The Weekend Takeaway
We laud pitchers for passing certain milestones: completing their first career shutout, notching 200 strikeouts in a season, and if they’re lucky even crafting a no-hitter. The one they never forget, however, is their first home run.
On Saturday, Bartolo Colon became the fifth pitcher of 2016 to drive one over the fences. Not only was it his first hit dating back to September 10, 2015, but it marked the veteran’s first career home run after 19 major-league seasons.
Look at that trot (30.6 seconds, if you were wondering). Look at that dugout clearing.
Unsurprisingly, Colon’s moonshot was the first by a pitcher over 40 years old since Giants’ Hall of Famer Steve Carlton clubbed one over the fences in 1986. He joined Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn, and Charlie Root as the fourth 42-year-old to hit one out of the park, but is still four years shy of tying the 1930 Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack Quinn as the oldest pitcher to do so.
Brooks Baseball tagged the long ball as a four-seamer off of Padres’ ace James Shields. There was no guesswork with this one: It was served down the middle, curving a bit inside, ready to be hooked over the fence.
Suffice to say, when Shields next faced Colon, he hung one fastball far outside the strike zone and then served up three off-speed pitches to get the right-hander swinging.
The home run was the icing on top of Bartolo’s third season win, a performance that didn’t quite rise to the level of his eight-inning shutout earlier in the week, but that saw seven baserunners and five strikeouts in 6 â…” innings while the Mets clubbed their way to a 6-3 finish.
Welcome to the club, Big Sexy.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
Jung-ho Kang’s return to major-league baseball has been nothing short of astonishing. After weathering a brutal slide by Chris Coghlan in September 2015, one that fractured his leg and landed him on the disabled list with a severe knee injury, Kang made his 2016 debut Friday with a pair of home runs to vault the Pirates 4-2 over the Cardinals.
Kang’s eagerness to jump-start his season showed at the plate, where he swung at the first three pitches he saw. Two first-pitch swings led to two first-pitch outs, but on the third go, the infielder connected for a deep drive to right-center field:
Not until his fourth at-bat of the night did he settle down to see more than one pitch, working a 3-2 count before hitting another ball out of the park to cement the Pirates’ victory.
Kang’s twin blasts provided the necessary catalyst for the Pirates to snap their four-game losing streak, but his aggressive approach might have hinted at more than season debut jitters. The 29-year-old sophomore developed a strikeout rate of 21.2 percent back in 2015 and a walk rate of just 6 percent over 467 plate appearances.
On Saturday, Kang tried a more patient approach, averaging 4.5 pitches per plate appearance and driving in another run in the Pirates’ 6-4 win. General Manager Neal Huntington intends to platoon Kang with David Freese at third base, utilizing his bat sparingly in order to ease some stress on the infielder’s knee, but if Kang can slow down and continue producing power at the plate, he’ll find himself in another pivotal role in Pittsburgh.
On Friday, David Ortiz joined Carl Yastrzemski on the Red Sox’ all-time home run list with his 452nd homer for Boston and his 50th against a Yankee pitcher. The longball powered the Sox through six innings until an Aaron Hicks solo shot in the seventh, when the Yankees came clambering back to take the series opener with an 3-2 finish.
Ortiz’s historic home run didn’t garner nearly as much attention as his meltdown in the ninth inning, when home plate umpire Ron Kulpa ejected the slugger after nailing him with a called strike that swerved outside the strike zone. Ortiz, who checked his swing and might have otherwise been flipping his bat on the way to first base, was justifiably livid.
Although the Yankees weren’t the only ones benefiting from Kulpa’s warped strike zone, they did incur the widest margins over the course of the game. Boston starter Rick Porcello received six called strikes outside the zone, while the Yankees’ Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller garnered a collective 13 called strikes outside the zone—including that fateful last pitch to Ortiz.
Pineda was by far the most fortunate recipient, with eight strikes outside the zone over the course of six innings,
but it was Miller who stifled the Red Sox’ comeback in the ninth inning and clinched the win on back-to-back strikeouts from Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez.
Notice, if you will, the location of that first called strike to Ramirez:
A team can reasonably be expected to rally in the last vestiges of a close game, perhaps by exercising more patience against an experienced pitcher or entrusting those last precious outs to their most potent hitter. What a team cannot be reasonably expected to do, unfortunately, is exercise influence over the shape and spirit that governs a wayward strike zone.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
It is unclear whether Kevin Pillar moonlights as a celestial member of the 1994 California Angels, the elastic Mr. Fantastic, or, as one fan posited, Superman himself. What is clear is that Pillar is a genuine threat to any baseball foolish enough to launch itself out of the infield.
What to Watch on Monday
Felix Hernandez hasn’t hit a home run since his 2008 grand slam off of Johan Santana, but the 30-year-old ace could use the extra run support this season. Although the Mariners rank second among American League teams in runs scored per game, with 4.47, they haven’t given Felix more than a one-run lead in any of his six starts in 2016.
Up until May 4th, when the Mariners manufactured nine runs behind their King, the lineup was averaging 1.8 runs during Hernandez’s starts. Even with a boosted run support of three runs per outing, Felix trails every Seattle starter except Taijuan Walker, whose run support averaged 2.52 through six appearances. Granted, the lineup can’t be expected to patch up every mistake Hernandez makes, and lately, he’s made a lot of them.
The Mariners still sit atop the AL West, but with the Rangers half a game behind them, there is little margin for error. On Monday, following a sweep of the Angels, the Rays travel up the coast to Seattle for a three-game set, where they’ll send out left-hander Matt Moore. Moore has dropped the last three of his starts, and, like Hernandez, is averaging little more than three runs of support per outing in 2016. Since interleague rules don’t apply to this game, perhaps Robinson Cano’s late-inning heroics from Saturday’s 3-2 walkoff will provide the boost Felix needs to record his fourth win of the year (10:10 ET).
Baseball’s inquiring minds have a few questions for Stephen Strasburg. Will this be the season he makes the first 6-0 start of his career? Why did he reintroduce his slider against the Royals last Wednesday? Is his new four-pitch repertoire here to stay, or the short-lived experiment it became in 2015? Will he join Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and David Price as the fourth pitcher to produce 50 strikeouts through seven starts in 2016?
Common sense dictates that we can’t affirm the answers to most of the above questions, especially with the Nationals’ four-game losing streak hanging over their heads, but Strasburg is off to an undeniably impressive start. He’s already manufactured half of his projected WARP for the year, shouldering 1.2 wins above replacement and a 2.67 DRA through 42 innings.
Opposite Strasburg is Anibal Sanchez and the 14-16 Tigers, whose losing streak stretches back through six games. Sanchez logged his first seven-inning outing on Wednesday against the Indians, but ended up taking his third loss of the season after allowing four runs, three walks, and striking out seven. So far in 2016, hitters have exploited Anibal’s lack of control, landing the right-hander with a 5.6 BB/9 through 30 â…” innings. It’s a weakness Strasburg seems immune to, packing the same 1.9 BB/9 that he’s carried through the last two seasons. Only one losing team can exit tomorrow’s match-up with a win, however, and right now the Nationals look like clear favorites (7:05 ET).
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