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May 30, 2013

What You Need to Know

Triple Threat

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Until yesterday, only two players had smacked three home runs in a game this year. Will Middlebrooks accomplished the feat for the Red Sox on April 7, and Miguel Cabrera did it for the Tigers on May 19. On Wednesday, two more players, each with three homers to his name this year, broke into the club. They were the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and a veteran backup catcher who entered the afternoon with 44 homers in his big-league career.

The list of hitters who have pulled off the trifecta is long, but the most recent names to appear on it are generally those you’d expect. From Cabrera to Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder to Josh Hamilton, Evan Longoria to Edwin Encarnacion, there aren’t many surprises to be found. That changed on Wednesday, though, when Dioner Navarro lit up Wrigley Field and etched his name alongside the most unlikely trifecta producers in recent memory.

Making his 13th start of the season in place of first-string backstop Welington Castillo, the switch-hitting Navarro dug in from the right side against left-hander John Danks. In his first at-bat, which came with the bases empty and one away in the bottom of the second, he fought off a pair of 0-2 pitches before unloading on an elevated changeup. Two innings later, with a runner aboard and one out, Danks left another off-speed offering up, and Navarro yanked it over the wall in the left-field corner.

Disaster nearly struck during Navarro’s sixth-inning plate appearance, when he flailed at a pitch, let go of his bat, and watched it soar into the stands behind the Cubs dugout. Under normal circumstances, the fan who caught it might have earned a souvenir, but Navarro—who eventually worked a walk in his third trip to the plate—wanted it back for another crack at the home-run hat trick.

He got both—the bat, and the third home run of his afternoon, which came on a grooved, 2-0 fastball from Brian Omogrosso that found Navarro’s wheelhouse and landed well beyond the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. With Omogrosso throwing right-handed, Navarro capped off the trifecta from the left side. He became the first Cubs catcher to go yard thrice in a game since George Mitterwald in 1974, and the third catcher ever to go 3-for-3 with three home runs and six RBI. That cherry-picked list is now comprised of the motley crew of Roy Campanella, Benito Santiago, and, yes, Dioner Navarro.

For fans of rebuilding teams like the Cubs, whose 9-3 victory on Wednesday improved their overall record to 21-30, exciting prospects and out-of-nowhere epic feats help to pass the time until the window of competition reopens. Navarro’s effort on Wednesday certainly fits the latter category, and in addition to sending the 31,279 fans in attendance home happy, it gave the catcher (according to Navarro himself) his first multi-homer game since Little League, a memory that the journeyman won’t ever forget.

Matchup of the Day
As far as ERA-FIP discrepancies go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a larger one than that currently being enjoyed by Jeremy Guthrie. The 34-year-old has amassed an uninspiring 34-to-21 K:BB over 66 2/3 innings, and he has coughed up 15 home runs over that same span, a combination that adds up to a 6.14 FIP. Guthrie’s ERA, though, is a much more reasonable 3.91. And while the Royals have lost in each of his last three assignments, they are 6-4 in games started by the righty this year.

Guthrie’s secret? A .249 BABIP helps, and an 85.5 percent strand rate helps even more. But neither of those clips is likely to prove sustainable, which means that unless Guthrie finds a way to improve his peripheral performance, his baseline numbers will continue to trend in the wrong direction.

One area in which Guthrie could improve is his performance against opposite-handed batters. Over the course of his career, Guthrie has adequately contained enemy lefties, holding them to a .282 TAv, compared to a .263 effort by righties. This year, right-handed hitters have managed only a collective .208/.276/.377 triple-slash showing against Guthrie, but lefties have smacked him around to the tune of a .325/.382/.617 line, which includes 16 extra-base hits in 133 plate appearances.

The good news for Guthrie is that the majority of the Cardinals’ most potent threats bat righty. Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina all bat from that side of the plate. But in addition to them, Guthrie will have to fend off the lefty-swinging Jon Jay and the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran, who homered during St. Louis’ game-winning, four-run rally in the eighth inning on Wednesday. 

There isn’t much history to speak of between Guthrie and those two batters. Jay, whose matchup page is linked above, has walked, been hit by a pitch, and drilled an atom ball that resulted in a line-drive out. Beltran, who has a slightly longer résumé, is 0-for-6, with three fly outs and three ground balls, one of which was booted. Instead of dwelling on those minuscule samples, let’s instead look at the underlying numbers driving Guthrie’s struggles against lefties.

A glance at the data on the Stanford product’s Brooks Baseball card reveals that his pitch mix versus opposite-handed batters this year has been roughly the same as the one he employed in 2011, when lefties (767 OPS) and righties (773 OPS) performed almost equally against him. Guthrie’s fastball/sinker velocity, which sits in the 92-93 mph range, is essentially the same as it was two years ago, and the only discernible change in his pitch selection is a slight uptick in sliders that corresponds almost perfectly with a modest decrease in sinker usage.

The outcomes, though, paint a very different picture.

Guthrie is throwing more of his fastballs and sinkers outside of the zone, and those that are finding the zone aren’t often being missed. Meanwhile, his changeup whiff rate has declined by 3.5 percentage points and his slider swing-and-miss clip is down about 2.7. The slider is also being squared up far more easily than it was in 2011—almost twice as many of those that have been put into play have resulted in line drives.

For one possible explanation, here are two graphics from Guthrie’s pitcher profile:

Many of Guthrie’s slider whiffs in 2011 came on back-foot offerings, a pitch that he turned to often and executed well. This year, however, instead of intentionally missing low and inside, Guthrie has found the low-and-inside portion of the strike zone, an area in which hitters have made contact on each of their 11 swings. Throw in a handful of middle-middle mistakes, and the differences in both whiffs and line drives aren’t surprising.

If Guthrie is to keep Jay off the basepaths ahead of the right-handed big bats, he’ll need to show better command of the slider or lean exclusively on his other offerings instead. The 28-year-old center fielder finds himself in a bit of a lull after a red-hot start to the month of May, but he has, over his two-plus years in the majors, proven adept at punishing slider mistakes

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Perhaps R.A. Dickey, who sports a 4.85 ERA through his first 11 starts as a member of the Blue Jays, simply misses the National League. In his lone outing against a senior-circuit foe, the Giants on May 14, Dickey logged a six-inning, two-run, 10-strikeout line reminiscent of his dominant efforts with the Mets last summer. Tonight, the 38-year-old Dickey will take on a DH-less lineup for the first time this season, as the Jays finish off a two-game swing to Atlanta. He’ll need to exercise caution when Freddie Freeman is at the plate, because the first baseman is 9-for-18 with four doubles and a homer in their past encounters. The home team is set to counter with Mike Minor, who has permitted two or fewer runs in each of his last four trips to the mound (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • One start after attaining the Ruth-ian feat of winning his first eight decisions at the tender age of 22, Matt Moore held the Yankees to one run over six innings, but was left with his second no-decision of the year. The Rays’ defeat in that game marked their first behind Moore this season, and the Fort Walton Beach, Florida, native will make his second bid to improve to 9-0 tonight. To do it, Moore will need to outshine Ricky Nolasco, who allowed only one run each to the Diamondbacks and White Sox in his past two starts (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Cardinals have twice dipped into their farm system for a starting pitcher this season, and the two call-ups produced a pair of victories apiece in their first two starts. Now, right-hander Michael Wacha, a much more highly regarded prospect than lefties John Gast and Tyler Lyons, is set to garner his first big-league opportunity. Placed fifth on the totem pole and billed as a future number-three starter by Jason Parks, Wacha owns a 74-to-19 K:BB over 20 minor-league outings since his selection as the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Texas A&M product will try to bring that success with him from Memphis to St. Louis, where he’ll lock horns with Jeremy Guthrie in the home-and-home finale at Busch Stadium (8:15 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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