The Weekend Takeaway
Talent and luck rarely keep the same company, but they found a mutual friend in Jordan Zimmermann on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers’ right-hander polished his ERA to a shiny 0.55 mark with another pristine outing against the Twins, striking out seven in his fifth consecutive win and going seven innings without issuing a walk for the first time since July 22, 2015.
It was smooth sailing for Zimmerman through 6 â…” innings, his only blemish a fourth-inning slider that Minnesota first baseman Byung-Ho Park exploited for a home run. Although Zimmermann copped to the error in judgment after the game, he compensated by tightening his command over the next three innings, using his four-seamer to get to hitters early in the count and pitching hitters inside with his slider to retire Danny Santana and Brian Dozier on back-to-back strikeouts.
More surprising than Zimmerman’s league-leading ERA is his renewed faith in the slider, a pitch he originally developed only to get out of pitching jams. Earlier in the season, Zimmermann reserved his off-speed stuff for late counts, relying on the occasional slider or curveball to throw hitters off when they had the advantage. Although he predicts a return to a fastball-heavy strategy, his slider was more than capable of serving up outs, accounting for 33 of 70 strikes during Saturday’s outing and inducing five of seven whiffs.
While much of Zimmermann’s success can be attributed to his versatility on the mound, timing helps him keep hitters off balance. Through 33 innings pitched in 2016, Zimmermann has allocated an average of 20.3 seconds between pitches, a slight uptick from his 18.6-second average in 2015. He currently ranks ninth among American League starters, who are led by the Mariners’ Wade Miley and an average of 17.5 seconds between pitches. Zimmermann may be quick to dismiss his early-season dominance as the product of some quick-fix pitching, but no one’s to say it can’t bring him long-term success.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
You know what they say: The best presents are the ones you give yourself, or something like that. In any case, Marcus Stroman celebrated his 25th birthday with an eight-inning, one-run performance against the Rays, who are currently neck-and-neck with the Blue Jays for third place in the American League East.
According to Brooks Baseball, Stroman worked with an assortment of pitches to retire the Rays and strike out a career-high nine batters, including a four-seamer, two-seamer, curveball, cutter, slider, and the occasional change-up. His favorite pitch appeared to be a two-seam fastball that topped out at 94.4 m.p.h. and was thrown 36 times, 24 of which landed for strikes.
The cutter, which Stroman utilized 22 times, turned out to be his downfall in the sixth inning, when third baseman Evan Longoria took it for a ride to the left-center bleachers:
Stroman shied away from the cutter for the rest of his outing, throwing it just five more times over the next two innings and mixing in a higher percentage of two-seamers and curveballs to keep hitters guessing. Thankfully, there was little to worry about: the Blue Jays put up a four-spot in the ninth, Longoria was left stranded during his last at-bat, and the right-hander’s fourth win was decorated with a scoreless inning from Roberto Osuna.
It feels sacrilegious to squirrel away this tidbit in the middle of a column, rather than giving it the headline, pedestal, and banner it deserves, but here goes: Clayton Kershaw tossed a complete game shutout on Sunday, fanning 14 batters, coming within two pitches of an immaculate inning, and serving up three hits in what otherwise would have been the first perfect game of his career—at least, his professional career.
As if that weren’t enough, Kershaw also drove in the only run of the game, looping a single up the middle to score A.J. Ellis.
— #DodgersYourFriend (@Dodgers) May 1, 2016
Luckily for the Dodgers, who sit at .500 after a six-game skid, no additional run support was required. Kershaw kept the Padres on a tight leash through nine innings, striking out the side in the first inning and preventing his opponents from anything that could be classified as hard contact. The biggest threat came in the seventh, when Wil Myers and Matt Kemp wrested back-to-back singles off of the southpaw and threatened the Dodgers’ lead with runners at the corners.
This is the slider that Myers took for a base hit:
And this is the slider that Kershaw used to whiff Melvin Upton Jr. five pitches later:
For a little historical perspective, as if we needed to invent more reasons to worship Kershaw, ESPN Stats & Info says that Kershaw is the first Dodgers pitcher to craft a complete game shutout and drive in the team’s only run since Fernando Valenzuela demolished the 1984 Phillies.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Rookie infielder shatters home run record in April, lofting 10 home runs in 28 games, collecting 18 extra-base hits, driving in a major-league record 31 RBI, and positioning himself at the forefront of the Rookie of the Year conversation.
The player we’re all thinking of is 2014 Rookie of the Year winner Jose Abreu, clearly, but Trevor Story also turned a few heads when he hit his 10th career home run off of Diamondbacks’ left-hander Robbie Ray on Friday, joining Abreu as the second rookie to round off 10 taters in April.
It was a rough night for Ray, who exited the game after serving up four home runs between the fourth and fifth innings. Three of the four homers were plucked from the bottom left quadrant of the strike zone, while Story targeted the first fastball he saw.
Not only did Story tie the record for most rookie home runs in April, but he tacked on another double and triple during Saturday’s 5-2 rout over Zack Greinke, bringing his extra-base count to 17 and joining Joe DiMaggio and Albert Pujols as the only modern era rookies with 17 or more extra bases in their first month of major-league play (via Elias Sports Bureau).
Sure, Story’s success could be the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of, say, Emilio Bonifacio. He might not turn out the .329/.395/.571 batting line Abreu commanded from May to September of his rookie season. His .328 TAv might regress to the projected .247 he was expected to shoulder in 2016, even as he sits four home runs away from topping PECOTA’s 13-homer projection. Right now, however, he doesn’t look like he’s running out of power anytime soon.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
Truly, this is teamwork at its finest.
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) May 1, 2016
What to Watch on Monday
It’s probably too early to discuss this season’s playoff match-ups, but what about last year’s contenders? On Monday, the defending American League champions will attempt to sweep the Rangers in their first meeting since the 2015 ALCS. R.A. Dickey will face newcomer A.J. Griffin, who replaced Yu Darvish at the back of the rotation while Darvish rehabs after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015.
With every caveat, given that we’re barely a month through the season, Dickey has doubled his ERA to a meaty 6.75 through 26 â…” innings. Hitters are working a .257 oppTAv against him, just a tick under the .260 TAv they maintained in 2015. The Jays have done little to help Dickey through five outings, producing just one run in a 10-1 beatdown by the White Sox and averaging 3.8 runs of support in each of his other starts.
On the whole, however, things are not as dim as they appear. The Blue Jays are keeping their heads above water with league-average run production and rank third in the American League with 29 home runs. They’ll need some of that power to return if they want to climb over the Red Sox and Orioles, both of whom appear to have a stranglehold on the AL East. The Rangers, meanwhile, need another win to stay on top of the hot-hitting Mariners, and their back-to-back series wins could give them the confidence they need to pull it off (7:07 ET).
Small sample sizes give us the best and worst of spring baseball. On one hand, the Mariners are half a game back from the division lead, which is a positive event for me, a Mariners fan. On the other hand, the Astros haven’t won more than eight games in a month, which is bad for things like winning the AL West, re-entering the postseason, and so on. Monday evening will see the Astros return to Minute Maid Park for a 10-game homestand after dropping four of their last six games on the road.
It’s difficult to peg the Astros’ troubles on one subset of the roster. Dallas Keuchel is having issues commanding his pitches and mustering the velocity of seasons past. The offense is split between the very best the American League has to offer (Jose Altuve, Colby Rasmus) and the very worst (Erik Kratz, Jake Marisnick). Whenever the team catches a break, they find it impossible to replicate their success the next night.
Slight silver lining though it may be, Keuchel and the Astros will open their homestand against the worst team in the American League. The Twins are dragging a 7-18 record after losing four straight games at home and getting outpaced by the Tigers and Indians 13-25. Right-handed rookie Jose Berrios will take the mound after a shaky season debut, during which he served the Indians five earned runs and two walks in four innings, to the tune of an 11.25 ERA. PECOTA has him pegged for a 4.08 DRA and 0.7 WARP in his first major-league season, but the Twins will need to work hard to dig themselves out of this hole before they can give him a platform to shine (8:10 ET).
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