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Bruce Chen vs. Wil
Ledezma
–with Chen putting up the numbers people expected of him
eight years ago and Ledezma a raw but intriguing prospect, I have a good
feeling about this match-up. Throw in the out-of-nowhere O’s,
Brian Roberts and the Tigers’ always entertaining
Dmitri Young and I think we could see a fun game.


3B Brandon Inge
SS Ramon Martinez
1B Dmitri Young
RF Craig Monroe
DH Ivan Rodriguez
LF Marcus Thames
2B Omar Infante
C Vance Wilson
CF Nook Logan

More and more we’re seeing non-traditional leadoff men like
Brandon Inge–hitters whose game revolves more around
on-base ability, and even extra-base power, rather than speed–being slotted
at the top of the order, as teams begin to embrace OBP and more efficient ways of assembling a lineup. So
why, then, do so many teams continue to bat Punch-and-Judy guys in the #2
hole, as if the game still revolves around bunting and playing for one run
at a time? How hard is it to sit down and think to yourself “Who do I want
getting more at-bats over the course of the season–Ramon
Martinez
or Ivan Rodriguez?” It’s time to take
these non-walking, powerless Mendozers
and move them to the eighth and ninth spots in the order, where they
belong. (Brian O’Neill, the “Stats Geek” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and
one of the best baseball columnists writing for a daily newspaper, has a
good, more
in-depth take
on this topic.)

The scouting report on Bruce Chen: Throws a four-seam
fastball that moves well, with a big curve. Oddly, there’s no mention of
his change-up, which as we soon learn is his bread-and-butter pitch. The
report also notes that he “must travel light,” given this is his ninth
different organization in pro ball. Aside from the question of whether or
not that’s a scout’s call, Chen comes into this game looking like a new
pitcher. In 59 innings pitched, he’s got a strikeout-to-walk ratio rate of about 2.5 to 1, his
best figure in five years, with a 3.51 ERA. Though he’s still a
flyball-to-neutral pitcher susceptible to home runs–his career-long
bugaboo–Chen has learned to change speeds and locations effectively,
keeping hitters off balance better than he has in the past. It’s almost as
if, five years after leaving the Braves, the tutelage of Leo Mazzone and
the example of Tom Glavine, he’s just now having his
delayed reaction, going away, away, away with his change and befuddling
hitters, like Glavine in his prime.

You can see the new Chen from the get-go. Working to Inge, he throws a
sinker at 81 mph taken for strike one, then a high fastball at 84 to even
the count. He works the outside corner with another fastball at 84,
inducing a very late swing by Inge, who seems to be looking off-speed
given the new junk-balling scouting report on Chen. On 1-2, Chen takes a
few miles off a curve for the punchout. He starts Martinez with a
change-up called for a strike at the belt. Chen then moves the hitter’s
eyes, throwing a big, bending curve that drops for strike two. He moves
the plane again with high, inside fastball fouled off for strike two. Chen
then snaps off an even bigger curve–a 73-mph yakker that makes the Camden
Yards faithful go “ooooh…aahhh” mid-pitch–for called strike three.
Against Dmitri Young, Chen throws all change-ups, except
for one fastball at 88 where Chen visibly has to exert himself just to get
that high. You can see right away he doesn’t locate as well when he’s
pitching with high effort, and only a sliding catch by Miguel
Tejada
saves a screamer from going through for a hit.


2B Brian Roberts
LF B.J. Surhoff
3B Melvin Mora
SS Miguel Tejada
RF Sammy Sosa
1B Chris Gomez
DH Jay Gibbons
C Geronimo Gil
CF Jeff Fiorentino

Really, Chris Gomez is the best you can do against a
lefty at first base? It makes sense to rest Rafael
Palmeiro
and his aging bat against a lefty, but given how easy it
is to get big, immobile right-handed batters who can crush left-handed
pitching, why are you playing someone who doesn’t even hit well enough to
be a starting big-league shortstop?

There are two problems in play here. First, injuries are starting to grind
down the Orioles, so much so that it’s an open question if they’ll stay above
third place by the All-Star break, let alone remain in atop the division. Luis
Matos
, Larry Bigbie, Val
Majewski
and, most recently, Javy Lopez have hit
the DL. Second, the farm system is lacking in reinforcements, with only 30-year-old journeyman Alejandro
Freire
showing any kind of pop, no minor-league veterans
available to help, and high-level hitting prospects nowhere to be seen.
Thanks to years of neglect by the former regime and a draft and
development program under the front office that may take years to bear
fruit–if it ever does–the Orioles will need to explore the trade market
to have any hope of upgrading the big-league roster should they stay in
the race. They’re stuck with Gomez and the like, and their bench figures
to give them problems all year.

The scouting report on Ledezma notes that he’s gone six straight starts
throwing fewer than six innings and that he needs to mix his pitches
better, with his fastball and change both good offerings when used and
located properly. He gets a test right away facing AL MVP candidate and
story-of-the-year Brian Roberts. There are plenty of
theories that may explain Roberts’ emergence this season. But as Nate
Silver noted last week
, he’s set a new baseline with his performance,
and as we enter June, we should start to take his performance more
seriously. If he does keep going, expect sales of Nike and Bausch&Lomb’s
MaxSight contact lenses–so effective, Roberts swears, that he can pick up the
stitching on the baseball as it’s whizzing toward him
–to skyrocket.
The one thing that jumps out at you when you watch him are his quick
hands: Even on 90-plus fastballs, his hands seem to get through the
hitting zone lightning-fast, as they do on a 93-mph fastball from Ledezma,
drilled for a leadoff double.

B.J. Surhoff tries to bunt the first pitch he sees, but fouls it
off. Ledezma comes into the game with a 6.52 ERA, it’s an American League
game in the year 2005 in the first inning, and Surhoff, his manager or
someone, somewhere has decided that a bunt is the best tactical move in
this spot. In any case, on the second pitch Surhoff slaps at a pitch to
get a groundout to second, his swinging bunt having the same net effect of
advancing the runner to third. Melvin Mora, who before
Roberts was one of the most amazing out-of-nowhere stories both on his
team and in all
of baseball
, hits a grounder to third on a fat, thigh-high fastball.
Inge was playing deep enough that the run was almost conceded, but the
ball was hit so hard that Inge was able to make the throw home to cut down
Roberts trying to score. Tejada gets another fastball thigh-high down the
middle and crushes it to center on the first pitch, where it’s caught just
in front of the wall. This marks the start of a day-long pattern of
Ledezma living dangerously.

Quick notes:

  • According to Allen, some Orioles observers are saying the reason Roberts
    is hitting for power is because pitchers are challenging him more; they’re
    scared of putting him on and having him steal bases, so they throw strikes
    in the fat part of the plate to try and prevent walks. It’s a nice theory,
    but unlikely. Roberts stole 23 bases in 29 tries in 2003, 29 in 41
    attempts in 2004–it’s not as if people suddenly discovered he could run.
    You’d also think after a few homers pitchers would stop grooving pitches,
    realizing how much more dangerous a home run is than a potential
    walk-plus-steal.

    I’m still intrigued by the contact lens theory.
    Ted Williams was simply a great hitter rather than merely
    a great power hitter; he’s also considered the hitter with the best
    eyesight of all time. If we assume a certain amount of strength and
    athleticism among a large segment of the big-league population, you wonder
    how many other formerly pedestrian players suddenly go nuts if they can
    improve their eyesight dramatically? Of course with offense down
    league-wide, maybe this is just a one-man fluke, soon to dissipate.

  • Speaking of the decline in offense so far this year, the amount of debate
    on this front dwarfs the Roberts quandary. Steroids have been oft-cited as
    the cause of this drop-off. But how
    realistic is it
    that hitters would go off the juice, then immediately
    stop hitting for power? On the Baseball Prospectus mailing list,
    Joe Sheehan has asserted that it’s a greater number of strikes being called that’s to blame. I think
    it’s just the generation of good, young pitchers breaking onto the scene,
    arriving faster than new hitting talent.

    Meanwhile Clay Davenport has a different take, taken more from his day job
    as a meteorologist than any EqA-derived inspiration:


    The weather in the Northeast–call it Baltimore, Washington, Philly, New
    York, Boston for sure, plus probably Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh,
    Cincinnati, Cleveland–has been considerably colder than usual for May.
    Yesterday (May 25) it was drizzly with a high of 55 (in Baltimore). That’s
    a third of the league. Baltimore and D.C. both have one-year park factors
    well below what was expected, Cleveland looks low, Toronto is above (of
    course, they’re domed), Philly is above. I don’t know if its enough to
    “explain” the difference, but it certainly nudges it in the right
    direction.

    (James Click noted in his article on steroids and their possible connection
    to lower offense how average temperatures were lower in April 2005 than in
    previous years. The same holds true for May, though those figures remain
    comparable to 2002-2003 levels).

  • Allen points out how Monroe is the fifth Tiger to beat cleanup in less
    than two months, then notes how the team misses Magglio
    Ordonez
    . Several months later, this remains one of the most
    bizarre free-agent signings of the last decade, maybe ever. Yes the Tigers
    threw in all kinds of clauses they hoped would protect themselves, but five
    years, $75 million
    ? That signing looks similar to Eric
    Milton
    ‘s in Cincinnati: It’s almost like each team’s owner
    suddenly decided, late in the free-agent cycle, that the team should go
    out and spend big on one free agent, price be damned. The end result when
    you’re given that kind of freedom but with only limited options out there
    is often ugly. Spend the money or don’t, but give your brain trust time to
    operate.

Back to the action, and Chen’s Glavine-ing the Tigers to death. He throws
three change-ups in a row to Monroe, working away the whole time. The goal
is to expand the hitter’s strike zone, and maybe the umpire’s too. When he
comes back with a 85-mph fastball out over the plate–after Chen misses
his inside target–Monroe pops out to first. Monroe’s reaction spoke
volumes: Monroe slammed bat in disgust, knowing he missed a fat one
because Chen had him thinking of a different pitch in a different
location. Chen follows that up blowing an 84-mph fastball by Rodriguez,
then inducing him to pop out to center on a change, and going change,
change, fastball–all outside–to Marcus Thames, followed
by another change outside and below the knees that Thames misses by a foot
for the strikeout. Chen retires the first 11 hitters in order before the
Tigers even manage a single baserunner.

Bunting again becomes the topic in the bottom of the second, when
Ledezma’s wildness leads to two walks to start the inning. After Ledezma
gets Jay Gibbons to pop out to left without advancing the
runners, Allen reflects: “You know the Tigers are loving the fact that
Gibbons, a left-hander going up against a left-hander with runners on
first and second, was not up there sacrifice bunting, trying to move those
runners up. This Orioles bunch, they don’t bunt a whole lot, they’ve got
some sluggers over there.” Impemba underscores that fact, pointing to
Roberts, Mora and Tejada all having 10 homers or more already. “With good
reason,” Impemba concludes of the Orioles’ non-bunting ways. The punchless
Geronimo Gil being up next only increases the need to
avoid bunting. After the pop-up Ledezma starts getting his pitch sequences
back on track, throwing a raft of low fastballs to Gil to try to induce a
double play, humming them in as fast as 94. Though they don’t get the twin
killing, Ledezma does strike Gil out, getting out of the inning unscathed
after rookie Jeff Fiorentino takes strike three on an
inside-corner fastball at the knees.

With Javy Lopez likely to be out six to eight weeks, his loss compared to
a full slate of Geronimo Gil could cost the O’s more than one win in the
standings, as Keith Woolner explains:

Lopez PECOTA-projected
weighted-mean EqMLVr
= .071
Gil weighted mean EqMLVr = -.180
Difference in EqMLVr = .251 runs per game
Over 45 games: 11.25 runs, 1.125 wins

The Tigers and O’s exchange runs in the fourth, as Fiorentino jars the ball
out of Sosa’s hands for an error on an outfield miscommunication, followed
by Baltimore scoring on a pair of walks, a sacrifice by Gomez (apparently
the Orioles do bunt, though why they do in the fourth inning, down a
run, is a mystery) and a groundout to first.

That sets the stage for the Baltimore fifth, Ledezma’s swan song. After
putting the leadoff man on for the fourth time in five innings–and the
first two baserunners on for the third time–Ledezma runs out of Houdini
moves this time. Fiorentino and Roberts reach on a single and a
walk. Surhoff comes up, looking determined to see his sacrifice
attempt through, squaring around right after Ledezma comes set on the
first two pitches. With the count 1-1, though, the O’s take the bunt sign
off, and Surhoff fouls the pitch down the left side for strike two. On the
next pitch, he lines it into the right-center-field gap. The hit cashed
two runs, gave the Orioles the lead, and knocked Ledezma out of the game.

Eschewing the sacrifice isn’t about sabermetric orthodoxy; bunting to move
the runner over is worth
it sometimes
. But managers need to do a better job of deciphering
situations. In the early-to-middle innings, against an erratic pitcher,
when he’s in deep trouble, why bail him out?! Need one run in the ninth
against Mariano Rivera, in a tie game? OK, that
makes sense. The sacrifice can become a tactic based on not wanting to
lose, rather than playing to win, the fear of the double play or wasted
opportunity rather than envisioning a big inning. After a Sosa bloop
single, an RBI double by Gomez and a sacrifice fly by Gil, the O’s have
their big inning, and lead 6-1.

A Dmitri Young leadoff homer in the sixth makes it 6-2 Orioles. Though Chen
gets through the rest of the sixth with a four-run lead, his command is
wavering after loading the bases in the fifth and struggling to put hitters
away in the sixth. Though it takes a lot of patience, hitters can counter
the Glavine approach by waiting on pitches rather than swinging early,
taking pitches off the outside corner and daring the pitcher to come in
with a fastball. Though Chen never does come inside with his mid-80s
heater, the Tigers are starting to wait on and drive more curves and
change-ups. When Vance Wilson works him for a leadoff
walk in the top of the seventh, Manager Lee Mazzilli pulls Chen. His starter’s
line: 6+ IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 7 K, the type of performance the
Orioles will need from him all year to contend.

In truth, they may need a lot more. The club’s middle-of-the-pack bullpen
gets exposed in a hurry, as Steve Reed throws fuel on the
fire. A Nook Logan infield hit sets up a screaming liner
off the right-field scoreboard by Inge. The action only gets more
frustrating from there:

  • Incredibly, Wilson fails to score from second on the ball hit off the
    wall, despite Sosa turning to field the ball, clearly accepting the likely
    double.

  • Trammell, apparently wracked by managerial inertia or Ebola or something,
    leaves Martinez in to hit with the bases loaded and nobody out, down four
    in the seventh. Martinez pops out to left and fails to cash any runners.

  • Young crushes a two-run double off the right-field scoreboard, his third
    extra-base hit of the game (he’d go on to go 8-for-12 for the series, with
    two homers and two doubles).

  • Mazzilli, also wracked by managerial inertia, apparently doesn’t
    think Reed has been crushed quite enough, as he elects to leave him in to
    face Monroe, who already has two homers in the series. Monroe just
    misses a home run on an inside change-up to run the count to 2-2. Then
    after fouling off an 85-mph fastball, Monroe gets the same inside
    change-up and smokes it over the left-field wall for a go-ahead three-run
    homer. With Jorge Julio available and Steve
    Kline
    , B.J. Ryan and others behind him, it’s
    hard to see why Mazzilli pressed his luck.

As the Tigers go on to win the game 8-6, the O’s cast more light on their
plight in the ninth, giving James BaldwinJames
Baldwin!
–his first major-league appearance of 2005. Lacking the Red
Sox’s depth and the Yankees’ front-line talent, it’d hard to see
the Orioles holding up much longer unless Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan
look to upgrade in a hurry. The team leads the AL East by four games after
Monday night’s win, though. For management the key will be not getting
complacent, making the necessary improvements while there’s still a lead
to protect.

The Tigers won’t be playing any meaningful October games. But
seeing them celebrate their sweep, we’re reminded that there’s always
something at stake, 162 times a year.

Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week has the Los
Angeles Dodgers hosting the Milwaukee Brewers, Sunday June 5, 4 p.m. ET
(Channel 743 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Brad
Penny
and Wes Obermueller will take the hill.
Vin Scully on a warm summer day–can’t beat it.

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