The Wednesday Takeaway
Entering last Friday’s start against the Indians, Jake Odorizzi owned a 6.83 ERA and 1.80 WHIP, and had made it out of the fifth inning in just three of his six starts. The Tampa Bay right-hander held the Indians scoreless during that outing and racked up 11 punchouts, but lasted just five innings and promptly watched his bullpen squander the lead. On Wednesday, Odorizzi carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and reminded Rays fans that he was more than just a throw-in that the club got in the James Shields-Wil Myers trade.
Odorizzi’s fastball worked particularly well against the Mariners, as the pitch generated 13 swinging strikes, nearly doubling his previous career high of seven (which came in his last start against Cleveland). After the game he told reporters, “It felt good coming out. The hitters tell you what your stuff is like. They didn't put any hard contact on it, so we kept going to it. Kept bringing it up higher and higher in the zone to see if they kept swinging at it, and a lot of them did.”
Odorizzi’s comments clearly reflect the results on his Brooks Baseball chart above, as you can see numerous swinging strikes (yellow) in the upper half of the zone and up in the hitter’s eyes.
Another trend that continued from last week’s start was Odorizzi’s effort to incorporate his slow, 12-6 curveball more regularly. After using just 25 total curveballs over his first six starts, Odorizzi went to his hook 16 times for the second straight outing, on Wednesday. Odorizzi didn’t have command of the pitch—he only generated six strikes with it—but it has historically been his best weapon against lefties, who have a career .880 OPS against Odorizzi.
The 24-year-old used 75 pitches to render the Mariners hitless through five innings, and retired the first two batters in the sixth, before James Jones lined an opposite-field liner for the home team’s first hit of the game. That was the only hit Odorizzi surrendered, as he departed with a 2-0 lead for the second straight start, throwing six innings and 95 pitches with seven strikeouts and two walks. This time, the Tampa Bay bullpen had Odorizzi’s back, as Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Grant Balfour combined to allow just two baserunners over the final three innings and close out the 2-0 win.
The starting rotation has been the Rays strength in recent years, but after losing Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeremy Hellickson to injury, Tampa Bay’s pitching has been just average compared to the rest of the league. The Rays ranked in the top three in the American League each of the past four years in pitching FRA, but entering Wednesday’s games, the Rays owned the Junior Circuit’s eighth best mark. With two back-to-back promising starts from Odorizzi and Cobb possibly a week away from returning, Tampa Bay’s starting rotation is trending in the right direction. —Chris Mosch
Quick Hits from Wednesday
While Tampa Bay’s pitching may be on the rise, the offense suffered a potential blow on Wednesday, as Ben Zobrist became the latest player to fall victim to the headfirst slide. Tampa Bay’s versatile second sacker dislocated his left thumb attempting to steal second base during the fifth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Mariners. When Josh Hamilton tore a ligament in his left thumb earlier this season, he actually stayed in the game for another two innings. This was not the case for Zobrist, who was in visible pain after jamming his thumb into second base, and was removed from the game immediately.
Zobrist’s thumb was put back into place and he will remain with the team before being reevaluated when the club returns home after the weekend. It doesn’t appear that Zobrist’s injury will require him to miss as much time as Hamilton or Bryce Harper have due to torn ligaments in their thumbs, but Zobrist still expects to miss some time in the near future. —Chris Mosch
#Rays say no decision yet but Zobrist says he'd be surprised if he doesn't end up on DL
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) May 14, 2014
As Wednesday’s Subway Series shifted to Citi Field, the Mets turned to prospect Rafael Montero in hopes of earning their seventh straight win against the their crosstown rivals. Unfortunately for Montero, his MLB debut was overshadowed by one of Masahiro Tanaka’s most impressive performances to date.
Tanaka recorded his first complete game in the states, using 114 pitches to tally eight strikeouts while allowing just four hits and issuing zero free passes. The Mets swung-and-miss at 22 of Tanaka’s pitches, which tied a season-best for the 25-year-old. Tanaka was able to dominate the Mets with his full repertoire, as he generated six swings-and-misses apiece with his fastball, slider, and splitter.
One of the two times that the Mets managed to get a runner into scoring position against Tanaka occurred in the bottom of the first inning, when Daniel Murphy took advantage of an inattentive Tanaka and Yangervis Solarte.
Despite Derek Jeter yelling and pointing from third base, Tanaka didn’t realize Murphy had taken off until he was sliding into second base. Not that it would have mattered, though, as Solarte was stretching his legs and had his back to the infield as he moved to the right side of the infield in preparation for the shift.
In the bottom of the fifth, Chris Young tried to pull off a similar move on the basepaths. But unlike Murphy, the Mets outfielder took off while the entire Yankees infield was set and could see the steal attempt unfold right in front of their eyes.
Montero had trouble settling in during his debut, as he needed 69 pitches to get through the first three innings. It didn’t help that the first run of the night came as a result of a reckless dive by Eric Young Jr.
The ball bounced all the way to the wall, as Solarte came home to score on Kelly Johnson’s triple. Not only did Young come up short by about two feet, but his misplay allowed Solarte to come around to score with Tanaka standing in the on-deck circle.
Montero was significantly more efficient with his pitches during the final three innings, but gave up a pair of solo blasts to Solarte and Mark Teixeira. Montero lasted six innings in his first outing and gave up three runs on five hits and a pair of walks. Not bad for a debut in Yankee Stadium, but not enough on a night when Tanaka really only needed one run.
The Yankees would tack on two more runs to take game three of the four-game set by a final of 4-0. With Dillon Gee and CC Sabathia both hitting the DL this week, the series finale will pit Jacob deGrom against Chase Whitley, in a matchup of starting pitchers making their respective MLB debuts. —Chris Mosch
Josh Donaldson had a very productive night, going 2 for 4 with a nice opposite-field home run. After finishing the season tenth overall in the majors with a breakout 6.22 WARP performance, Donaldson was a prime candidate for regression for this season. While his slash line for the year now of .267/.344/.491 is a bit lower than last year’s line of .301/.381/.499, he is the sixth-highest player in WARP for the year, and of the players currently ahead of Donaldson, only Mike Trout finished with a higher WARP than his in 2013. Although a portion of this continued success in WARP is due to improved fielding results, Donaldson has still maintained an excellent performance hitting-wise through the first quarter of the season.
The striking thing about Donaldson’s performance from this season is that it seems much more sustainable than his 2013 one. Last year, a great amount of his success was driven on a .333 BABIP while he only had a .278 BABIP in his half-season stint in 2012. This year, his BABIP has regressed to a more reasonable .288 given his past, and as a result, his batting average and on-base percentage have appropriately decreased. However, his power has increased greatly, and is on pace this year to have more than ten extra home runs than in 2013.
The change in power may be attributed to a change in approach. Last year, Donaldson was more of a line drive hitter, with a 20.6 percent line drive rate, and 35.6 percent fly ball rate:
However, this year, that has all changed, as Donaldson now sports a 13.5 percent line drive rate, and a 42.1 percent fly-ball rate, including a much larger amount of opposite-field fly balls, as in his home run on Wednesday. This accompanies an increase in his strikeout rate (19.8 percent in 2014 vs. 16.5 percent in 2013), and a decrease in his walk rate (10.4 percent in 2014 vs. 11.4 percent in 2013):
Why Donaldson has completely changed his approach is unclear. He was already very focused on staying in tip-top shape in 2013, so his power surge is probably not a result of an actual physical difference between Josh Donaldson in 2013 and Josh Donaldson in 2014. More likely, Donaldson has adapted more to the A’s approach of generating many fly balls, as Andrew Koo wrote at Prospectus a few months ago. The Athletics remain the top flyball team in baseball this season with a 42.6 percent rate, and Donaldson has transformed his approach to now be a key contributor to the fly-ball-heavy offense instead of an exception like last year. —Morris Greenberg
David Ortiz got an extra hit credited to his name prior to Wednesday’s game, as the Boston slugger won his appeal to get the official scorer’s controversial ruling from last Friday’s game against Yu Darvish changed from an error to a hit. Ortiz added three more hits in Minnesota last night, including his third and fourth longball in the last two days.
Big Papi crushed his first home run of the night—a 1-0 slider on the inner half—off Kevin Correa into the upper deck in right field to put himself ahead of Jim Rice for the third-most home runs in Red Sox history. Ortiz hit his 384th career home run with the Red Sox in the fifth inning, this time off Caleb Thielbar, to give the visitors a 6-1 advantage.
Ortiz became the first Boston hitter to hit two home runs in back-to-back games since, well, himself. Back in 2003, Ortiz celebrated consecutive two-home run games against the Yankees on July 4-5. After Wednesday’s performance Ortiz moved into a tie with Nelson Cruz for second in the American League in home runs and now sports a .298/.390/.589 slash line. —Chris Mosch
The slugger Ortiz and Cruz trail atop the home run leaderboard, Jose Abreu, continued his tear on American League pitchers, with his latest victim being Luke Gregerson. The Athletics entered the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead on the White Sox, and all three runs scored coming via solo home runs. Fernando Abad started the eighth inning for Oakland and registered a strikeout and a pair of singles before giving way to Gregerson. Oakland’s resident slider specialist managed just two pitches before coughing up the lead:
The longball was Abreu’s 15th of the year and gave the White Sox a 4-2 lead, which Ronald Belisario and Matt Lindstrom were able to preserve. The win snapped the White Sox’s four-game losing streak and ended a six-game winning streak for the division-leading A’s. —Chris Mosch
Even though the Los Angeles Dodgers were the popular pick to win the NL West, so far, the San Francisco Giants have held on to the top position in the standings in the division, and that only continued yesterday. Slaughtering the Braves pitching combination of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Luis Avilan, and David Carpenter, the Giants went 15-for-39 on the day, with a pair of doubles, three home runs, and six walks.
Over the last three years, the Giants have been known for their strong pitching, and fielding, while their key weakness was power. From 2011-2013, the team never had an ISO above .128, finishing third-to-last in the majors last season, and second-to-last in 2012. However, the Giants have been much better at hitting some dingers, and have the fourth highest ISO in the majors currently at a .159 mark. The key contributors to this power surge have been offseason signings Michael Morse and Brandon Hicks, owning a .248 and .250 ISO’s respectively, along with improved power performance from Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Buster Posey. Yesterday, Pence and Morse each deposited home runs off Teheran and Wood respectively, while Brandon Crawford followed suit with a monster splash into McCovey Cove off Carpenter.
Whether the current contributors on offense can sustain such performance remains to be seen, but it is certainly encouraging of their continued dominance against top pitching like the Giants faced yesterday. The team is now 26-15 on the year, and that is much more a result of their hitting (as displayed yesterday) than their pitching. —Morris Greenberg
Garrett Richards had an excellent outing yesterday, lasting 7 innings, and striking out 8 while only allowing five hits. He now owns a 2.42 ERA on the season, and has 54 strikeouts and 20 walks through 52 innings.
Approach-wise, he heavily relied on his slider yesterday, throwing 33 of them out of 106 total pitches. He has also greatly reduced his four-seam fastball usage this year, throwing only 17 yesterday (16 percent), and 31.1 percent on the year, compared to 38.9 percent last year and 36.4 percent in 2012. He has replaced these extra four-seamers with more two-seamers and breaking pitches. Interestingly, this change in usage may have allowed Richards to pitch better fastballs, raising his average fastball velocity this year to 96.6 MPH (versus 95.4 in 2013). Richards whiffed 17 percent of the batters last night against him, and 11.4 percent overall on the season, compared to 9.7 percent last year, likely due to this, more-ideal pitch balance between fastballs and breaking stuff. —Morris Greenberg
What to Watch for on Thursday
Last night’s rainout means a day full of baseball today in Cincinnati. The early afternoon matchup features yesterday’s probables, Johnny Cueto and Ian Kennedy. A staggering fact about Cueto’s season thus far: He’s the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela to pitch seven-plus innings in his first eight starts and allow two or fewer runs in each game. An even more staggering fact: all but one of those earned runs have come via solo home runs. It’s not often a starting pitcher carries a 99.5 percent LOB rate into mid-May, and probably even less common for a pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA to allow seven home runs in his first eight starts. The Reds’ game two starter, Alfredo Simon, is posting similarly anomalous numbers, grinding out a 2.89 ERA despite posting a 5.14 FIP and striking out approximately no one. Check out these games if you want to see a double helping of some true baseball weirdness. (12:35 p.m. ET, 6:10 p.m. ET)
Phil Hughes has quietly rebounded from a rough start, posting a 2.05 ERA and walking just one batter in his last 26 â…“ innings. His hot streak is about to face a serious challenge with Boston rolling into town, though: current Red Sox are slashing .311/.357/.588 in 119 career plate appearances against Hughes. Two of Hughes’s last four starts came against the Tigers, who have also put up robust career numbers against him, so maybe Hughes’s pre-season tinkering is having its intended effects. He’ll square off against Clay Buchholz, who last time out suffered a meltdown against the Rangers. With the Twins no longer doing any favors for opposing pitchers, Buchholz may have to work some long innings to top Hughes. (1:10 p.m. ET)
With Jose Fernandez sidelined for the rest of the year (and likely longer), it’s time to enter the next stage of the grieving process and find another youngblood to drool over. May I humbly suggest Yordano Ventura, vanquisher of radar guns? Ventura’s held the “fastest pitch thrown by a starter in the PITCHf/x era” title since last September; just as amazing is the fact that his fastball clocks in at almost one full MPH faster than runner-up Nathan Eovaldi (who squares off against Cain tonight). Hell, his changeup would blow away Mark Buerhle’s hardest stuff. His repertoire may never come close to the supreme filth of The Defector, but watching Ventura throw missile after missile at the Orioles is a pretty good way to forget that we’re living in a Fernandez-less world. (8:10 p.m. ET)
Matt Cain is set to make his second start after returning from his now infamous “ham and cheese injury.” It’s weird to think of a trip to the DL as a bright spot for any major leaguer, but at least Cain’s clash with kitchen utensils brought a little levity to what has otherwise been a frustrating season. With Thursday’s start, Cain will likely have faced enough batters for his walk rate to have stabilized, which is a very big problem, considering Cain is walking nearly a full batter more per nine innings than he did last year. He hasn’t been particularly snakebitten, either, with LOB and BABIP rates hovering around career norms. In his defense, he’s only had two truly bad outings so far this year, making his surface stats a bit misleading. But it’s hard to shake the possibility that last year wasn’t a fluke, and that Cain is no longer the peripheral-defying wizard we once knew him to be. Whatever happens tomorrow, though, he’ll always have his “fancy triangles.” (10:15 p.m. ET) —Nick Bacarella