The Monday Takeaway
The early returns on the Blue Jays’ off-season shopping spree are not quite as rosy as general manager Alex Anthopoulos might have hoped they would be.
Jose Reyes has been on the disabled list with a severe ankle sprain since April 13. R.A. Dickey’s first 15 assignments have been a rollercoaster ride at best and a disaster at worst. Melky Cabrera has essentially been a replacement-level player, logging a .320 on-base percentage that hardly belongs at the top of a contender’s order. And Mark Buehrle has seen his FIP rise for a fourth consecutive year, from 3.87 in 2010 to 4.48 so far in 2013, and only recently began to right the ship after a brutal first month and a half.
But after weeks of bad news, things are suddenly looking up in Toronto. The Blue Jays have won six in a row, the longest active streak in the American League, and with more than 90 games left to play, they’re not dead yet.
Monday’s homecoming against the Rockies, which followed a 5-1 road trip to Chicago and Arlington, gave another scuffling winter addition a chance to show off his vintage form. Josh Johnson had been healthy for only six starts between Opening Day and last night, and in those outings, he had amassed a pedestrian 5.40 ERA. The dominant fastball-slider tandem with which he dominated hitters in his early days with the Marlins made only fleeting appearances. And though a .337 BABIP portended some level of improvement, Johnson’s FIP stood at 4.61, indicating that even better fortunes could not bring him close to his 2009-2010 form.
Facing a Rockies lineup sans Troy Tulowitzki, though, seemingly breathed new life into the 29-year-old’s fragile right arm. Johnson missed 39 days with a triceps ailment between April 21 and June 4, and he was forced to skip his most recent assignment due to a blister. He proved no worse for the wear in the series opener at the Rogers Centre.
Johnson’s fastball, a blistering 96-97 mph heater during his heyday in Miami, sat between 92-93 mph in many of his 2013 starts before last night, only recently ticking back toward its peak velocity. On Monday, Johnson regularly lit up “94” on the gun and came close to 96 when he dug deep into the well, missing 10 Colorado bats with the hard stuff and seven more with his sharp slider.
Over 7 1/3 innings, Johnson threw 70 of his 106 pitches for strikes and started 20 of the 29 hitters that stepped into the box with a pitch in the zone or close enough to be chased. The Rockies flailed at or fouled off 40 of his pitches, helping Johnson to record 10 strikeouts, all of them on whiffs. Johnson had not reached double-digit punchouts in a start since September 4, 2010, his last trip to the mound of that campaign, which was cut a month short by inflammation in his troublesome shoulder.
Johnson owed an assist—a few, actually—on Monday night to shortstop Maicer Izturis, a fellow newcomer to Toronto who flashed ample leather and drove in the game’s only runs. Izturis’ two-run single in the bottom of the eighth inning came too late for Johnson to earn his first win as a member of the Jays, but it enabled Toronto to pick up its second victory in a game started by the 6-foot-7 flamethrower. Plays like this one contributed to the long-awaited regression of Johnson’s bloated BABIP, and left-hander Brett Cecil set the stage for Izturis’ heroics by cleaning up Johnson’s eighth-inning mess.
The 2-0 shutout, capped by Casey Janssen’s 15th save, cast the spotlight on two players who haven’t often enjoyed it during their early days in Toronto. “The way he’s playing now is what he’s done his whole career,” said Gibbons of Izturis. And of Johnson, the first-year skipper said, “He had everything going on.”
The Blue Jays will need much more of the same from Izturis, Johnson, and company to climb into the running in an ultra-competitive East division, and with only a 1-in-20 shot of reaching the postseason, they’d be better off keeping their sights lower. Still, the recent surge is a much-needed one for a franchise whose two-decade-long slumber was supposed to be nearing an end. And for Johnson—who is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time after the 2013 season—Monday night’s win provided an opportunity to show that, despite a growing laundry list of ailments, there’s plenty of life left in his right arm.
Seventy-eight major leaguers have stepped into the box at least a half-dozen times versus Darvish, and only four have walked, been hit by a pitch, or put the ball in play each time. Don Kelly and Sam Fuld have met the minimum criteria: six plate appearances, zero strikeouts. Coco Crisp has escaped Darvish’s 29.2 percent career strikeout rate in each of his eight showdowns with the right-hander. But, when it comes to staring down Darvish without going down hacking or looking, one of Crisp’s teammates stands above the rest.
The answer: Seth Smith, who is 4-for-10 lifetime against Darvish with two doubles, two walks, and nary a strikeout. Smith went 1-for-2 with a single and a base on balls when they last matched wits on May 21, a game the A’s won, 1-0, on the strength of a Dan Straily gem and a third-inning solo shot by Yoenis Cespedes. Since then, the 26-year-old Darvish has punched out at least a batter per inning in three of four starts and lowered his ERA to 2.64, good for fifth among qualifying American League starters.
The above plot, from the afore-linked matchup page, reveals that, when facing Smith, Darvish has largely stayed away. And, by “away,” I don’t mean on the outer half of the plate or even the corner. More often than not, Darvish has pitched Smith well beyond the outer boundary.
(One note, before we move on: The slow curves that Darvish has thrown to Smith do not appear on the plot, even though they are tracked in the plate-appearance data on the matchup page. Darvish started each of their first four head-to-head meetings with a 69-71 mph hook, but he has used it sparingly in their more recent encounters.)
Darvish’s outside-oriented approach—perhaps overstated by the matchup data because of plate appearances like this one, in which he simply lost the strike zone—seems designed to take advantage of Smith’s willingness to chase pitches off the plate. The left-handed-hitting Smith has gone after about half of the knee-to-mid-thigh-high offerings that righties have placed beyond the corner over the course of his career, and he has shown a diminishing-but-still-exploitable swing rate going up the ladder. The .204 TAv at the knees and the .224 mark at the letters are worth testing, particularly against a hitter with strong coverage of most parts of the zone, and Darvish has, in fact, tested them.
Smith, though, has passed those tests. His two doubles against Darvish—this one on June 7 of last year, and this one on July 1 of last year—came on pitches that either painted the outside black or were a good deal beyond the corner. And, since both of them came on the hard stuff, Smith doesn’t appear to be fazed by Darvish’s mid-90s velocity, either.
If Darvish wants to break Smith’s strikeout-free streak, he might be inclined to test one of the other apparent holes in the outfielder’s approach. Since his debut with the Rockies in 2007, Smith has struggled to lay off of breaking balls below the zone, going fishing about two-thirds of the time at curveballs and sliders in the dirt or just above it. Darvish has relied most heavily on his curveball in two-strike counts to left-handed batters, using it in 27 percent of those situations, according to the data on his Brooks Baseball card. History suggests that he might be able tempt Smith with it tonight.
And, if that fails, he might need to call CB Bucknor for advice on punching Smith out on strike two (8:15 p.m. ET).
What to Watch for on Tuesday
- Top-ranked Mets prospect Zack Wheeler will make his long-awaited debut this evening, following—literally—in the footsteps of fellow phenom Matt Harvey. The University of North Carolina product is scheduled to toe the rubber in the matinee, and he’ll lock horns with Alex Wood, who will be making his first big-league start for the Braves (1:10 p.m. ET). The East Paulding High School graduate will face Paul Maholm in the nightcap. Wheeler, whom the Mets acquired from the Giants for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 trade deadline, compiled a 3.93 ERA and a 73-to-27 K:BB in the hitter-friendly confines of Triple-A Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League (7:10 p.m. ET).
- Speaking of doubleheader debuts, Wil Myers is coming up from Triple-A Durham to join the Rays in Boston, where they are scheduled to play a Tuesday twinbill against the Red Sox. The right fielder figures to be in manager Joe Maddon’s starting lineup for both games, in which the Rays will take on right-hander Alfredo Aceves and left-hander Felix Doubront. Myers, a 22-year-old who headlined the Rays’ haul from the Royals for James Shields, was batting .283/.354/.514 in Durham when he got the call (1:05 p.m. ET/7:10 p.m. ET).
- Adam Wainwright outdueled Harvey in a matchup of Cy Young Award contenders last Thursday, blanking the Mets for seven innings of four-hit ball, but he did issue a pair of walks—something he had not done since April 29. Doling out a pair of free passes is hardly a sin for most pitchers, but the 31-year-old Wainwright has conceded only nine bases on balls in 103 innings while fanning 97. He’ll square off with Jeff Samardzija—who has matched that walk total over only his last three starts—and whose ERA has risen from 2.85 to 3.46 since May 27—in the second of four meetings at Busch Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET).
- Has Matt Cain, who, as of two starts ago, was sporting a 5.45 ERA, turned the corner? The right-hander has allowed only run over his last two outings, a no-decision against the Diamondbacks and a win against the Pirates, though his strikeout-to-walk ratio in those games was just 7-to-5. Skeptics will need to see Cain shut down the Padres, who are in San Francisco for a four-game series that began on Monday night. Visiting manager Bud Black is set to counter with Andrew Cashner in game two (10:15 p.m. ET).