The Weekend Takeaway
Both the Padres and the Rockies had something to rejoice over in the 13-6 slugfest on Friday night. It’s been a long, long week in the NL West, especially for the Friars, who had managed to string together 30 scoreless innings to begin the season. Those 13 runs must've felt like an exorcism.
But while the Padres’ offensive breakout was as refreshing as it was expected in a hitters’ park like Coors Field, the Rockies boasted an even more impressive headline. Rookie shortstop Trevor Story mashed his fifth and sixth home runs of the year—and his burgeoning major-league career—to extend his home run streak to four consecutive games, placing him among names like Mark McGwire and Willie Mays as one of five major-league players to start a season in such fashion.
Friday’s Opening Day effort against San Diego was a double whammy: In the fourth inning, down 6-3, Story lifted a first-pitch curveball from right-hander Colin Rea to left field for his fifth home run of the season, rounding the bases to a standing ovation.
Story repeated his feat in the ninth inning, this time facing a deficit of eight runs and lefty reliever Ryan Buchter. After working a six-pitch count, the 23-year-old infielder parked another home run in the left-field bleachers, his solo shot barely a ripple in the blowout, but more than enough to cement his place in the history books.
On Saturday, Story’s home run streak fizzled out in a base hit, while the Padres pocketed another 16 runs in a slugfest featuring second baseman Cory Spangenberg and outfielders Matt Kemp and Wil Myers. Story reclaimed his mojo on Sunday, helping himself to one of the five home runs the Rockies put up to rout the Padres, 6-3. With his seventh home run, the rookie cemented his place in major-league history with the most home runs hit in any player’s first six big-league games.
Prior to the 2016 season, PECOTA pegged Story for a conservative five home runs (in fewer than 200 PA), which the shortstop officially eclipsed in four contests. He also leapfrogged over his projected 0.2 WARP, with 0.6 through the first five games. Time will tell if his hot start has staying power or will drift back to more human-like totals, but right now, the only drawback to such an illustrious start is the number of times you’re going to read #STORYtime on the Rockies’ Twitter feed.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
It’s not every day that you get the chance to rub elbows with Bumpus Jones. Dodgers’ rookie Ross Stripling carried a no-hitter through 7 1/3 innings of his major-league debut on Friday night, leaving just 1 2/3 innings shy of joining Jones as the only rookie pitchers to toss a no-no during their first major-league appearances.
While Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts took some heat on Twitter for the decision, preserving a pitcher’s arm takes some precedence over one of the coolest feats in baseball, especially when said pitcher is working his way back from a year and a half of rehab after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014. Stripling was not only new to the big-league stage, but had never pitched higher than Double-A baseball during his three-year career in the minor leagues, and felt himself tiring as his pitch count inched toward the 100-pitch limit Roberts had imposed before the start of the game.
Long before he reached the point of fatigue, however, Stripling stunned the Giants, holding off 10 consecutive batters before allowing his first baserunners on back-to-back walks in the fourth inning. Sometimes, it was his looping curveball that blindsided hitters like Trevor Brown:
Stripling may not have been inducted in the exclusive Bumpus Jones Club this weekend, but his name will be remembered for other reasons. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the 26-year-old was the first pitcher of the Modern Era to string together seven or more hitless innings in a major-league debut, and the second player in MLB history with an earned run and no hits allowed—which brings us to this unfortunate footnote…
With Stripling booted in the eighth inning, Roberts called on right-handed reliever Chris Hatcher to finish off the no-hitter. What took the rookie 100 pitches to achieve unraveled in five pitches. Trevor Brown, the very same who had whiffed on Stripling’s belt-high curveball, skied a 95 mph fastball to left-center field to knot the game, 2-2.
The Giants, who evidently cared very little for Stripling’s feelings, capped their comeback with a Brandon Crawford walk-off home run in the 10th inning.
A win is sweet after a losing streak, and even sweeter when it stops that losing streak from going into the record books. On Saturday, backed by newcomer Vince Velasquez, the Phillies escaped their fifth consecutive loss to start the season, which would have been the longest such streak since they dropped seven games back in 1934.
Although the Mets put up a good fight, the highlight of which was six frames and seven strikeouts by one Bartolo Colon, their offense was D.O.A. thanks to Velasquez’s scoreless season debut. The right-hander held the Mets to three hits and three walks, fanning a career-high nine batters and limiting the would-be World Series champions to one extra-base hit in six innings.
Asdrubal Cabrera launched a double off Velasquez’s curveball, but none of the other Mets’ batters was able to get a good read on the righty. Velasquez induced ten swinging strikes, painting the top half of the strike zone and looking more and more like the 1.3 WARP pitcher PECOTA expects him to become.
Velasquez cracked the Phillies’ 25-man roster out of spring training, narrowly beating out back-end rotation candidate Adam Morgan, who was assigned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to begin the season. (Should their roles have been reversed, Velasquez would have found himself playing to empty stands during the IronPigs’ first doubleheader last week, instead of the 37,083 fans who crowded Citi Field on Saturday.)
The 23-year-old was part of the compensation the Phillies received for right-hander Ken Giles in December, and pitched just a hair under 56 major-league innings in 2015. He was yanked between relief duty and the back of the rotation, finishing the year with a combined 0.2 WARP and 4.69 DRA, and might afford the Phillies the same flexibility should they tire of scoreless frames and three-pitch punchouts.
Framing Velasquez’s debut was an equally strong showing from the Phillies’ bullpen. Hector Neris and David Hernandez tacked on three additional strikeouts in the remaining three innings, and together with Daniel Strumpf and Jeanmar Gomez, prevented all but one batter from reaching base. It was a breath of fresh air for the ‘pen, whose collective 9.88 ERA ranks highest among all major-league teams so far this year, though their 4.14 DRA falls closer to league average.
In the midst of the strikeout-fest, Golden Sombrero record-holder Ryan Howard gave Velasquez and the Phillies’ relief corps the only run support they needed: an opposite-field solo home run.
Cole Hamels can thank Albert Pujols and Mike Trout for the longest winning streak of his career. Entering Saturday’s match-up, Hamels carried five straight wins dating back to a 12-strikeout outing against the Mariners on September 19, 2015—and 11 straight wins with the Rangers since August 17, 2015. (Feel free to insert your own “pitchers’ wins are meaningless” mantra here and repeat as often as is necessary.)
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the 32-year-old, however. Hamels pitched himself into a jam in the first inning, delivering a first-pitch single to Yunel Escobar and a walk to Craig Gentry. With the heart of the order on the docket, Hamels teased the edge of the strike zone with his changeup, then used his fastball to induce a groundout from Mike Trout and a fielder’s choice out from Albert Pujols, limiting the damage to a single run.
By the fourth inning, Hamels hit his stride. In his second go-around with Trout and Pujols, he eased off the heat, using a curveball to strike out Trout on a 2-2 count…
…and sticking his change-up right at the bottom of the zone to retire Pujols.
After six innings, Hamels exited the game with four hits, three walks, an earned run, and four strikeouts. His contact rate was higher than usual, and for the first time since April 2015, his strike percentage dipped below 60. Although he didn’t exhibit the kind of command we saw during his seven-inning, eight-strikeout season opener against the Mariners last Monday, Hamels hammered the bottom half of the strike zone, inducing 15 swinging strikes and preventing the kind of mishaps that ended up in the Safeco Field bleachers during his last outing.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
Maybe it’s not the jaw-dropping, at-the-wall World Series game-changer that Willie Mays served up in 1954, but hey, Bartolo Colon has moves, too.
What to Watch on Monday
While freezing temperatures nixed the first Yankees-Tigers Sunday Night Baseball appearance of the year, baseball will resume in Comerica Park on Monday afternoon when the Tigers begin a two-game set against the Pirates. Justin Verlander is poised to make his second start after no-hitting the Marlins through 5 1/3 innings during his season debut. The ace right-hander’s 2.65 DRA was the fourth-best among major-league pitchers with at least 130 innings in 2015, supplemented by a solid 89 cFIP, but a prolonged stint on the disabled list prevented Verlander from knocking out at least 200 innings for the first time in nearly a decade. As the 33-year-old works his way back up to a full workload, PECOTA pegs him for a regressed 4.13 DRA and 1.9 WARP in 2016. If his nearly-scoreless outing in Miami was any indication (perhaps leaving off that Giancarlo Stanton moonshot), it looks like he’s already on the right path.
Another bout of inclement weather pushed another pitching match to Monday, but this one may be even better than the originally scheduled programming. In a double set of season debuts, Marlins’ right-hander Jarred Cosart will face off against Mets’ rookie Steven Matz at Citi Field.
Cosart handled a light workload in 2015 after recovering from vertigo, but returned to the Marlins’ rotation this spring with an 0.00 ERA in four outings and a reworked fastball delivery. In 69 2/3 innings last season, Cosart primarily subsisted on a diet of cutters and curveballs, limiting hitters to 11 fastballs and 71 changeups. While executing a workable changeup was his primary goal heading into the 2015 season, the right-hander put even more effort into tuning up the rest of his repertoire for 2016.
Matz, meanwhile, is facing his first full season in New York. The rookie southpaw accelerated his major-league timetable in 2015, logging just 35 2/3 innings before getting the call to pitch Game Four of the NLDS… then Game Four of the NLCS, and Game Four of the World Series, too. Like Cosart, Matz also missed time during the regular season due to injury, but returned with 0.4 WARP and a 94 cFIP, albeit over the smallest of sample sizes. With fellow Mets hurler Jacob deGrom temporarily sidelined to prevent a right lat injury, the club will turn to Matz to lock down the first win of the division series.
For some teams, bad weather is just the beginning of their problems. Enter the 2016 Minnesota Twins, who started the season 0-6 after dropping back-to-back series against the Orioles and Royals on their week-long road trip. On Monday, they’ll try their luck against the White Sox’ Jose Quintana for the opening set of a three-game series at Target Field. Facing the third-place Sox will be Twins’ right-hander Kyle Gibson, who exercised a 7.20 ERA in his last outing against the Orioles.
Not helping matters was the offense, who averaged two runs per game in their opening drive. On Saturday, Twins’ center fielder Danny Santana left the 7-0 shutout with an injured hamstring, leaving a gap at the top of the lineup and an open slot for prospect infielder Max Kepler. Kepler debuted with the Twins last September, and earned MVP honors in the Southern League with 6.9 WARP and a .322/.416/.531 batting line. In April, he cracked the list of top 101 prospects here as well. While his playing time is limited by one Byron Buxton in center field, and his power has yet to reach its full potential on a major-league stage, Kepler’s presence could be a game-changer for a team sorely in need of a win.