The Friday Takeaway
There may not be two American cities as different as Anaheim and Philadelphia, but Jerry Dipoto has made his home, and his name as a baseball executive, in both. After resigning following a dispute with former Angels manager Mike Scioscia in 2015 over the utilization of advanced statistics and information in his managing, Dipoto landed in Philadelphia as a senior VP/general manager—one of three execs to hold that title—when Ruben Amaro Jr. got the boot.
Since then, he's followed Andy MacPhail's lead to turn the Phillies from a bloated, stagnant franchise to one reportedly in possession of an entire library of proprietary statistical measures and HITf/x equipment installed in the batting cage. Dipoto took advantage of Ryan Howard's surprisingly productive 2016 by dealing him to the Astros for third baseman Colin Moran, who was partly maligned as a prospect for his lack of power but has blossomed with the help of Citizens Bank Park's short right-field porch. That move also allowed the defensively suspect Maikel Franco to move to designated hitter this season.
On Friday, one of Dipoto's more controversial moves as a Philly yielded yet another payoff, as Cole Hamels tossed a two-hit shutout of the Nationals to give the Phillies a 4–0 win, bring them back up to .500, and keep them three games out of first place in the wide open N.L. East. After Hamels somehow made it through the Phillies' disastrous 2015 without being dealt, Dipoto fought publicly during the ensuing offseason to keep him on the squad. Hamels has been nothing but aces since, pacing the team with a 1.71 DRA this season.
The age-defying velocity increase Hamels experienced throughout his career hit a bump in 2016, when his four-seamer averaged just 91.4 mph, but he has counteracted that lack of heat by switching up his cutter grip, bumping the pitch down a couple mph but giving it an extra few inches, putting it more in the mold of Jon Lester's cutter.
Hamels has also brought down his walk rate to 1.7 per nine, stopping the rise it had been on since 2011. And his changeup is as deadly as ever, as seen in this strikeout of Ian Desmond in the first inning.
Basically, he's looking like a candidate for an extension. Dipoto could probably grab a solid prospect in exchange for Hamels, but he's done such a solid job building Philadelphia's minor-league system, after bringing Scott Servais over from Los Angeles, that the club seems content to stand pat in that area and load up for a run in 2018. Their lack of offense this year is troubling, and is holding down their projections for the rest of the season, but a breakout season from J.P. Crawford and a couple of productive acquisitions could go a long way.
Quick Hits from Friday
Mike Trout looks like no more than a shadow of his former MVP self. A nagging shoulder that he has been playing through since crashing into the wall on April 28th has drained his power, and since he's never counteracted his well-established weakness to high pitches, opposing hurlers have just been pounding Trout there, with a gargantuan 25 percent of pitches ending up in the top three quadrants of the zone, as you can see at Brooks Baseball.
He managed to break that pattern of weakness and clobbered a home run off Anthony Bass on Tuesday…
…but it came in the Angels' 4–1 loss to the Rangers, their 10th in a row. This is the season the bottom has fallen out for the Angels, with Albert Pujols struggling in the middle of the lineup with a .245 TAv and Jered Weaver still maintaining a spot in the rotation for some reason, 84 mph fastball and all.
With top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb on the shelf with Tommy John surgery, the Angels' situation looks ever bleaker. There's not much to sell and not much in the farm system, especially after a 2016 draft that was widely panned across the industry. If Bill Stoneman is going to make any moves, it's going to be to shed salary. The problem will be finding any takers.
The prodigal Matt Holliday's return to the A's has gone well so far, despite his complete lack of defensive utility. When the Cardinals made the decision to deal the slugger in 2016, once Stephen Piscotty's emergence and the NL not having the designated hitter yet had effectively killed Holliday's utility, the A's brought back a slugger whose only memory of Oakland was a moderately productive 90 games in 2009.
Now, he's come back basically as an older Billy Butler, giving the A's a solid DH option to back the Gray-Hahn-Chavez trio of aces and the defense led by Billy Burns and the much-improved Marcus Semien. On throwback night in Oakland on Friday, Holliday clobbered this solo dinger in the first inning to give the A's an early 1–0 advantage for Hahn.
The surging Twins, now standing alone in second place in the AL Central, would not go quietly, though: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are the best WARP-producing duo in baseball, with 9.2 wins between them, but it hasn't helped either in All-Star voting, as they'll both be easy selections as reserves on their respective teams. Sano leads the American League with 23 home runs, and he almost built on that total with a shot to the track in right in the second, but Josh Reddick ran it down for the out.
Hahn and the miraculously revitalized Nick Blackburn—who was out of baseball from 2012 to 2015—duked it out for seven innings, with Holliday's home run setting the margin for that span, but in the eighth, against rookie reliever Brett Graves, Buxton doubled to the left-center gap, stole third and scored on Sam Fuld's sacrifice fly. Brian Dozier expanded the Twins' lead with a shot off Graves in the ninth, and Alex Meyer closed the game to give the Twins a 3–1 win.
Who could have predicted that the shoulder fatigue that knocked Felix Hernandez out for so many games last year would affect his repertoire so much? Hernandez was always more than willing to go to his changeup in any count—he threw it almost as often as his four-seamer and sinker combined at some times in 2014—but once he lost a few ticks on his fastball in 2016, it became his preferred weapon, as he threw it more than half of the time. With that pitch and his fastball only being differentiated by around 5 mph, the vast difference in late movement made the two pitches an almost impossible combination to deal with.
Hernandez has gone even further off the deep end with the cambio in 2017, and Tuesday's start against the Giants was full evidence of that. Sixty-five of his 97 pitches were changeups, with four-seamers accounting for 28 of the remainder and curveballs for four. Here he is striking out Joe Panik with one of those hooks:
According to Brooks Baseball, Hernandez has averaged 90.2 mph with his fastball this year, down almost 2.5 mph from 2015, but his changeup, which averaged 88.4 mph that year, is only down to an average of 87.4 mph. What has resulted is basically the ideal that Greg Maddux espoused, the proverbial "column of milk" that a hitter simply can't pick up a difference in until he's halfway through his swing. The only real hope hitters have of combating both pitches at once is to pick up the spin out of Hernandez's hand, but the even more exaggerated Johnny Cueto–like turn he added to his motion obstructs the view of the ball even further.
Kyle Crick took an anti-Hernandez approach in his start Tuesday night, throwing approximately 75 percent fastballs. He had similar success up until the seventh inning, when he allowed a leadoff single to D.J. Peterson and grooved a curveball to Kyle Seager, who dinged it off the right-field foul pole for a two-run shot. Seth Smith added a solo shot later that inning to give the Mariners the decisive 3–0 margin of victory.
The Tim Corbin hire has seen an uneven payoff for the Marlins, but the net result has been a positive one. After losing 15 of its first 20 games of the season, Miami has reeled off 10 straight victories as of last night, the latest of which bumped the team within a game of .500 for the first time since the second game of the year, and put them four back in the NL East.
Corbin, the former Vanderbilt head coach who won College World Series titles in 2014 and 2016, initially struggled to gain trust in the pro game, but his players' production has spurred acceptance throughout the game of Corbin's methods and persona. Giancarlo Stanton is having another excellent season—and recently hit a home run measured a screaming 128.3 mph off the bat—and Marcell Ozuna continues to be the impact no. 5 hitter the club expected him to be, as his power has finally returned. He clubbed his 13th home run of the season last night, which equals his total from 2015 and 2016 combined.
Defensive Play of the Day
The increase in the utility of tools like Statcast and FIELDf/x have accelerated the decline of offense in baseball even further, and defensive runs saved are at an all-time high for this point in the season. The downside of this defensive golden age is the conspicuous lack of thrilling diving catches. Fielders are simply positioned too well and know too intimately each hitter's tendencies to put themselves in a spot where such effort would be required to make a catch. This was seriously the best play I could find from last night. Nolan Arenado is as good as ever, but you can only really see his defensive brilliance in relatively minor instances like this.
What to Watch on Saturday
After striking out 18 against the Tigers in his last outing, Carlos Rodon will try to equal or best that total when he faces the Indians on Saturday at Progressive Field. Another milestone/record Rodon could threaten could come in tandem with Chris Sale, who whiffed 17 Indians last night: No team has so much as threatened the Red Sox's record for strikeouts in consecutive nine-inning games, which they set in 1986 when Roger Clemens struck out 20 and Bruce Hurst, Sammy Stewart and Bob Stanley combined to get 16 the following night. Rodon would have to strike out 19 hitters to get that, which is a massive feat, but with his slider racking up a 55 percent whiff/swing so far this season, it's not so far-fetched.
Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson has not struck out a hitter in three starts, which is not near a record itself, but no pitcher has gone four starts without a whiff since Pat Hentgen did it for the Blue Jays in 2004. That's a long time, yeah? While Hentgen allowed a whopping 25 runs in 12 1/3 innings over that span, Gibson has actually been quite effective, throwing 23 innings over his past three starts while allowing seven runs. He hasn't walked a hitter, which has greatly reduced self-imposed burden of not striking out anybody, but still … there's pitching to contact, and there's what Gibson is doing. We'll see if the A's can put balls in the right places to let BABIP do its work.
Kris Bryant has homered in three straight games, with last night's game against the Cardinals being a three-dinger effort. It would be nice for the sake of continuity and hashtags if he did it against St. Louis again tonight, but the Cubs won't be totally panicking if he doesn't, because Kyle Schwarber hit 11 in June himself, and homered last night as well. Once Ian Happ gets called up, this team will be as good an advertisement for the benefits of college baseball as anything!