Weekend Preview, April 25 – 27

Seven series this weekend. Let’s get to it.

7. Oakland Athletics (14-8, 4-0 vs. Houston) at Houston Astros (7-16)
Fri – Jesse Chavez (1-0, 1.38 ERA) vs. Brad Peacock (0-2, 6.14)
Sat – Dan Straily (1-1, 5.40 ERA, 2.08 HR/9) vs. Dallas Keuchel (2-1, 3.38)
Sun – Tommy Milone (0-1, 4.24) vs. Collin McHugh (1-0, 0.00)

Collin McHugh hasn’t blogged about it yet, but he made his Astros debut this week and literally emasculated some Seattle hitters, fanning 12 and allowing only three baserunners over six and 2/3 innings. All told he’s pitched fewer than 60 major league innings over three years with three teams. In the past he’s given up hits like crazy, but you just can’t argue against a negative-0.55 FIP. Not anybody can shut this Mariners team down, I tell you what.

Dallas Keuchel looked like little more than roster fodder coming into the season, but his bright start this year has clarified some promising trends in his development. In both 2012 and 2013 — 240-plus innings combined — Keuchel had an ERA over 5.00. He was an extreme groundball pitcher but whenever hitters lifted a ball in the air it was likely to go a long way. And while he hasn’t figured out how to stifle the home runs, Keuchel is improving in nearly every other aspect of his game. In every year his strikeouts per nine have improved, from 4.01 to 7.20 to 9.00. Same with his groundball percentage, from 52.1 to 55.8 to 60.3. His walks per nine have decreased nicely, from 4.11 to 3.05 to 2.25. Of course more strikeouts and fewer walks makes for a better K/BB ratio, but the graph below shows that Keuchel has been improving steadily from one start to the next. One aberrant spike in 2013 can be blocked with your hand to reveal the steady blossoming of that most delicate flower: the left-handed pitcher.

Keuchel is getting more and more hitters to swing at balls Outside the strikezone while also getting more hitters to swing and miss. (In statistical language, his O-Swing% has risen from 29.3 to 31.7 to 34.7 and his Swinging Strike% from 5.5 to 8.9 to 12.0.) Each year he wins more individual contests against hitters, and this year he’s been consistent enough to win.

6. Philadelphia Phillies (11-11) at Arizona Diamondbacks (7-18)
Roberto Hernandez (1-0, 5.75 ERA) vs. Josh Collmenter (0-2, 4.50)
Cliff Lee (3-2, 3.09) vs. Bronson Arroyo (1-2, 9.50 ERA, 8 K, 7 BB in 18 total IP)
A.J. Burnett (0-1, 2.73) vs. Brandon McCarthy (0-4, 6.23)

Bronson Arroyo has started four games but has only 18 innings under his belt. His longest start was five and 1/3 innings. He has faced 90 batters and allowed 37 of them to reach base, effectively allowing a .411 on-base percentage. In other words, the hitter named “Mr. Average Facing Bronson Arroyo” has Miguel Cabrera’s ability to reach base. His counterpart in Saturday’s game, Cliff Lee, has allowed an OBP of .313 so far this season, equivalent to one Yunel Escobar. Not many games this season will feature such a sharp contrast in pitching abilities. Lee is 35 years old and as good as ever. Arroyo is 37, his fastball is hovering around 86 mph, and this might be the end. But his contract runs through 2015.

5. Cleveland Indians (11-11) at San Francisco Giants (12-10)
Carlos Carrasco (0-2, 7.31 ERA) vs. Tim Hudson (2-1, 2.40)
Zach McAllister (3-0, 2.28) vs. Tim Lincecum (1-1, 6.43)
Danny Salazar (0-3, 7.85) vs. Ryan Vogelsong (0-1, 7.71)

Speaking of contracts, let’s play that old game of blindly comparing two items to make a point…

Starting Pitcher Contract A: 2 years, $23.5 million ($9.5 2014, $9.5 2015, $4.5 buyout 2016)
Staring Pitcher Contact B: 2 years, $23 million ($11 2014, $12 2015)

Clearly both contracts were signed this winter, and both were signed by pitchers who have been on the wrong side of 30 for a while. Contract A belongs to the aforementioned Bronson Arroyo. Contract B belongs to Tim Hudson. Half a million dollars and seven points of ERA lie between them.

All of a sudden Ryan Vogelsong can’t keep the ball out of the air:

Year GB% Fb%
2011 45.6% 34.0%
2012 43.5% 38.0%
2013 40.9% 32.0%
2014 21.4% 53.6%

Vogelsong even in those two successful years operated on the thinnest of margins. He lived on the edge of the zone and pitched with such command that he could stretch the strikezone to its limits. Umpires would give him leeway and hitters were forced to chase. When they chased they made poor contact, and often that means groundballs. Now that his command has slipped, hitters don’t chase or whiff as much, and he never had overpowering stuff, so the walks and home runs are piling up.

4. Colorado Rockies (12-11) at Los Angeles Dodgers (13-10)
Jordan Lyles (3-0, 3.04 ERA) vs. Josh Beckett (0-0, 2.57)
Juan Nicasio (2-0, 4.30) vs. Paul Maholm (0-2, 5.60)
Jorge De La Rosa (1-3, 6.38) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (3-1, 2.12)

Who could have guessed that so early on Jordan Lyles would look like the best member of the Rockies’ J brigade? Because of the thin, homer-happy air in Colorado, the Rockies like to target groundball pitchers, and since Lyles joined the team his groundball rate has gone up eight percent from 48.4 to 56.3. That latter figure is good for 15th among qualified starters.

Hyun-Jin Ryu has the blandest, most conventional repertoire of pitches of any Asian pitcher I have ever known. He throws the fastball and changeup primarily, but the slider and the curveball are also regular features. His least-used pitch, the curve, still comes about 10 percent of the time. No doubt Ryu’s balance has kept hitters off-balance and guessing throughout his one-plus year in the majors.

3. San Diego Padres (11-12) at Washington Nationals (12-11)
Robbie Erlin (1-2, 4.15 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 5.33)
Andrew Cashner (2-2, 2.10 ERA, 5.8% SwStr%) vs. Tanner Roark (1-0, 3.80)
Ian Kennedy (1-3, 3.60) vs. Taylor Jordan (0-3, 6.23)

How could Andrew Cashner possibly have such a low Swinging Strike rate? Dude throws 95 mph regularly, but this year he’s been favoring the sinker over the straight fastball. Last year the fastball accounted for 41 percent of his pitches, according to Brooks Baseball, and the sinker for 22. This year it’s 33 and 38, respectively. The big gain in sinkers has come at the expense of Cashner’s changeup, down from 19 percent to just seven. Cashner is altering his repertoire to make it as conducive to grounders as possible. His SwStr% may be down 2.5 percent but his strikeout rate is bizarrely improved, and his groundball rate is up 5.6 percent. The trade-off has yielded good results so far and demonstrated that there is more to Cashner than the oodles of talent in his arm. He has the mental acuity and awareness to execute a qualitative change in his game, and we should stay on the lookout for ways he might continue to improve.

2. Texas Rangers (14-8) at Seattle Mariners (8-13)
Robbie Ross (1-1, 2.31 ERA) vs. Roenis Elias (1-2, 3.22)
Colby Lewis (1-1, 4.22) vs. Felix Hernandez (3-1, 2.04)
Matt Harrison (n/a) vs. Brandon Maurer (0-0, 2.08)

The secretly terrifying Felix Hernandez velocity decline seems to have stalled for the moment (Click to see the engorged version on the original page):

From what we know about most pitchers, velocity tends to rise as the season progresses, peaking around August. If that is the case for Felix, his velocity would be consistently higher than it was last season. Long live the King.

The biggest development in this series is the return of Matt Harrison. Already this season the Rangers have used seven starting pitchers. Two of them have a 9.82 ERA, which doesn’t strike me as a common small-sample number, but nonetheless results from both four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings (Joe Saunders) and 20 earned runs in 18 1/3 innings (Tanner Scheppers). Colby Lewis, Saturday’s starter, returned from injury quite recently himself, so Harrison’s presence signifies the end of stopgap solutions. If Harrison pitches as well as he did before injury, Texas will have four starters inked into their roster: Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, Lewis and Harrison, with Derek Holland due to join them around June. Until such time as Holland is ready, Scheppers and Robbie Ross will vie for that final spot. This kind of competition only makes teams better. The guy who doesn’t get the fifth spot will either go down to AAA to be called upon later or he will bolster the bullpen.

1. Los Angeles Angels (10-11) at New York Yankees (13-9)
C.J. Wilson (2-2, 4.21 ERA) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 4.07)
Hector Santiago (0-3, 3.68) vs. Vidal Nuno(0-0, 6.75)
Garrett Ricahrds (2-0, 2.52) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (3-0, 2.15)

It’s Tanaka! He is must-see television, especially because I haven’t seen him yet.

The Angels are damn good television in their own right. They have the second-highest run differential in the American League and have scored the third-most runs. Despite that, they haven’t been over .500 this season (or since Opening Day of last season). It’s easy to blame the bullpen. Angels relievers have more strikers per nine than any other team’s relievers except for the Brewers, but they also have the most home runs allowed per nine, tied with Philadelphia. And the team’s relievers are sixth-to-last in both walks per nine and ERA. When you see the Angels you see a lot of scoring on both sides. That’s the recipe for an intriguing series against a Yankees lineup of antiques, if not a recipe for ultimate success.

On the surface it may look like Garrett Richards has harnessed his velocity into a workable pitching unit. Alas, he’s walking hitters more than ever, five men every nine innings, fourth-worst among American League starters. His BABIP is second-lowest in the AL, a paltry .217 that simply cannot last. (Modern standard of excellence Clayton Kershaw allowed a .251 batting average on balls in play last year.) With all the walks he hands out, the basepaths are due to be quite crowded against him, once the hits start falling.

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