The Weekend Takeaway
The latest in the Mets’ seemingly bottomless supply of talented young pitchers made his debut Sunday, and this one had a local character. Steven Matz, a 2009 second-round pick out of East Setauket on Long Island, got the start against the Reds. Matz’s family featured heavily on SNY’s broadcast: His dad had a strong local accent, viewers learned that Matz’s late grandmother was a massive Mets fan, and Matz’s grandfather gained some measure of celebrity himself.
Matz also pitched, and he was quite good! He’s a tall-ish, lean dude, a lefty with a loose arm and a fastball with plenty of zip. His curveball looked solid, and while his changeup was inconsistent in its effectiveness, Matz threw it confidently. It’s pretty easy to see why we ranked him second in our Mets Top 10, with a ceiling of a no. 2 starter. Matz gave up two runs on five hits in 7 2/3 innings, with both tallies coming on solo dingers, from Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips. He walked three, but struck out six, and the Reds were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
When Ken Rosenthal reported on Thursday that Matz was being called up, a fellow by the name of @DickYoungsGhost replied, “Unless Matz can bat .400 and play all other positions, still doesn’t help the @Mets.” This is not un-sound: The Mets are currently stuck playing guys like John Mayberry Jr. and Johnny Monell. But guess what, Mr. Ghost: Steven Matz went 3-for-3 with four RBI, and he is the newest offensive sensation in Major League Baseball.
In the bottom of the second, with two outs and Darrell Ceciliani on third, Josh Smith intentionally walked Eric Campbell because Matz was up next, and he’s a pitcher, and it was his first at-bat in the majors. Makes sense! But not in hindsight, because Matz hit the second pitch to deep center for a double, scoring both baserunners.
In the fifth inning, after Campbell walked to lead off, Matz swung on a full count, with Campbell running, and grounded a single through the shortstop hole vacated by Eugenio Suarez. No runs scored on that play, but when Matz came up with the bases loaded and no outs in the sixth inning, he hit another single to shallow center that scored Mayberry Jr. and Monell.
Because I am a slave to the corporate machine, I went to the Baseball Reference Play Index for a nifty stat to close this little writeup. Matz, as I previously detailed, had three hits in his debut. This doesn’t happen very often for pitchers. In fact, it has happened just six times in MLB history: Five times from 1927 to 1945, then not again until August 23, 2001, when Jason Jennings went 3-for-5 with a home run for the Rockies. I don’t remember a ton about Jason Jennings, because I was in middle school when he was last relevant in the majors, but I do remember that he was a very good hitter, as far as pitchers went. I remember that I had a baseball card of Jennings that pictured him squaring to bunt in batting practice, which I suppose meant to say something about Jennings’ offensive prowess.
But he was a good hitter! Jennings once hit .306 in 68 plate appearances in a season. So this tells us that Matz might not end up being a good pitcher, because maybe he has some fatal flaws that teams will begin to exploit and render him cannon fodder, but he’ll more likely than not be a pretty-good-hitting pitcher, because it’s very unlikely that people will bother to dedicate the time to scouting that.
On Sunday, Wade Davis gave up a hit, which is a rare occurrence. In the top of the ninth, he entered with the Royals leading 5–3 against the A’s, trying to close out the game and complete the three-game sweep. Davis struck out Sam Fuld, got Billy Burns to pop out, and then, surprisingly, gave up a double to Marcus Semien. The pitch was on a 3–2 count, on a 96 mph fastball that was belt-high, over the plate, and generally in a very hittable area.
Davis struck out Stephen Vogt on a high, high fastball to end the game, though, and he didn’t give up a run, which would have been an even more rare occurrence. In fact, Davis has given up a run just once this season, on June 2nd against the Indians. In the rest of his games, he’s been just about invulnerable. Through 33 innings, Davis’ ERA is 0.27, which is less than half of the lowest ERA recorded in at least 70 innings during the PITCHf/x era. In fact, if Davis’ season were to end now, he would have the lowest ERA recorded in that span for pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched.
One can’t deny that Davis has been great, but he looks a touch more mortal once more advanced statistics are consulted. Davis’ FIP as of Sunday was 1.98, and his xFIP was 2.98. This speaks to Davis’ sometimes less-than-stellar command, which is really the only knock against him as a reliever. In the one start in which Davis gave up a run this season, he surrendered two walks. In his appearance against the A’s on Saturday, he walked two. Davis has not hit anyone this season, nor has he given up a home run, but his walks alone are pumping his FIP way up. He has walked 3.27 per nine innings.
Compared to other ERA/FIP gawds, like Andrew Miller (3.4 BB/9), Dellin Betances (3.8 BB/9), and Will Smith (3.0 BB/9), that’s not bad at all. But those guys have had a significantly higher rate of strikeouts than Davis, which is the variable that would counteract the walks that pump up FIP. Davis has been whiffing dudes at the rate of 10.4/9 this year, as opposed to the 13.6 per nine he put up last year.
So pick it up, Wade. My FIP office pool needs you.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
Poor Brandon Barnes. He was on the Astros, but only when the Astros really sucked. But now that the Astros are really good, he’s on the Rockies, who really suck. Team-wide success avoids this man, it seems, which makes his “Superman” nickname (according to Baseball-Reference) especially ironic. According to B-R’s nickname database, Barnes and Art Pennington are the only MLB players to be nicknamed “Superman.” Pennington, as far as I can tell, never played in the majors, though he did reach the Pacific Coast League with Portland in 1949. Superman the character had first appeared just 11 years earlier, making Art Pennington’s nickname sort of like someone today being nicknamed … uh … Spongebob, maybe. Honestly, that doesn’t sound too bad.
Anyway, great catch.
What to Watch on Monday
Early this season, Kendall Graveman was in a way a representation of the A’s as a whole. Expectations were positive, if guarded, with his talent-based potential outweighing his track record. Then he sucked. Graveman got hammered in his first start, did well in his second start, did badly in his third start, did horribly in his fourth start, and got optioned to Triple-A. After spending most of May with the Nashville Sounds, Graveman was to make a start at Tampa Bay on May 23rd, and since then, he’s been decent. Since his call-up, Graveman’s shortest outing has been 5 2/3 innings, in which he gave up three runs, and he has gone seven or longer four times. Graveman’s control hasn’t improved by leaps and bounds, but the most walks he’s had in an outing is two, in contrast to the three- and four-walk games he had in April. The Mississippi State alumnus’ strikeouts haven’t been outpacing his innings, exactly, but has a 6.2 K/9 in June, as opposed to his 3.9 in April.
But, you know, maybe Graveman’s issue was one of command. Throwing balls doesn’t automatically translate to walks, necessarily; sometimes it just results in getting into bad counts that end in opposing hitters smoking line drives. And if we’re judging by Graveman’s raw ball and strike counts, that’s probably what happened. In April, Graveman threw 1.41 strikes for every ball. In June, that number has jumped to 1.87.
Graveman doesn’t have exaggerated platoon splits, doesn’t give up an inordinate number of either fly balls or grounders, and hasn’t been victimized by a ridiculous BABIP. However, his home/away splits have been insanely disparate. Since coming back from Triple-A, Graveman has made five of his seven starts away from O.Co Coliseum, and when he’s on the road he has a 1.91 ERA with a .255 average against. When Graveman is back in Oakland, though, he tends to get obliterated. He has given up a .939 opposing OPS in starts at home this year, with six home runs in 20 2/3 innings, more than thrice the total he has surrendered in 42 1/3 innings on the road. It’s not necessarily an issue of luck, either, as Graveman’s home BABIP of .310 is practically identical to his .300 on the road.
On Monday night, Graveman starts at home against the Rockies in what will either be a crowning achievement or an abject disaster. No middle ground.
The Royals have so far been the balanced, dangerous club their fans and players expected them to be, rather than the offense-challenged disappointment the major projection systems pegged them for. The only major disappointment on offense has been Alex Rios, and guys like Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas have been surprisingly excellent. And while the bullpen built on Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera has been as stout as anticipated, the veteran pickups composing the rest of the Royals’ staff have been the real surprises. Chris Young, whose fastball hovers in the mid-80s, has a 2.71 DRA (which is actually identical to his ERA) in 10 starts. Ryan Madson, who made the club out of spring training after a multiple-year layoff from baseball, has allowed 18 hits in 30 2/3 innings.
On Monday, Joe Blanton will get the start against the Lance McCullers and the Astros, and Blanton has been as excellent as the aforementioned Royals. He has a 2.70 DRA in nine appearances, the last two of which have been starts. With injuries to Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas, Blanton entered a vacancy in the rotation and has been downright excellent in his appearances since. On June 22nd, he threw six innings of two-hit ball to help the Royals beat Felix Hernandez and the Mariners.
As would be expected from a veteran on a revival mission, Blanton’s command has driven his success: He has only walked a batter in two of his nine appearances, and he has not given up a free pass in either of his starts. While Blanton’s fastball isn’t running like it used to and his slider doesn’t have as much bite as its early days, his velocity appears to be perfectly fine. Per Brooks Baseball, Blanton’s four-seamer is averaging 91.8 mph out of his hand, which is the highest average velocity of any season of his career. And while those numbers are partly bolstered by the early-season bullpen appearances, Blanton averaged 91.8 with the four-seamer in his start against Milwaukee and 90.6 against Seattle.
Brett Gardner‘s average bottomed out at .262 on June 16th, but since then his offensive production has been on a steady climb. Gardner has recorded hits in 10 of his last 11 games, and his single against the Astros on Sunday was one of only two the Yankees got off Colin McHugh and Luke Gregerson. Power isn’t lacking from Gardner’s game either, as he had three doubles in the most recent series against the Astros and homered in consecutive games against the Marlins and Tigers. This improvement appears to be partly a result of, as we can see in these charts from Texas Leaguers, Gardner utilizing more a pull-heavy approach, rather than the all-fields pattern seen earlier in the season.
Is this something opposing pitchers can exploit so that Gardner will be forced to adjust? Certainly. But for now, Gardner’s going all Bryce Harper on the Yankees’ opponents, and it seems to be working. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels, whom the Yankees face in this upcoming series in Anaheim, shift hard.