The Tuesday Takeaway
By now it’s clear that defensive shifts have exploded in volume over the past few seasons. The total number of shifts in 2014 was nearly six times that in 2011, with teams like the Astros, Yankees, Pirates and Rays racing to the forefront of the sport’s latest trend. One laggard in the new shift-crazed world has been the Rockies, who finished dead last in shifts last season with 114, according to the latest Bill James Handbook. However, the Rockies might not be sitting in the shift cellar for much longer.
Thomas Harding covers the Rockies for MLB.com, and on Monday he wrote an article detailing how the club is determined to take advantage of the spray charts of opposing hitters more this season. The Rockies tested out more shifts during spring training and their infielders have gotten more practice taking grounders in unfamiliar areas in the infield.
Colorado’s new embrace of the shift was on display on Tuesday night against the Brewers who have a pair of right-handed hitters who are more than worthy of being shift candidates given their respective spray charts. The first hitter that Colorado shifted against on Tuesday was Aramis Ramirez
with the second being Khris Davis.
Davis in particular felt the effects of the shift on Tuesday, twice grounding a ball to Rockies second baseman D.J. Lemahieu on the left side of the infield. The first grounder might have been an out anyway after hitting the mound, but it would have been a more difficult play for a shortstop aligned in a traditional position.
However, the second time around, Lemahieu really showcased the defensive prowess that earned him the National League Gold Glove last season.
When healthy, the Rockies infield of Lemahieu, Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau is arguably the best in all of baseball. With their newfound buy-in to the shift, grounders that get past the Colorado defense should be even rarer this season.
Jordan Lyles is one Rockies pitcher who would certainly benefit from a more efficient infield alignment this season, given his career groundball rate that is just a shade under 50 percent. On Tuesday he generated eight groundballs versus just one fly ball on his way to tossing six innings of two-run ball. That was enough to pick up the “W” as the Rockies cut their Opening Day offensive outburst in half but still managed to come away with the 5-2 victory.
Quick Hits from Tuesday
Amidst the flurry of moves that A.J. Preller made this offseason, one of the biggest criticisms made was the defensive deficiencies that populated the starting lineup. Those flaws were already evident on opening day, with Wil Myers misplaying a ball in center field and Yonder Alonso botching a routine grounder. However, on Tuesday, it was the Dodgers’ defensive miscues that led to San Diego’s first win of the season.
Neither team pushed across a run over the next five innings, with Greinke and Tyson Ross engaging in a fine pitchers’ duel. But in the bottom of the sixth, Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Howie Kendrick went double, double, single to give the Dodgers a 2-1 advantage. But an inning later, a costly error by Jimmy Rollins erased the lead.
With the game now a battle of the bullpens, the two clubs traded runs in the eighth inning to make it a 3-3 game. Clint Barmes led off the ninth with a single and Cory Spangenberg followed by laying down a sacrifice bunt. However, Yasmani Grandal overran the ball and then rushed his throw to first, which hit Spangenberg and led to everybody being safe and runners at the corners.
After Grandal’s error, the wheels started to fall off for the Dodgers bullpen. Chris Hatcher promptly allowed a single to Myers and a double to Derek Norris, which gave the Padres three-run advantage. Juan Nicasio came in for Hatcher and got out of the inning but not before Will Middlebrooks extended the lead to the final score of 7-3 with an RBI single.
Other things that happened while you may have been asleep during the ninth inning of this game: Yasiel Puig doing Yasiel Puig things
and Craig Kimbrel doing Craig Kimbrel things.
The last time we saw C.J. Wilson in a meaningful game, the Royals chased him from Game 3 of the ALDS before the first inning had ended. It was somewhat symbolic of Wilson’s 2014 season, in which his walk rate spiked, balls left the yard at a higher rate and he finished the season as effectively a replacement-level pitcher by WARP.
The 2015 season got off to a better start for Wilson on Tuesday, with the Angels southpaw needing just 96 pitches to get through eight shutout innings against the Mariners. Wilson established his fastball early and often, starting off 24 of the 27 batters he faced with fastballs and notching a first-pitch strike 19 times. He didn’t miss many bats, tallying just a pair of strikeouts and eight total swing-and-misses during the night, but that was due in part to a fastball-heavy approach (69 percent fastballs).
There might have been some luck at play here, given the number of grooved pitches above that resulted in balls in play that turned into outs. However, the control issues that plagued Wilson last season were put on hold for at least one night, with 63 of his 96 pitches going for strikes and just one walk issued.
As for the offense, David Freese provided all that was needed:
The third baseman’s first longball of the season gave the Angels a 2-0 lead in the fourth, after which the Mariners were able to scratch together a single hit. Wilson retired the final 18 batters he faced before handing the ball off to Huston Street, who sent Rickie Weeks, Austin Jackson and Robinson Cano down in order.
The Mat Latos era in Miami got off to a rocky start on Tuesday, with a gutted Braves lineup making the right-hander look very hittable and sending him to the showers early.
Eric Young Jr. worked a seven-pitch walk to lead off the game and stole second shortly after on a pitch in the dirt. After recording the first out, Latos dug Nick Markakis into a 0-2 hole, but left a slider belt-high and the former Oriole singled home the first run of the game. Freddie Freeman and Christian Bethancourt piled on with back-to-back doubles and Latos continued to reel by issuing a free pass to Kelly Johnson. Up next was Chris Johnson, who jumped all over a first-pitch fastball down the pipe for a two-bagger of his own.
With runners at second and third, the Marlins drew their infield in for Andrelton Simmons. The Gold Gloved shortstop struggled mightily with the bat last season but fought off a pair of 0-2 pitches before grounding a single up the middle to plate a pair of runs. A sacrifice bunt by the pitcher turned the lineup back over to Young Jr., who knocked Latos out of the game with an RBI single. The right-hander departed down 7-0.
It was the first time a Marlins pitcher has given up seven earned runs and failed to make it out of the first inning since October 5, 2001 when Ryan Dempster walked six batters in just 2/3 of an inning as part of a 20-3 loss to the Braves.
Latos’ fastball velocity dipped to the low-90s last season and that was once again what he came to work with in his 2015 debut, averaging 91 MPH with his heater. Without the fastball velocity that he once had, the margin-of-error for Latos has become a lot thinner than it was in the past and will lead to a few more clunkers on nights like Tuesday when he’s unable to locate his pitches. Take note of where all the “In play, run(s)” light blue boxes were on his pitch chart from Tuesday’s game and it becomes clear that the Braves were punishing Latos for missing over the fat part of the plate.
The 12-2 shellacking was certainly not the way either Latos or the re-vamped Marlins wanted to start their season and the club is now guaranteed an opening series loss to the Braves.
Meanwhile, in Tuesday’s other Florida-based game, the Orioles similarly jumped all over Rays pitcher Nate Karns in the early going at Tropicana Field. But unlike the Marlins, the Rays came back to make things interesting.
March injuries to Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly paved the way for Karns, a 27-year-old right-hander, to slide into the Tampa Bay rotation. It was apparent that he was missing his spots early on and the Orioles took advantage. After allowing a leadoff single to Alejandro de Aza, Karns fell behind 3-1 to Steve Pearce, who promptly singled on a fastball left over the heart of the plate. Karns then surrendered a third straight single on a first-pitch changeup left up to Travis Snider. Adam Jones put the exclamation mark on the inning by driving a hanging curveball to the wall for a bases-clearing double.
The command issues for Karns weren’t limited to just mistakes over the plate. Later in the frame, Karns uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Jones to advance to third, which proved costly when the Baltimore center fielder scored on a sacrifice fly to push the lead to 4-0. In the second inning, Karns got right back into trouble, walking Caleb Joseph on five pitches to lead things off. He retired the next two batters and looked to be on his way to a scoreless frame when he got Pearce to watch the first two pitches—a pair of curveballs—go by for called strikes. Karns went back to the hook for a third straight time, but instead of burying it in the dirt, he left it up over the heart of the plate thigh-high and Pearce went yard for the second time in as many days.
But the Rays fought back from the 6-0 deficit, tacking on a run in the third inning and then two more in the fourth inning after Logan Forsythe took Wei-Yin Chen deep. After putting a pair of runners on in the fifth, Chen turned the ball over to Buck Showalter, who signaled for Kevin Gausman to make the long walk from the bullpen for the first time since losing the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation to Ubaldo Jimenez. With one out already in the books, Gausman ended up getting the Orioles out of the inning unscathed, giving up a walk in the process to Evan Longoria. The veteran third baseman showing excellent discipline to work a seven-pitch walk in that plate appearance but the sequence from Gausman—98, 98, 100, 84(SL), 98, 100, 83(SL)—was just a taste of how dominant he could potentially be going forward out of the bullpen.
With that said, the youngster ran into trouble in the sixth when Kevin Kiermaier went yard to pull the game within one. Gausman ended up going 2 1/3 with four strikeouts and two walks before turning the ball over to Darren O’Day. The sidearmer bridged the gap cleanly to Zach Britton, who struck out the side for his first save of the season and the 6-5 Baltimore win.
It was a rough Tuesday night for Brett Lawrie, who not only earned himself a golden sombrero as part of Oakland’s 3-1 loss to Texas, but needed just 12 pitches to do it. The Rangers’ scouting report on Lawrie was clearly to attack him with breaking pitches, given his propensity to expand the zone low and away against spin.
The only fastball that Lawrie saw on Tuesday was the very first pitch Colby Lewis threw to him: an 89 mph pitch at the letters that Lawrie took for a strike. The next five pitches Lewis threw to Lawrie over the first two at bats were all sliders. Rookie right-hander Keone Kela relieved Lewis in the seventh inning and pounded Lawrie with a trio of curveballs to pick up his first career strikeout. Neftali Feliz put the finishing touches on Lawrie’s night with three sliders to punch him out and end the game. In all, Lawrie saw 12 pitches, whiffed at six and headed to the dugout with his head down four times. Here’s to better luck tomorrow, Brett.
The Defensive Play of the Day
Adeiny Hechavarria cares not for your advanced defensive metrics.
What to watch on Wednesday
—The shine on Eddie Butler’s prospect status dimmed after the 2014 season, with shoulder ailments at least partially responsible for a step back in effectiveness and consistency from the right-hander. Butler wasn’t expected to make the big-league club out of camp and there was a growing concern that the shoulder issues and thin frame could eventually lead to his power arm proving to be better suited in a bullpen role.
He ended up breaking camp in the starting rotation—partially due to Jorge de la Rosa’s groin injury and Jhoulys Chacin’s unexpected release—but also experienced shoulder fatigue in his second-to-last start of the spring. The injury wasn’t considered serious and the team was confident enough in Butler’s health that they gave him a spot in the rotation a few days later, but it is certainly understandable if Rockies fans are nervous about the 24-year-old heading into the season.
When healthy, Butler features three pitches that have the potential to be major-league average or better. He has a mid-to-high-90s fastball and changeup that Nick J. Faleris wrote “has shown double-plus potential in the past, mirroring two-seam fastball action and coming with arm speed and slot deception” along with a slider that has the potential to be above-average. Whether or not the shoulder fatigue has any lingering effects on Butler’s sharpness should be apparent when he makes his season debut on Wednesday against the Brewers (8:10 p.m. EST).
—Speaking of balky shoulders, Brandon McCarthy has spent his share of time on the disabled list throughout his career due to a multitude of shoulder injuries. However, McCarthy was finally able to buck those issues in 2014 and logged 200 innings for the first time in his career, subsequently cashing in during the offseason for a $48 million payday from the Dodgers.
McCarthy headlined a group of starting pitchers with checkered injury pasts signed by the new Dodgers front office this offseason, with Pedro Moura writing in late-February about the trend and the regime’s efforts to use analytics to assess injuries and the associated risks. McCarthy himself has been open about his fondness for Andrew Friedman & Co. and notably thrived last season when the similarly progressive Yankees front office encouraged him to use his cutter more.
In Los Angeles, one would expect a plan of attack from McCarthy similar to the one he employed in New York and helped him to a 134 ERA+, an 8.2 K/9 and a 1.3 BB/9 in 14 starts after being traded mid-season. With the Yankees, McCarthy benefitted from the excellent receiving skills and veteran game calling of Brian McCann and should get similar (if not more) help behind the plate from fellow newcomer Yasmani Grandal. Grandal is considered one of the league’s premier receivers and outpaced McCann in framing runs last season, while McCarthy has praised Grandal’s game calling during the spring. It shouldn’t hurt that the battery’s first assignment in Dodgers blue comes against the Padres—a team with which Grandal is rather familiar. (10:00 p.m. EST).
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