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June 19, 2013

What You Need to Know

Wheeling and Dealing

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
With two of the league’s most talented young starters toeing the slab for their team, Mets fans got a glimpse into their future during Tuesday’s doubleheader. And if the twinbill sweep, on the backs of second-year ace Matt Harvey and rookie flamethrower Zack Wheeler, is any harbinger of what is to come, that future could be awfully bright.

Harvey went first, and he cared little about giving Wheeler a tough act to follow. Seven scoreless innings, the first six of them hitless, will do that. Thirteen strikeouts will do that, too. And though Harvey was ultimately charged with three runs—after allowing the first three Braves batters to reach base in the bottom of the eighth and watching LaTroy Hawkins and Scott Rice permit all of them to score—he paved the way to the Mets’ 4-3 win.

Armed with some of the nastiest stuff he has possessed in a sophomore campaign during which nastiness has been the name of his game, Harvey touched triple digits with his fastball and as high as 93 mph with his outstanding slider. The Braves are wont to whiff against virtually any hurler, but at times on Tuesday afternoon, the University of North Carolina product left them helpless.

All together, Harvey induced 23 swings and misses and 28 foul balls, which accounted for 51 of the 74 strikes he notched in the 116 total pitches that he threw. Eight of the whiffs came on his heater, another 10 came on the slider, and though his curveball was a relative slouch, eliciting just four in 15 tries, only once did Harvey throw the hook for a ball.

Bobby Parnell nailed down the door, fanning Chris Johnson with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position in the eighth and working around an infield single in the ninth, and in doing so, he picked up his first multi-inning save of the season. ESPN New York beat writer Adam Rubin pointed out that although Parnell had previously earned a save that required more than three outs, that one came on a rules technicality in a 9-0 blowout on August 5, 2009. This save was Parnell’s 10th of the season, and it was on to game two at Turner Field.

The Mets picked up a leadoff hit, but were retired quickly by Paul Maholm with the help of a double play in the top of the first, and the Zack Wheeler show began ominously, with a walk to Andrelton Simmons.

Wheeler stranded Simmons and Freddie Freeman, who also worked a free pass in the frame, but by the second inning, the jitters he brought to the mound began to subside. He coughed up a double to Dan Uggla, but sandwiched it within strikeouts of Brian McCann and Johnson, before fanning Maholm for his fourth punchout of the game.

The 23-year-old Wheeler didn’t throw quite as hard as Harvey did. He didn’t miss quite as many bats. He didn’t exhibit the same dominant command of his breaking stuff. And he walked Simmons and Freeman again in the third inning, before wriggling away unscathed again. But six scoreless innings against a power-packed lineup, one full of hitters capable of turning a single mistake into a crooked number, is an impressive debut, no matter how many nits you pick.

Wheeler scattered four hits and five walks, but he collected seven strikeouts. He threw first-pitch strikes to only 10 of the 26 batters he faced, but he compensated with the electric stuff necessary to escape jams. And after nearly squandering Harvey’s masterpiece in the matinee, the Mets tagged Braves reliever Anthony Varvaro with four eighth-inning runs to put Atlanta away, 6-1—thus ensuring that Wheeler would walk away with a win in his first big-league start.

Count manager Terry Collins among those impressed by the stuff on display throughout the 13-plus innings that Harvey and Wheeler logged:

“I saw some things obviously out of those two guys, and I just hope, not only you guys that were here to see it, but people saw it. They’re going to enjoy watching these two young guys for a long time. They’re going to be around, and they’re going to be in the same rotation. You got two guys that can win some baseball games for you."

They won two on Wednesday, the 26th and 27th victories of the Mets’ latest rebuilding season. In the midst of a radio tirade last August, WFAN host Mike Francesa slammed the Mets for “trying to make it seem that Seaver and Koosman are around the corner.”

“You know what? They’re not!” Francesa shouted back then. But after watching Harvey and Wheeler on Tuesday, you could forgive any Mets fan for thinking that, this time, they just might be.

Matchup of the Day
Chris Sale has had little difficulty this season living up to the expectations that he set with a 3.8 WARP campaign in 2012. The 24-year-old lefty has already contributed 1.7 WARP to the White Sox’ cause, and if anything, his 2.43 ERA and 2.92 FIP suggest that he’s only getting better. Sale struck out 14 Astros batters in his most recent outing, but two unearned runs and an impotent Chicago lineup saddled him with a third straight loss. Those two factors also conspired to make Sale the second pitcher since 1916 to suffer a defeat while fanning 14 and not permitting an earned run.

Josh Willingham would love to have Sale’s problems instead of his own. The left fielder, who nursed an inflamed left knee for a couple of days before returning to the lineup on Tuesday night, has scuffled over the first two-fifths of the season, batting just .211 with a 763 OPS. Willingham’s power has mostly withstood the slump— though his 10 homers in 209 at-bats are a step down from his 35-tater output in 2012—and his .352 on-base percentage is a well-deserved reward for a 13.3 percent walk rate, his highest since 2010.

The trouble for the 34-year-old Willingham has been squaring up the ball consistently—and, too often, squaring it up at all. Willingham’s 12.6 percent line-drive rate is the lowest among all qualifying batters, and his teammate, Aaron Hicks, is the only other big-league regular below 13.6 percent. Meanwhile, Willingham’s 24.3 percent pop-up rate is the second highest in the league, trailing only that of B.J. Upton, whose early-season plunge reached unspeakable depths.

Unfortunately for Willingham, the lanky, long-limbed Sale hasn’t done him any favors in the past and likely won’t tonight. Willingham is just 1-for-12 lifetime versus the White Sox’ ace, and seven of their 13 head-to-head showdowns have ended in a strikeout.

Sale’s unorthodox delivery includes a relatively low arm angle, from which right-handed hitters might get a long enough look to overcome his devastating stuff. But while 31 of the 34 home runs that Sale has permitted in the majors have been hit by opposite-handed swingers, their 643 aggregate OPS indicates that the stuff has thus far trumped the mechanics. And Willingham is among those who can attest to the challenge of stepping in against the 2010 first-rounder out of Florida Gulf Coast University.

As you can see from the plot above and the data on the matchup page, the changeup has been critical to Sale’s success against Willingham. Sale has started more than a quarter of their encounters with the off-speed offering—which is about double the frequency with which he uses it on first pitches to right-handed hitters as a whole—and each of the last four strikeouts ended with the changeup, including this paint-job on September 14, 2012.

All of that becomes logical when you dig deeper into the data on Willingham’s Brooks Baseball profile. The Florence, Alabama, native is an excellent fastball hitter on the inner half of the plate, and he has shown time and time again the ability to punish breaking-ball mistakes. Changeups, though, are an Achilles heel.

When Willingham goes fishing for changeups below the zone, he comes up empty much more often than not. And though, as evidenced by his walk rate, Willingham is generally a disciplined hitter, he has chased about 60 percent of the changeups thrown below the zone but over the outer half.

Given their head-to-head résumés, Sale is well aware of Willingham’s weaknesses as a hitter and has a history of exploiting them. If Willingham is to turn around his performance against Sale and begin climbing out of his rut this evening, he’ll most likely need to correct them (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Yankees right-hander Hiroki Kuroda has faced 29 of the league’s 30 teams at least once, and he has earned at least one victory against 27 of those 29 opponents. The one team against which he has never toed the rubber is the Dodgers, the club that brought him over from Japan on a three-year, $35.3 million deal struck in December 2007. Tonight, with the Dodgers in the Bronx and the Wall Street Journal going retro, the 38-year-old Kuroda will cross off that extant opponent while looking to maintain a career-best 2.78 ERA. Right-handed hitters have notched only six extra-base hits in 150 plate appearances versus Kuroda this year, so he should pose a formidable challenge to the wunderkind, Yasiel Puig, in game one of the split doubleheader (1:05 p.m. ET/7:05 p.m. ET).
  • In a possible preview of the Home Run Derby, Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt have put on a show during the ongoing series between the Diamondbacks and Marlins. Stanton whacked two big flies in Monday’s opener, the latter of which paved the way for a Miami win. Goldschmidt also went deep in game one, but while Stanton took an 0-fer to the team hotel, the home team’s first baseman delivered a booming walk-off blast to even the three-game set at one apiece. The right-handed sluggers will go at it again in this afternoon’s rubber match, staring down Trevor Cahill and Jose Fernandez, who will take the hill for the D’backs and Marlins, respectively (3:40 p.m. ET).
  • Cynics who thought that Jeff Locke would get his comeuppance in his second tour through the league have been dealt a blow in recent weeks, as the 25-year-old has actually fared better in repeat matchups with the Braves, Brewers, and Dodgers. Locke blanked Don Mattingly’s lineup for seven innings on Friday night, scattering two hits and a walk while fanning five, and in doing so, he improved his ERA to 2.19, good for seventh among qualifying starters. The left-hander’s .233 BABIP and 84.4 percent strand rate portend a good deal of regression, but his 52.4 percent ground-ball rate could be a mitigating factor. He has not permitted a home run to a left-handed batter so far this season, and he has induced nine double-play balls from enemy righties. Locke, one of four active big-leaguers born in New Hampshire, will try to keep all of that up in a duel with Bronson Arroyo this evening; he held the Reds to one run over five innings on April 13, but failed to strike out a batter in the outing (7:10 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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