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July 3, 2013

What You Need to Know

Bailed Out By a Homer-iffic Performance

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The list of pitchers who, at any point since 1900, could claim to have thrown the two most recent major-league no-hitters is short: From 1908 through the early hours of Tuesday evening, it included only Addie Joss, Johnny Vander Meer—who notched his in back-to-back starts—Allie Reynolds, Warren Spahn, Dean Chance, and Nolan Ryan, who enjoyed those bragging rights twice. Even shorter was the list of pitchers who could boast two career no-hitters in which they walked no more than one batter: That one featured Cy Young, Virgil Trucks, Sandy Koufax, Mark Buehrle, and Roy Halladay.

The aforementioned sextet and quintet both welcomed a new member on Tuesday night: Homer Bailey, who no-hit the Giants in a 3-0 Reds win at Great American Ball Park, 277 days after holding the Pirates without a knock in a 1-0 squeaker at PNC Park.

Bailey’s masterpiece marked the first no-hitter in the history of Cincinnati’s decade-old yard and the first thrown within the city limits since Tom Browning’s perfect game on September 16, 1988 at Riverfront Stadium. He became the first pitcher to no-hit the Giants since Kevin Millwood did it for the Phillies on April 27, 2003. And, over the course of the 109-pitch gem, he displayed the maturation that has turned him into one of the National League’s top-tier starters.

Of course, having electric stuff didn’t hurt:

Bailey’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs, which averaged 94 and 93 mph this year, respectively, in the outings preceding yesterday’s start, came in a tick higher than they usually do, increasing as the 27th out neared, and bouncing with adrenaline into the 97-mph range in the ninth. His slider sat in its usual high-80s home, touching 90-91 mph on occasion, and Bailey’s command of the breaking pitch—evidenced by the 19 strikes that he earned in 22 tries—was outstanding.  Those two offerings, three if you separate the fastballs, stymied the Giants from beginning to end. Bailey, who generally employs a more balanced off-speed-pitch mix, threw only two changeups and one curveball. He simply did not need them.

In the last three innings, Bailey hardly even needed the slider. Thirty-four of his last 40 pitches were fastballs, and though he walked Gregor Blanco to begin the top of the seventh, the only frame in which he exceeded 15 pitches, the middle of the Giants order could not handle the heat. “He just overpowered us,” manager Bruce Bochy told reporters after the game, summing it all up with four precise words.

The Reds sprung Bailey out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, when Shin-Soo Choo—whose leadoff home run was changed to a double after review—advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Zack Cozart and scored on a sacrifice fly by Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips accounted for the rest of the night’s scoring with a two-run shot in the last of the sixth, two batters before Todd Frazier chased Giants starter Tim Lincecum with a one-out single. Lincecum, who collected eight strikeouts in his 5 1/3 innings of work, flashed signs of a looming renaissance in the early innings, the only silver lining on the defending champions’ 10th loss in 12 games.

On a night that saw John Lackey continue his resurgence with eight innings of one-run work at Fenway Park and Clayton Kershaw pitch a four-hit shutout at Coors Field, Bailey, whose nine strikeouts were one short of his season high, stole the show. The 27-year-old now ranks fifth in the senior circuit with a 2.72 FIP, trailing only Matt Harvey, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, and Kershaw, despite calling a bandbox home.

Bailey, a late-blooming top prospect who was selected seventh overall in the 2004 draft, has followed up a career-best 3.0 WARP campaign in 2012 by contributing 2.4 WARP to the Reds’ cause in the first half. With Johnny Cueto requiring three separate disabled-list stints to nurse a nagging lat strain, the most recent of which began four days ago, Bailey and Mat Latos have jockeyed for position as Dusty Baker’s de facto ace. If the former comes back healthy and the latter two sustain their excellent first halves through the summer, the Reds—currently in third place, but still very likely to reach the playoffs—could be the post-season club that no one wants to face.

Matchup of the Day
Can anyone stop Max Scherzer, the fourth starting pitcher in the last 50 years to begin a season 12-0, the second-most prolific strikeout artist among qualifying starters at 31.2 percent, and the only every-turn starter to record at least six strikeouts in each outing this year? Well, if anyone is to emerge as Scherzer’s Kryptonite, it might be Jose Bautista.

The Blue Jays’ right fielder is 6-for-11 in 14 career plate appearances versus Scherzer with three doubles, a home run, three walks, and only one strikeout. Bautista’s 1734 head-to-head OPS is far and away the best mark among right-handed hitters who have stepped into the box against Scherzer at least 14 times, more than 450 points better than the 1278 OPS authored by the runner-up, Adam Jones. And while none of the qualifying batters have emerged from their encounters with Scherzer without a strikeout, Bautista, Elvis Andrus, and Ryan Doumit comprise the trio that has gone down looking or swinging only once.

Scherzer has been outstanding overall this season, but he has been otherworldly against like-handed batters, holding them to a .176/.220/.310 triple-slash line while striking out 51 of the 150 that he has faced and walking only seven. That comes out to a .181 opponents’ TAv—which is about halfway between the 2013 performances of Adeiny Hechavarria (.186), who is on the Marlins’ big-league roster mainly for his defensive skills at shortstop, and Danny Espinosa (.175), who lost his job with the scuffling Nationals and was demoted to Triple-A.

So, why has Bautista proved to be a tough nut for the University of Missouri product to crack?

One of the main reasons is plate discipline—specifically the discipline to watch sliders darting away without lifting the bat off his shoulder, as illustrated by the plot above. Many of the American League’s top righty sluggers, from Miguel Cabrera to Mike Trout, are inclined to go fishing. Bautista, whose power is almost exclusively to the pull side, thrives on pitches over the inner half and knows the zone well enough to avoid expanding it on offerings that he cannot yank. That’s bad news for Scherzer, because the slider is his primary weapon, and because he excels specifically at getting hitters to flail at it low and away.

With that weapon neutralized, this becomes a battle of power versus power, and that, too, is not a battle that Scherzer can easily win. The last time they matched wits, he tried to paint the inside corner with a 94-mph heater, only to see Bautista turn on it for a double. And even setting up the mid-90s gas with sliders has not previously done the trick. Bautista’s only fastball weakness lies on the outer third; he seldom swings and misses on pitches down and in, and he is most dangerous over the heart of the plate.

If Scherzer, who has not pitched to Bautista since June 27, 2011, is to subject Toronto’s number-two hitter to the same treatment he has given other fellow righties, he’ll need to establish the fastball away, and then use it early and often. Bautista, meanwhile, will look to sustain his .336/.457/.574 triple-slash line at the Rogers Centre this year in order to help Josh Johnson deal the undefeated Tiger his first setback of 2013 (7:07 p.m. ET).  

What to Watch for on Wednesday…
If your team is in the hunt and searching for pitching help, buckle up and enjoy the auditions…

  • First up: Ricky Nolasco, whose recent performances have thrown a wrench into Larry Beinfest’s plans to sell high on a solid early-season showing, and who might be on the move before first pitch. The 30-year-old coughed up 11 hits and six runs (five earned) in five innings at Petco Park last week, and he has been smacked around for 33 hits over his last four assignments, seeing his ERA rise from 3.61 to 3.93. Tonight, he’ll square off with the Braves for the first time this season, hoping to avenge a dismal 2012 showing. Fredi Gonzalez’s squad plated 14 runs in 14 1/3 innings versus Nolasco last year—drilling four homers and 22 total knocks along the way—and it will try to do it again in support of Mike Minor tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).
     
  • Meanwhile, the already-traded Scott Feldman will make his first start as a member of the Orioles on the South Side of Chicago, where the White Sox are set to counter with Hector Santiago. Feldman, who joined the Cubs on a one-year, $6 million hitch last November and was shipped to Baltimore with Steve Clevenger in exchange for Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and international bonus slots, was a steady contributor to Dale Sveum’s rotation for the bulk of the first half. He’ll bring a 3.46 ERA and 3.90 FIP across town to U.S. Cellular Field, where he pitched six innings of two-run ball in a victory on May 29 (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Bud Norris may be trending upward in the eyes of pitching-starved general managers following a strong June, in which he shook off his occasional bouts with wildness to issue only nine walks in 39 innings while fanning 33. The 28-year-old did his best work against the Angels, permitting only an unearned run in 13 innings spread across two starts, but he also allowed just two home runs in six total trips to the mound. If you were to forgive Norris’ April 17 debacle in Oakland, in which he was chased after two-thirds of an inning and with six runs on his line, the Cal Poly product would currently sport a 2.84 ERA. He’ll get his third career look at the Rays in game three of four at Minute Maid Park (8:10 p.m. ET).
     
  • After three consecutive excellent outings against non-contenders, Matt Garza is ready for a stiffer test. The right-hander led the Cubs to victory with seven innings of one-run ball, over which he held the Brewers to eight hits and a walk while striking out 10, in his most recent assignment, and he has allowed two combined earned runs in his last three starts (the other two were against the Astros and Mets). Tonight, Garza will do battle with an Athletics lineup that is much more potent than the ones he recently shut down. Bob Melvin’s club ranks fifth in the majors with a .274 TAv, and it will go to bat in an effort to help Bartolo Colon tie Scherzer atop the American League wins leaderboard at 12 (10:05 p.m. ET).

… and on Independence Day Thursday
The action starts early, and it doesn’t stop until late into the night…

  • Start your day with the series finale between the Brewers and Nationals, in which the home team is scheduled to send Taylor Jordan to the bump for his second big-league start. Jordan, who compiled a 0.83 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg, found the majors a bit more challenging than the upper minors in his debut, though his infielders accounted for much of the damage that the Mets did in his 4 1/3 innings of three-run (one earned) work. He’ll seek his first major-league win in the matinee (11:05 a.m. ET).
  • Next, get ready to jump between a host of early-afternoon contests in which rookie pitchers will try to strut their stuff. Gerrit Cole duels Cole Hamels in Pittsburgh (1:35 p.m. ET). Allen Webster welcomes Eric Stults and the Padres to Fenway Park (1:35 p.m. ET). And Kyle Gibson, who defeated the Royals in his major-league debut, attempts to make it two in a row with the Yankees in town (2:10 p.m. ET).
  • The docket runs thin in the middle of the East Coast afternoon, and if none of the earlier games go to extra innings, the spotlight will move to Oakland, where the health of Jarrod Parker bears monitoring. Parker left his Saturday afternoon date with the Cardinals after crumbling to the ground with severe pain in his hamstring on his 48th pitch. The A’s believe that the ailment was merely a bad cramp, a bullet dodged considering that Parker has amassed a 2.25 ERA since May 17. Assuming that he is able to toe the rubber, Parker will lock horns with Travis Wood, who has limited opponents to three or fewer earned runs in all but one of his 16 starts (4:05 p.m. ET).
  • With twilight and fireworks still a couple of hours away, begin your evening with the last game of four between the Tigers and Blue Jays, in which Justin Verlander will get another chance to break out of a rare rough spell. The 30-year-old has doled out at least three walks and struck out no more than five batters in each of his last three starts, a rut that might be an afterthought for most hurlers but is glaring when compared to Verlander’s generally dominant body of work. Until this lull, Verlander hadn’t met those two dubious criteria in three straight outings since April of 2008, a year before he morphed into the junior circuit’s foremost ace. He will duel Esmil Rogers in the only game that won’t be played on American soil (7:07 p.m. ET).
  • Finally, end your Fourth with a showdown between one of the National League’s top pitchers and one of the junior circuit’s most talented hitters, when Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals close out their series with Mike Trout and the Angels, who have won seven in a row. Dropped into second place by the surging Pirates, Mike Matheny’s club still owns the best road record in the majors at 27-17. They have not lost an away game behind Wainwright since Opening Day (9:05 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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