in 10 of those 15 contests.

A relatively soft schedule, which featured three games against the Astros, three more against the Twins, and seven against the Mariners, has helped the patchwork rotation to hold down the fort in place of the injured Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, and Martin Perez, but the pitchers themselves deserve ample credit. Rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have fared well, Alexi Ogando has made a fairly smooth transition back from the bullpen, and Derek Holland is cruising to the tune of a 2.58 FIP. And that doesn’t even include Yu Darvish, who fanned 14 Red Sox on Sunday to notch his fourth double-digit-punchout effort of the young season, and has the 300 mark, untouched since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling stormed past it in 2002, well within his grasp.

The Red Sox: American League East Favorites?
After an offseason retooling process led by general manager Ben Cherington, the new-look Red Sox were projected to be on the periphery of the post-season race, with a chance to sneak in if the division or wild-card landscape proved less formidable than expected. But a month into the season, they have already surged to the forefront, and, in PECOTA’s eyes, they might be good enough to stay there.

As Doug Thorburn wrote last week, first-year manager John Farrell may deserve a significant share of the credit for Boston’s rapid turnaround, in which Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have played a pivotal role. But surprising contributions from players like Daniel Nava, who worked his way into significant time when Jackie Bradley fell into a 3-for-31 rut to begin his big-league career, have also been critical. Nava, who previously derived much of his value from plate discipline, is off to a .286/.385/.505 start, and that coupled with David Ortiz’s (.440/.473/.840) torrid return from the disabled list two weeks ago has compensated for the nondescript starts of Jacoby Ellsbury (.279/.329/.390), Dustin Pedroia (.294/.396/.345), and free-agent additions Shane Victorino (.278/.348/.304) and Stephen Drew (.182/.286/.303).

With the Blue Jays foundering, the Rays underperforming expectations, and the Yankees still waiting for their disabled list to thin, the Red Sox were handed a golden opportunity to sprint to a hot start and hope that it proves sustainable when the going gets tougher. This past weekend’s sweep notwithstanding, it’s fair to consider part one of that mission accomplished.

Matchup of the Day
Joey Votto has been an equal-opportunity monster during the first five-plus years of his big-league career, doing damage against virtually every pitcher who dared to challenge him. Of the 32 pitchers that have faced Votto at least 20 times, only seven have managed to hold him to an OPS below 600, an oddball club that includes Tom Gorzelanny, Cole Hamels, Charlie Morton, Jeff Samardzija, Adam Wainwright, Barry Zito, and his opposite number in today’s matchup, Paul Maholm.

Votto, who locked horns often with Maholm during the latter’s National League Central days with the Pirates, can claim only three hits in 22 at-bats off of the lefty, and only one of them (a double) went for extra bases. Maholm has issued three bases on balls to Votto, but he has also struck him out six times, and the 2010 National League MVP is hitless in their last seven head-to-head encounters, dating back to May 25, 2010.

The 30-year-old Maholm has been dealt a loss in each of his last three outings, but on the whole, he is off to a fine start in his first full year in Atlanta, sporting a 3.08 ERA and a 32-to-13 K:BB through 38 innings. Maholm employs a deep arsenal, often using as many as six pitches, and he typically shows four of them to opposing lefties: a fastball, a sinker, a slider, and a curveball, according to his Brooks Baseball card. As you can see on the afore-linked matchup page, all three of Votto’s hits against Maholm have come on the hard stuff, twice on the first pitch and once on the third. And that data may be at the core of a recent change in Maholm’s approach.

In addition to holding Votto hitless the last seven times he has faced him, Maholm has collected four of his strikeouts in their six most recent meetings, with an April 21, 2012 walk representing the only blemish on the record. Maholm has started five of those seven showdowns, including each of the last four, with a breaking ball, and he has also introduced a cutter into the equation, throwing two of the three that Votto has seen to earn this strikeout later in that April 21, 2012 contest.

Apart from Votto’s few successes, the motivation behind Maholm’s pitch selection lies in the chart below, from Votto’s hitter profile:

If there’s a weakness in Votto’s offensive game, it’s spinning offerings that break low and away, both in the zone and beyond its boundaries. Unfortunately for Votto, those also happen to be locations that Maholm loves to target with his curve and slider against like-handed batters.

If Maholm struggles to find the zone and Votto is able to keep the bat on his shoulder in early counts, the first baseman could work his way into hitter-friendly situations. That would force Maholm to challenge Votto’s strength by turning to the fastball or sinker, which the lefty has done on 71 percent of the occasions when left-handed hitters have jumped ahead in the count this year. Otherwise, it’s Votto who will need to make the adjustment to take Maholm out of the exclusive septet of pitchers that have so far dodged his wrath.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Amid a spitballing controversy stirred by Blue Jays analyst Dirk Hayhurst and echoed by Jack Morris, Clay Buchholz won for the sixth time in as many starts last week, lowering his ERA to 1.01 with seven shutout innings at the Rogers Centre. The league has given no indication that it plans to rain on his parade, and tonight, Buchholz will try to become only the sixth Red Sox pitcher ever to win his first seven starts in a season and the first since Josh Beckett did it in 2007. John Farrell’s squad welcomes Ron Gardenhire’s Twins to Fenway Park for a four-game series, in which Vance Worley is scheduled to get the game-one call for the visitors. While Buchholz has been nearly flawless, Worley, who came over in the Ben Revere trade with the Phillies, is still winless, and he will set out this evening to begin paring down a bloated 7.22 ERA (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • A 30th-round pick in the 2003 draft, Scott Feldman spent almost a decade in the Rangers organization before testing the free-agent waters this past offseason and securing a one-year, $6 million hitch from the Cubs. Although the 30-year-old endured a rough start to his career in Chicago, he has since settled down, permitting no more than two earned runs in each of his last five trips to the mound. Feldman’s most recent outing, in which he earned a complete-game victory over the Padres with nine innings of two-run, 12-strikeout ball, put him in elite company: Since 2006, the only other pitchers that managed to finish a contest in which they were charged with at least two runs and notched at least a dozen punchouts are David Price, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay (twice), and Zack Greinke. Feldman will try to carry the momentum from that victory into tonight’s date with his former employer, and he’ll take on rookie Nick Tepesch in the opener (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Pitching fans may want to stay up late this evening to catch Monday’s best on-paper duel, which is on the docket in game one of three between the Phillies and Giants at AT&T Park. Cliff Lee and Madison Bumgarner are two of the four qualifying southpaw starters that have compiled a strikeout rate better than 22 percent while walking less than six percent of the batters that they have faced since the beginning of the 2011 season (Cole Hamels and CC Sabathia are the others). Lee has uncharacteristically allowed 19 hits over 13 innings in his last two assignments, and the Phillies are 0-4 in the last four games he has started, during which the 34-year-old’s ERA has risen from 1.52 to 3.46. Bumgarner, who owns a 1.55 ERA and behind whom the Giants are 5-1, has been the anchor of a rotation that, coming into Sunday night’s tilt with the Dodgers, ranked 21st in the majors with a 4.47 ERA (10:15 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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