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July 26, 2013

What You Need to Know

Panic in Detroit?

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
The series finale between the White Sox and Tigers may have been the league’s main attraction yesterday afternoon, drawing fans of both teams and those eager to see the pitching matchup of Justin Verlander and Jake Peavy, as well as scouts evaluating the latter for prospective trade-deadline buyers.

Peavy held serve for those eyeing his services, tossing seven-plus innings of four-run ball, over which he permitted only four hits and two walks while striking out seven. The 32-year-old’s outing might have looked better had manager Robin Ventura turned to his bullpen to begin the eighth inning. But the skipper let Peavy—whose pitch count was well into the triple digits—return to the bump, and he promptly served up a home run by Brayan Pena, the third long ball authored against him on the afternoon. With 118 pitches, 74 of them strikes, on the counter, Ventura finally took the ball from his workhorse no. 2 starter and handed it to Matt Lindstrom, who combined with closer Addison Reed to protect the 7-4 lead.

That’s enough about Peavy, though: the real story here is that that White Sox, with the worst offense (.241 team TAv) in the American League and the second-worst (Marlins, .230) in all of baseball, scored at least seven runs in a game started by Verlander for the second time this month. Even more stunning is that all of those runs were charged to the Tigers’ pre-season ace, who needed 103 pitches to complete six innings.

In the course of recording 18 outs, Verlander was knocked around for 11 hits, three of them for extra-bases, and he also issued two walks. Meanwhile, he notched only four strikeouts, failing to exceed five for the eighth consecutive start. This is the longest such stretch for Verlander since the beginning of the 2008 season (April 6 through May 14), which he finished with a 4.84 ERA before emerging in 2009 as a perennial Cy Young Award contender.

After two years that, in the pitcher’s own words, “came easy,” 2013 has been “extremely difficult.” Verlander was Verlander in April, when he posted a 1.83 ERA and collected 41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings, but the road has been bumpy since the middle of May. The right-hander told reporters that he has recently tweaked his mechanics with the help of pitching coach Jeff Jones.

The chart above shows the monthly whiff rates elicited by each of Verlander’s four pitches. A velocity dip, compared to recent seasons, is behind the decrease in the swings-and-misses on his four-seam fastball, but the precipitous drop in whiffs on his curveball and slider is chiefly responsible for the strikeout lull into which Verlander has fallen over the past month and a half.

On Thursday, Verlander’s heater regained its mid-90s oomph, and he was able to reach back for 99 mph—which Tyler Flowers, one of his few strikeout victims, said “made me look like an idiot.” But Flowers, the ninth-place hitter in Ventura’s order, doubled in his next at-bat and homered in the sixth inning, and Alejandro De Aza, who picked up a hat trick batting in the leadoff slot, was the only other hitter whom Verlander punched out.

Flowers and De Aza accounted for three of the five whiffs that Verlander coaxed with his slider, and De Aza also tallied the only swing-and-miss on Verlander’s curveball, going down hacking at the hook to end the bottom of the second. The 8.7 percent whiff rate on Verlander’s fastball was an improvement over his 7.5 percent clip for the season entering the game, but it still fell well short of the 10.25 percent mark he induced last year. The clunker came with signs of promise, reasons for optimists to believe that Verlander’s mechanical adjustments will bring back his peak form, but a deeper look reveals that the 30-year-old still has a long way to go.

Verlander’s latest shaky effort, which put to rest any lingering hopes that his seven-inning, one-hit blanking of the Rangers on July 14 would be the turning point of his summer, raised his ERA from 3.69 to 3.99. He had not exited any outing with a season ERA that poor since Opening Day of the 2011 campaign, when the Yankees saddled him with three runs in six innings. And he has not carried an ERA over 3.86 through back-to-back starts since June 27-July 3, 2010. To avoid breaking that streak, Verlander will need to do better than seven innings of two-run ball in his next assignment, which is likely to be a home date with the Nationals on Wednesday.

Thursday’s Matchup in Review
Chris Mosch, who tackled the Matchup portion of yesterday’s WYNTK, wrote about Zack Greinke’s transition from slider to cutter, which the right-hander completed earlier this year. The cutter quickly became Greinke’s preferred offering when ahead in the count against like-handed batters, and, sure enough, he turned to it yesterday after putting Brandon Phillips in an 0-2 hole with a runner on and one away in the top of the first. Greinke overthrew two cutters into the dirt, but was undeterred, and his third consecutive one—knee-high and near the outside corner—coaxed a 6-4-3 double-play ball that held the Reds to one run.

Greinke jumped ahead 0-2 again in Phillips’ second at-bat, which came at the outset of the fourth inning. The second baseman chased two fastballs, the first up and the second away, but was able to lay off a four-seamer way outside. Then, perhaps mindful of the first-inning result, Greinke went back to the outside-third cutter. This pitch was a bit higher than the earlier one, and Phillips was able to square it up, but the line drive settled harmlessly into Carl Crawford’s glove in left.

When Phillips dug in for the third time in the sixth inning, Greinke opted to work backward, earning strike one with a changeup, which Phillips took, and strike two with a cutter well off the outer edge, at which Phillips waved. Unfortunately, Greinke wasted this 0-2 advantage, plunking Phillips with an errant fastball. Phillips advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a two-run blast by Jay Bruce, which brought in the eventual game-winning runs in the 5-2 Reds victory.

Greinke finished off the sixth and worked one more frame, leaving after seven with six hits, four runs, and a walk on his line, which also featured four strikeouts and two gopher balls. Phillips took an 0-for-2 showing to the hotel, having reached twice—on the hit-by-pitch from Greinke and on an intentional walk from J.P. Howell in the eighth.

Matchup of the Day
The Braves enjoy a seven-game lead over the second-place Phillies in the National League East, so their vaunted outfield—in which newcomers B.J. Upton and Justin Upton joined Jason Heyward—is driving their surge toward the playoffs, right? Not quite:

As the chart above from our Visual Depth Charts shows, catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman, and second baseman Dan Uggla have significantly outperformed their National League peers, and the younger Upton has done his share, too. But the Braves lag behind in center field—where the elder Upton has spent time on the disabled list and been an unmitigated disaster when healthy—and are merely par for the course in right, where Heyward missed time with an injury and has slumped since returning to the field.

Moreover, most of Justin Upton’s production came in April, when he hit .298/.402/.734 with a league-high 12 home runs. Since the calendar flipped to May, he has gone deep only four times while compiling a .235/.327/.348 triple-slash line, comparable to those of Braves castoffs Gregor Blanco (traded to Royals in July 2010) and Martin Prado (traded to Diamondbacks in the Upton deal). That isn’t quite what general manager Frank Wren envisioned when he sent multiple prospects to the desert with Prado to obtain Upton, even though it was Arizona’s end of the swap that was widely panned.

Upton won’t find the going much easier this evening, when the Cardinals come to town and send their ace, Adam Wainwright, to the bump. One of the favorites in the senior-circuit Cy Young Award race, Wainwright turned in eight innings of two-run work to down the Padres on July 21. The right-hander has permitted only two long balls in his last six starts while sustaining a season-long stretch of issuing no more than two walks in every outing. Tonight, he’ll toe the rubber against the organization that made him its first-round pick in 2000 for the first time this season.

The Braves’ left fielder hasn’t had much success when facing the Cardinals’ ace—in fact, he hasn’t had any. Wainwright is the only pitcher against whom Upton has logged 10 at-bats without doing anything productive. No hits, no walks, no hit-by-pitches; not even an RBI groundout or a sacrifice fly. He is 0-for-10 lifetime with three strikeouts, including an 0-for-3 showing in their most recent encounter, last August 15, when he sandwiched a punchout between a couple of ground outs.

Compared to his general approach to like-handed batters, Wainwright has shied away from throwing Upton first-pitch sinkers, leaning instead on his cutter and curveball to kick things off. He threw only two cutters to Upton in their first seven head-to-head meetings—those that took place before Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery on February 28, 2011—but relied heavily on that offering when they last matched wits, using it at the outset all three times Upton came to the plate. That shift is not reflected in Wainwright’s overall pitch selection—he threw the cutter 27 percent of the time to fellow righties in 2009 and 24 percent of the time in 2012. Instead, it apparently was geared toward giving Upton a new look and keeping him on his heels.

The first time Upton stared down Wainwright, on July 18, 2009, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, the first on a sinker, the second a curve. Back then, Wainwright could dial his hard stuff into the mid-90s, the sort of velocity pitchers need to blow center-cut sinkers by Upton, who typically hammers hard stuff down the pipe. But lest Upton get too comfortable and decide to sit dead red, Wainwright spun four straight hooks in his subsequent plate appearance and netted the same result.

All three of Upton’s trips to the box on June 29, 2010, also ended with curveballs; he put the ball in play each time, but had only a fly out, pop out, and ground out to show for his efforts. Then, last year, Wainwright threw Upton for a loop, tossing only one hook in 14 pitches. That bender coaxed another ground ball in Upton’s first at-bat, but instead of going back to the curveball with a 1-2 count the next time they squared off, Wainwright got Upton to flail at a cutter darting away.

If there is any good news for Upton here, it is that all of Wainwright’s cats are now out of the bag. The 31-year-old has reserved his changeup almost exclusively for left-handed batters this year, and he has thrown it only 83 times all together (75 to lefties); using it to give Upton another new look would require a sudden confidence spike in the pitch, which has always been Wainwright’s least effective off-speed offering.

What will Wainwright do to stay a step ahead of Upton? And will Upton, with no new pitches to contend with, finally be able to catch up? Tune in to find out (7:30 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend
(Note: All statistics are through Wednesday’s games.)

  • Nate Schierholtz spent nearly a decade in the Giants organization, from the 2003 draft—when he was the team’s second-round pick—until the 2012 trade deadline, when he was shipped to the Phillies as part of the package that brought Hunter Pence to San Francisco. After a summer in Philadelphia, Schierholtz inked a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Cubs, a deal that now appears to be one of the offseason’s best bargains as the outfielder has emerged as an excellent long-end platoon player. The 29-year-old has amassed a .286/.337/.556 triple-slash line with 36 extra-base hits (12 homers) in 261 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers. He will face one—former teammate Matt Cain—in his first visit to AT&T Park as a member of the Cubs. Cain, who earned his first win in more than a month by holding the Diamondbacks to two runs over five innings on July 20, owns a 2.46 ERA in 14 career starts against the Cubs (Friday, 10:15 p.m. ET).

  • It’s Cliff Lee for the visitors and Max Scherzer for the hosts in the weekend’s best on-paper duel, which takes place in the middle match between the Phillies and Tigers at Comerica Park. Of course, the quality of the duel hinges on Lee’s ability to keep the ball in the park, which has suddenly become a trouble spot for the lefty control artist. Over his past two trips to the mound, the veteran southpaw has been taken yard seven times, thrice by the Mets and four times by the Nationals, equaling his gopher-ball total from the previous 14 starts combined. His ERA is now up to 3.05, its highest point since May 6, and it has risen in four consecutive assignments. Scherzer, meanwhile, is still plugging along, his record up to 14-1, his K:BB up to 157-to-31, following an eight-inning victory over the White Sox in which he permitted two solo blasts but little else (Saturday, 7:08 p.m. ET).

  • Credit the extra rest he was afforded or the apparent change in his approach—whatever drove Jon Lester’s success on Tuesday night, the Red Sox must cross their fingers and hope that he can sustain it. The 29-year-old southpaw tossed 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball versus the Rays, allowing only solo shots by Wil Myers and Evan Longoria; he struck out eight and did not walk a batter. That victory marked just the second time since May 15 that Lester held an opponent to fewer than three runs, and manager John Farrell said it was “probably the most powerful he has been all year.” Alex Speier, the Red Sox beat writer for WEEI.com, pointed out on Twitter that Lester was eschewing his long-preferred cutter in put-away situations and turning instead to his fastball and curve. Keep an eye on his two-strike approach in the series finale at Camden Yards, where Lester will match wits with an Orioles lineup that touched him up for five runs in as many innings on June 16 (Sunday, 1:35 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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