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May 2, 2013

What You Need to Know

Rocking Their Sox Off

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Earlier this week, mechanics guru Doug Thorburn praised the positive impact that first-year manager John Farrell has had on the Red Sox’ pitching staff, which set a franchise record and led the majors with 255 strikeouts during the month of April. Last night, in a 10-1 victory over the Blue Jays, Clay Buchholz ensured that the group’s resurgence would carry over into May.

Buchholz, who worked at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in each of his five April outings, tacked a sixth quality effort onto that total with seven shutout frames at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays managed only three hits, all singles, and two walks off of the 28-year-old right-hander, who improved to 6-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.01. Buchholz’s 47 strikeouts through 44 innings rank fourth in the majors, trailing only Yu Darvish, Anibal Sanchez, and A.J. Burnett.

The changeup had been Buchholz’s most fearsome weapon in April, inducing whiffs on 27.03 percent of its uses and a remarkable 55.56 percent of the swings taken against it, according to his Brooks Baseball card, but on Wednesday in Toronto, Buchholz enjoyed most of his success with the hard stuff. He needed 101 pitches to record 21 outs, and 69 of them were four- or two-seam fastballs or cutters, including 48 of his 66 strikes. Buchholz did induce four swings and misses on just 13 changeups, a 30.8 percent clip that actually increased his already-impressive rate, but he used his off-speed arsenal sparingly, and still, the Blue Jays did not advance a runner into scoring position until 20 outs were in the books.

The Buchholz on display now is much reminiscent the pitcher that Kevin Goldstein and other prospect evaluators praised half a decade ago, when he was carving up batters in the upper minors and went on to throw a no-hitter in his second big-league start, than the one that struggled with both control issues and the long ball in his subsequent campaigns. In 2008, KG’s most notable critique was that Buchholz “becomes a bit too enamored with his secondary stuff,” and if that quibble was all that stood between the righty and stardom, then he addressed it last night. After an injury-marred 2011 and a sub-replacement-level (-0.1 WARP) 2012, the mechanical improvements that Thorburn described, coupled with a better understanding of his arsenal, appear to have positioned Buchholz to become this year’s breakout darling.

Although Buchholz’s 1.01 ERA certainly is not sustainable, his peripherals suggest that the six-start surge is no fluke. And if it persists through September, then the re-tooled Red Sox, whose playoff odds are now better than two-in-three, might return to serious contention much sooner than expected.

Assuming the Red Sox’ pitching schedule remains unchanged, Buchholz’s next assignment will come in the series opener against the Twins on Monday at Fenway Park. In it, he’ll bid to join Josh Beckett (2007) as the only Red Sox starters to win their first seven games since Roger Moret did it in 1973. 

Matchup of the Day
Jake Peavy and Adrian Beltre have a longstanding rivalry, which dates back to their days in the National League West, when the former was growing into his role as the Padres’ ace and the latter manned the hot corner for the Dodgers. The White Sox’ northpaw has gotten the better of the Rangers’ third baseman in most of their encounters, both back then and more recently in the junior circuit, but there is still plenty of time for Beltre to improve his line.

Through 40 head-to-head plate appearances, Beltre is 8-for-36 with two doubles, two homers, two walks, and nine strikeouts against Peavy, who has racked up the punchouts in the early going this year, notching 39 of them in 32 innings. Most of those showdowns predated the matchup data available on the afore-linked page, but we do have eight from which to discern the northpaw’s approach, including three from last year.

The Peavy that Beltre has seen during the past two years is not the one he faced years ago, as the right-hander’s velocity has dipped with age and after shoulder surgery in July 2010. Peavy averaged over 95 mph with his fastball as recently as 2007, but he now sits in the 91-mph range and relies increasingly on movement, an adjustment manifested primarily in his 22 percent cutter usage rate. He did not throw Beltre a cutter until last year—presumably going back to the early 2000s, not just 2008, since the pitch is a relatively new addition to Peavy’s arsenal—and then threw four of them in two plate appearances on April 7, 2012, after leaning heavily on his slider in their previous meetings.

The impetus behind throwing Beltre offerings that move away from a right-handed hitter lies in his tendency to chase and struggle with pitches just off the outer edge. Beltre’s whiff rate on breaking pitches low and away is over 40 percent, and Peavy exposed that weakness on May 24, 2011, when he earned a strikeout on four consecutive sliders. Of course, Beltre is also a deadly mistake hitter—as Peavy discovered the hard way three years earlier—and any sliders that get hung will very likely get stung.

Expect Peavy, who has employed the hard stuff on the first pitch to 96 percent of the like-handed batters that he has faced the year, to feed Beltre more outer-third cutters in early counts, before turning to the slider to put him away. Since Peavy has maintained his success against Beltre through his evolution from a flame-thrower into a craftier pitcher, the onus is on Beltre to turn the tide (8:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Royals general manager Dayton Moore’s investment in Ervin Santana looked awfully shrewd during the first month of the regular season, as the former Angel compiled a 2.00 ERA and racked four consecutive victories. The 30-year-old righty did not issue a walk or allow a home run in either of his last two starts, which came against the Red Sox and Indians, and he has served up only one gopher ball since his 2013 debut, when the White Sox torched him thrice. Santana will now try to finish off a sweep of the Rays. Joe Maddon will counter with Roberto Hernandez, who has fanned nearly a batter per inning this year but is currently saddled with a 5.28 ERA, the result of five big flies and a bloated .344 BABIP (2:10 p.m. ET).
  • Is vintage Dan Haren finally back? Haren’s most recent outing, in which the right-hander held the Reds to a run on six hits and no walks over six innings, suggested that he is close to rediscovering his old form, but after four consecutive clunkers, he’ll need to deliver an encore to prove it. The 32-year-old, who netted only a one-year deal this past offseason after battling back trouble last year, gets the ball in the series finale at Turner Field, where he’s set to lock horns with Kris Medlen (7:10 p.m. ET).
     
  • The Angels must be thrilled to be back home after a rough divisional road trip on which they lost three of four—including two one-run games—to the Mariners and two of three—including a 19-inning contest—to the Athletics. Mike Scioscia’s team avoided a sweep with a 5-4 victory yesterday afternoon, but his pitchers must now prepare for 20-year-old buzzsaw Manny Machado, who has emerged as one of the hottest hitters in the league. Since an inauspicious start to the year, which saw him carry a .239/.282/.343 triple-slash line into the Orioles’ second game on April 20, Machado has raised his OPS by 228 points, to 853, by collecting at least one extra-base hit in seven of his last nine games. He smacked a double and a homer in yesterday’s loss to the Mariners, his 12th and third of the year, respectively. Joe Blanton, who has allowed 18 extra-base hits through five starts, draws the unenviable task of slowing Machado down (10:05 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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