SweetSpot: Atlanta Braves
Miami Marlins (@Marlins) April 23, 2014
Well, I certainly hope so, because Jose Fernandez was absolutely dealing on this particular Tuesday night. It's hard to imagine Fernandez or any pitcher looking much more dominant than he did, although Alex Wood certainly tried.
Fernandez tied his career high with 14 strikeouts in the Marlins' 1-0 win over the Braves, walked nobody, took a one-hitter into the eighth inning before giving up two more hits (one of them a chopper off the plate) and twice fanned Freddie Freeman -- who had struck out just 10 times in 19 games entering this contest -- on swinging strikes. He fanned Freeman on a curveball and four-seam fastball. He got Jason Heyward to end the sixth on that disappearing slider of his. He got Justin Upton to end the seventh on a 96 mph "hit it if you can" fastball. He blew away Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis six times in six at-bats.
The one chance the Braves had against the 21-year-old phenom came in the eighth. Chris Johnson led off with a line single to right and Fernandez fanned Uggla and Gattis. But Andrelton Simmons reached on that infield single to bring up pinch hitter Ryan Doumit. Fernandez had worked quickly all game long: Throw strike, get ball, throw another strike. With only one baserunner until the eighth, he had worked almost entirely from the windup. Now he took a little more time between pitches, took a deep breath and walked around the mound. He was over 100 pitches by now. With one strike, he threw a meaty 95 mph fastball down the middle. That was Atlanta's one opportunity, the one pitch Fernandez missed on this night; but Doumit fouled it off. Two pitches later, he tapped weakly back to Fernandez.
After 109 pitches, Fernandez was gone, and it was probably the right move. He let it all out in those final pitches to Doumit. Steve Cishek closed it out with a one-two-three ninth -- the last a third strikeout for Freeman -- to notch his 33rd save in a row.
Fernandez improved to 3-1 with a 1.99 ERA, with a Game Score of 90, the highest of his young career. For the second straight start, Wood was a tough-luck "loser" in a 1-0 game. He allowed four hits and one run in eight innings with 11 strikeouts and no walks. His awkward, herky-jerky delivery from the left side isn't pretty and he doesn't throw as hard as Fernandez, but nothing he throws is straight and he moves up and down the zone. He's tough and I'm guessing batters have a hard time with his unique delivery. His fastball has a natural tail away from right-handed batters and they're hitting just .202 off him this season. He mixes in a curve and changeup and so far he's thrown strikes, with just seven walks in five starts. He's 2-3, but his 1.54 ERA is even lower than Fernandez's and he's one of the reasons Braves starters have allowed two earned runs or fewer in 19 of 20 games.
How good of a duel was it? Maybe the best one we'll end up seeing all season. Wood's Game Score was 81. Last season, we had just three games where both starters posted a Game Score of 80 or more: Kris Medlen-Cliff Lee (who beat Wood the other day), Francisco Liriano-Stephen Strasburg and Jose Quintana-Justin Masterson. But none of those three games matched the combined Game Score of 171 of this one. The last game to score that high with both starters at 80 or higher was in August of 2012, when Luke Hochevar (87) and David Price (84) both tossed eight scoreless innings and allowed a combined four hits. Matt Cain (85) and Lee (86) also had a combined 171 in April of that year. The last game with a higher Game Score featured Josh Beckett (86) and Jeff Niemann (86) in July of 2011. Both went eight scoreless innings as Beckett allowed one hit, Niemann two. (The game ended up 1-0 in 16 innings as the teams went a combined 8-for-102.)
So maybe this game will prove to be the best duel of the season. It's going to be hard to top 25 strikeouts, no walks and seven hits allowed from the starters.
Then again, the Marlins and Braves are in the same division. They even meet again next week in Miami. Can we get a rematch?
- Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado got five games.
- Brewers outfielder and lightning rod Carlos Gomez got three games.
- Pirates outfielder Travis Snider got two games.
- Pirates catcher Russell Martin got one game.
Notably absent is Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, who kind of instigated the whole thing when he yelled at Gomez after Gomez's triple. Still, yelling at a guy isn't the same thing as throwing at a batter's head, so I'm not sure you can really call Cole an instigator here just because Gomez reacted (Brewers fans, of course, will disagree).
Anyway, I think there's a bigger picture here. This whole "play the game the right way" thing has gotten out of control. What's the right way? As Jon Paul Morosi wrote on FOX:
But for the most part, Gomez needs to be celebrated -- not discouraged -- for what he brings to major league baseball. At a time when the sport's message on instant replay and home-plate collisions has become muddled, Gomez illuminates an even greater concern: Why do major league players take exception to peers who have the audacity to enjoy themselves on a baseball field?
If Gomez's story sounds familiar, it should. Replace "Carlos Gomez" with "Yasiel Puig" or "Jose Fernandez," and the basic theme holds true: A Latin American-born player has become a star in the major leagues, and he's supposed to "tone down" his celebrations and remove the individuality from his game because "we don't do that here."
In my chat Tuesday, we had a big discussion about Gomez and his theatrics on the field. Gomez, who also had a flare-up against the Braves last September, is the common link, one reader wrote. Jacob from Georgia wrote, "Why do people keep pretending the [Brian] McCann/Gomez incident was about pimping a home run? It's blatantly clear to anyone who saw it happen that McCann and [Freddie] Freeman and everybody else were simply sticking up for [Paul] Maholm. Guys have pimped homers against the Braves before plenty of times, and we haven't seen McCann do anything. McCann got in Gomez's face because Gomez made a fool of himself by screaming at Maholm unprovoked. I guess it makes for a better mindless meme if we pretend that McCann is the rules police though, regardless of how little sense it makes."
Of course, it's not that simple, is it? Maholm had hit Gomez earlier in the season so Gomez probably had a rush of adrenaline after hitting the home run, screamed, and then had Freeman yelling at him as he rounded first base and McCann standing in the middle of the baseline as he neared home plate. McCann, of course, had another incident earlier in September with Fernandez. The Braves also had a bench-clearing incident against the Nationals in August after Julio Teheran hit Bryce Harper.
Plus, all this showing enjoyment and emotion on the field isn't a new thing. Pete Rose ran to first base on walks; he wasn't given the nickname "Charlie Hustle" out of admiration. Rickey Henderson had his snap catch in the outfield and was showboating home runs in the '80s. Dennis Eckersley used to point at batters after striking them out. Roger Clemens showed up to a playoff game with war paint on his face. You don't think Babe Ruth styled a few home runs?
I mean, we can go back to the days when players hit home runs and ran the bases with their heads down and didn't even stop as they crossed home plate. Or we can enjoy that there are different ways to play the game.
2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.
3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.
4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.
5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.
6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.
7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.
8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.
9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.
10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.
Youthful pitching powered the 2013 Braves to a convincing NL East title, as their rotation combined for a 3.51 ERA on the backs of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. A surplus of young pitchers allowed Atlanta to part with some of their older arms in Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, but as the 2014 season grew closer to fruition, the Braves failed to leave spring training with a confident rotation.
It took Brandon Beachy, Medlen and Minor to suffer injuries before Harang pitched an inning with the Braves. This massive injury bug would have most teams laboring to find enough arms to stay afloat, but performances like Harang's against the Mets show why the Braves have succeeded despite misfortune.
The Braves didn't end up with a gaudy no-hitter over the Mets, but Harang's start represents the most recent streak of success in the Braves' pursuit of quality starting pitchers. It was a battle for Harang, who threw 51 balls and toiled with six walks, but the Braves got yet another quality start from the back end of their rotation. For a team with such bad luck with the health of their pitchers, they have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.
While performances by veterans like Harang are one source of their starting pitching success, the Braves have shown no lack of benefit when finding even younger starters. David Hale enjoyed some success in 471 minor league innings, but his career minor league ERA was nothing spectacular at 3.69. Thus far, Hale has shown up in Atlanta ready to contribute, and after giving the team two great starts in 2013, he's put together two respectable performances for the 2014 team.
Having access to this crop of young pitchers helped the Braves in a much larger way this March. A cheap and young rotation, still in their first few seasons of arbitration, allows the Atlanta front office to make big emergency purchases like that of Ervin Santana. But even here we see the value of the Braves' ability to scout pitching. Atlanta landed Santana on a one-year deal over Ubaldo Jimenez on a three-year deal, and in this very small sample size in mid-April, Santana has given up just one run in two starts while Jimenez has allowed 13 runs in three starts.
It's hard to make a proper judgment when it isn't even three weeks into the season, but after suffering such a horrible chain of injuries to their rotation, the Braves now lead the majors with a combined 1.47 ERA out of their starters. Be it their fielding, their front office or their management on the field, it seems that no matter what happens to the Braves, nothing can stop their ability to pitch.
Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.
True or not? Well, here are some examples:
- The impetus for our discussion was Tony Gwynn Jr., a career .245 hitter with no power who owns a career OPS+ of 75. After Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg benched Ben Revere for dropping two fly balls, Gywnn took over in center -- and took over Revere's leadoff spot for four games. Remember, Gwynn wasn't even in the majors last season.
- When Toronto lost Maicer Izturis to an injury, the Jays called up Munenori Kawasaki. In his first game, he hit second, which sabermetricians will say is one of the spots you want your best hitter (second or fourth). So one day he's not good enough to be on the team, the next day manager John Gibbons hits him second. In over 400 career plate appearances, Kawasaki has hit .221/.307/.288. Instead of leaving Edwin Encarnacion batting fifth, why not just move everyone up? Jose Bautista second, Adam Lind third and Encarnacion fourth?
- The Padres have hit Alexi Amarista second three times since Sunday. He hit a home run earlier in the season, but he's still a career .234 hitter with a .280 OBP and little power. On Monday, Amarista hit second, while Will Venable, a good hitter, batted eighth (against a right-hander, so no lefty in play for Venable). Venable is off to a bad start, but still ...
- Xavier Nady hit cleanup for the Padres on Wednesday night, which maybe says more about the Padres than Bud Black. Nady was out of the majors last year after hitting .184 in 2012. The last time he had an OPS above league average was 2008. But, hey, lightning in a bottle or something, I guess.
- B.J. Upton continues to hit second for the Braves, as Fredi Gonzalez pulls the opposite of Black and refuses to react to small sample sizes (Andrelton Simmons, off to a .333 start with no strikeouts, hit eighth Wednesday). Of course, there is last year's sample size for Upton to consider.
- The Royals called up Johnny Giavotella last week for one game. He hit second.
- Buck Showalter has hit Delmon Young second four times. Against a left-hander, I guess I could reluctantly accept that. But three of those games were against a right-hander. Young had a .293 OBP last year against righties. In 2012, it was .279. In 2011, it was .288. He also grounds into a fair number of double plays. But, hey, otherwise he's the perfect No. 2 hitter. (To be fair, Young probably isn't the worst hitter on the Orioles. Boy does that team have some OBP issues. They're third in the AL in batting average but 14th in OBP.)
- When Michael Bourn started the year on the DL for Cleveland, Nyjer Morgan made the team. He hit leadoff seven games. He actually played well (.348), but when Bourn returned Morgan was sent down to the minors. Terry Francona did catch a little lightning there.
- Bryan Price, of course, continues to hit Billy Hamilton leadoff. But he's not even the Reds' worst hitter right now: That's Zack Cozart and his .109 average. Plus, Price has moved Joey Votto up to the No. 2 spot, so he deserves credit for a solid sabermetric-approved decision there.
- The Marlins have hit Adeiny Hechavarria first or second five times in 16 games.
- Derek Jeter has hit leadoff once and second 10 times. (I kid, I kid!)
Look, it's early and these are just a few scattershot examples. If Upton continues to hit .180 and Simmons .300, Gonzalez will make a change soon enough. None of these are Alcides Escobar-type situations yet, when Ned Yost was still hitting Escobar second into July last season despite a sub-.280 OBP.
Still, with all the information that front offices use -- and some of that has filtered down to the field level (such as all the shifting that now takes place) -- it's still strange that managers continue to muck up the batting order or overreact to a few games. The odd thing is most managers probably obsess over this as much as any part of their job. I still think they're too beholden to the conventional approach of a fast guy hitting leadoff and then your two best hitters batting third and fourth. Because usually want a decent hitter following their two best hitters, that often leaves a mediocre guy batting second.
The other problem? There just aren't enough good hitters these days to fill out a perfect lineup card.
So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
- The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
- Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
- It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
- Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
- Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
- Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
- Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
- Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).
This won't keep up, of course. At some point he'll face Jose Fernandez and Fernandez will throw a 3-2 slider that will break from behind Simmons' rear end to the opposite side of the batter's box and Simmons will flail helplessly and wonder how somebody can throw a cowhide-covered piece of cork and yarn like it's a Wiffleball.
Still, it raises the fun idea: Is it possible for a player to have more errors in a season than strikeouts? In this day and age, with strikeouts in abundance and errors down, it's a difficult ratio to achieve. (Simmons had 14 errors last year while striking out 55 times.) But not impossible. In the past 10 seasons, four players have fanned 30 or fewer times in a season of at least 502 plate appearances: Jeff Keppinger (2008), Placido Polanco (2005 and 2007), Nomar Garciaparra (2006) and A.J. Pierzynski (2004). Marco Scutaro had the lowest total last year with 34 K's in 547 PAs.
Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez has led the majors in errors each of the past two seasons with 27. Ian Desmond committed 34 in 2010. Mark Reynolds, when he was playing third base, had two 30-error seasons. Garciaparra had a 25-error season in 2002 (alas, he struck out 63 times that year). So we just need somebody with Scutaro's contact ability and Alvarez's hands.
Diane Firstman of the Value Over Replacement Grit blog did more research on the topic and discovered the "record" since divisional play began in 1969 is nine more errors than strikeouts, by Gary Sutherland, who had 21 errors and 12 strikeouts in 1971, and Felix Fermin, who had 23 errors and 14 strikeouts in 1993.
She also found the all-time leader in this area. Check her blog for more info!
But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"
Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.
Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.
Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.
But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.
Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.
Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.
The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.
This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.
Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.
Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.
He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.
The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.
PHILADELPHIA -- After beating up on the Washington Nationals all weekend, the Atlanta Braves reached a point Monday night where they appeared to be rolling toward a nice, methodical win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the momentum began whipsawing in umpteen different directions and vertigo took hold in the dugout, and it was the kind of game when bald managers make jokes about how they’re glad they don’t have any hair to turn gray.
“It was almost like two different games out there tonight,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Atlanta’s second most reliable reliever, Luis Avilan, morphed into a human line-drive dispenser in the eighth inning to turn a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit. Then Dan Uggla, a power hitter who entered Monday night with a .195 average and zero homers in his first 41 at-bats this season, lofted a grand slam into the left-field seats in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 9-6 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
And then, when the bullpen gates swung open and everyone expected All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to come jogging out to nail it down, out came David Carpenter, who was pressed into service because Kimbrel has a sore right shoulder. (Nothing serious, Kimbrel insists. But he still might require a “few days” of rest and maintenance to get back on the mound.)
It’s hard to tell precisely what lesson to draw from the aforementioned sequence of events. But if you begin with the premise that resilience is paramount during a 162-game season, that’s a pretty good start.
“That’s baseball,” Uggla said. “A comfortable win turns into an uncomfortable loss sometimes -- or an uncomfortable win. It’s just the way the game is. You can never think that things are going to work out a certain way.”
If anyone can grasp that concept, it’s the Braves, who have to be feeling pretty good about themselves with their 9-4 start, given the numerous unsightly alternatives.
Think back a little more than a month ago, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy learned they would need Tommy John surgery and the Atlanta rotation bordered on wrecked beyond repair. A pessimist might have described the projected Opening Day rotation as “Teheran and Wood, and not very good.”
Things have fallen into place quite nicely since then. Aaron Harang, picked up by Atlanta in late March after he was released by Cleveland, has been terrific, with a 0.96 ERA and a .145 batting average against in three starts. Reinforcements are on the way, with Mike Minor close to returning from a shoulder issue and Gavin Floyd (recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) not far behind. And the Braves just might have found themselves a new ace in Ervin Santana, who is giving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a primer on how an unemployed free agent can cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.
Like Morales and Drew, Santana was trapped in free-agent compensation hell before downsizing his expectations and signing a one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta on March 12. Two starts into his tenure with the Braves, he has a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings, and he’s showing that a full complement of spring training innings can be highly overrated.
Santana was lights-out in his National League debut with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and was almost as formidable against the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters in six innings, with every one coming on a swing and miss. Santana complemented a mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and changeup that induced an abundance of tentative, awkward swings.
“He has three plus pitches and he attacks hitters,” said a scout who watched Santana at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. “A lot of swings and misses. We all wondered how he stayed out there on the market that long. Money, I guess. But he’s pretty good.”
Santana insists he doesn’t have any extra motivation after a winter of anxious unemployment. But it’s clear he made the right decision to take the plunge and go back on the market when he did.
“I don’t have to prove anything,” Santana said. “Just be me and pitch every time I take the mound. It was tough for me to get a job with the draft compensation being part of the deal. I don’t want anything bad for anybody. But injuries happen. That’s part of the game. When [the Braves] reached out to me I said, 'OK, let’s do it.’”
Gonzalez knew Santana would be a good fit in Atlanta when Kansas City GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, two old friends, both called him and raved about Santana as a person, a professional and a competitor from his days with the Royals. If Gonzalez is surprised about anything to this point, it’s that a pitcher as slight as Santana can summon so much life from that right arm. The dreadlocks merely add to Santana's aura.
“If you took a poll of people who didn’t know baseball and said, ‘What does that guy do for a living?’ I think baseball would be the last thing they’d think,” Gonzalez said. “They’d probably say this guy is an artist or a singer.”
Santana is 1-0 through two starts, and Atlanta’s supporting cast showed enough signs of life to bode well for him and the rest of the Atlanta staff moving forward:
• Evan Gattis, who hit two home runs Monday, is a career 4-for-20 at Citizens Bank Park. All four of those hits are home runs.
• Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta’s all-world defensive shortstop, went 3-for-5 and is now hitting .341 this season. He has yet to strike out in 41 at-bats.
• Uggla committed a throwing error, but he made two sensational plays in the field and sent two balls into the seats. If the Braves plan on maintaining their early momentum, they need Uggla, Gattis and the rest of the lineup to give Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton some help over the coming weeks and months.
“We have a lot of guys who can change the game with one swing,” Uggla said.
For now, the Braves are just happy to be in “weathered-the-storm” mode. After hitting rock bottom in spring training, they're fully prepared for the wild emotional swings that a baseball season brings. Some nights that trait comes in handier than others.
He struggled last season, hitting .179, and was left off the Atlanta Braves' playoff roster for Elliot Johnson, a backup the Kansas City Royals had released earlier in the season.
It's fair to say that Uggla has gained the most out of his natural talent and played the game the way it worked for him. I think part of the hesitancy to embrace Uggla is that he has never looked the part of a second baseman, not with his bodybuilder's physique, swing-for-the-fences approach at the plate and rigid actions on defense. But he has been a productive player, even when he was hitting .233 and .220.
Those days, however, are gone. As we saw in 2013, Uggla's bat is no longer a positive. The defense, never his best trait, has slipped even more. With one walk in 11 games, even that aspect of his game may be disappearing. The Braves' offense, while showing some life in an impressive weekend sweep of the Washington Nationals, can hardly afford to carry a no-hit second baseman who can't field. The Braves are reluctant to cut bait with Uggla because he's making $13 million this season and $13 million more in 2015, but it's time to admit that Uggla is no longer a championship-caliber starter.
Yes, he has played only 11 games, so we include the "It's only two weeks into the season" hedge here, but the signs of Uggla's decline are clear. The lifeblood of any hitter is the ability to hit the fastball. Uggla's batting averages and isolated power against fastballs the past five years:
2010: .352 average, .251 ISO
2011: .255 average, .284 ISO
2012: .240 average, .184 ISO
2013: .224 average, .200 ISO
2014: .190 average, .000 ISO
Those numbers likely indicate his bat speed is diminishing. Five years ago, pitchers threw Uggla fastballs 46 percent of the time. This year, it's up to 58 percent. The fear that Uggla is going to send a heater over the fence is no longer there.
If the Braves had more weapons on offense, maybe you give Uggla more time, despite the warning signs. But the Braves don't appear to have that luxury. Freddie Freeman is great, Justin Upton is in one of his hot streaks right now and Jason Heyward will be fine. But the rest of the lineup may have serious OBP issues: Evan Gattis ended up with an OBP under .300 last year after his hot start and hasn't walked yet; B.J. Upton has 16 strikeouts and one walk; Chris Johnson hit .321 last year thanks to a high BABIP but has 14 strikeouts and one walk. The one bright spot from the non-Freeman/Heyward/Justin Upton group has been Andrelton Simmons, who hasn't struck out in 40 plate appearances and is hitting .306.
The Braves have options, starting with Tommy La Stella, who hit .343 in Double-A in 2013. He's off to a .280/.367/.320 start at Triple-A. He doesn't have any power, but he puts the ball in play and scouts praise his situational hitting and baseball intelligence. He also has been injury-prone in the minors (he battled an elbow issue last year that limited him to 88 games). They could inquire about a player such as Seattle's Nick Franklin, currently in Triple-A and taking his demotion out on PCL pitchers with a .412 average and three homers in nine games. The Diamondbacks have spare infielders and the Braves could upgrade defensively with Cliff Pennington or Didi Gregorius.
You can't dump Uggla until there's a better solution, whether that's La Stella or somebody else. No matter what the Braves end up doing, however, this much is clear: Even if they coast to another division title, you don't want to head into the postseason having to start Elliot Johnson at second base.
We're back with the always popular rapid fire edition of SweetSpot TV, where Eric and myself take a quick trip through the majors. Today's topics include the Brewers, Freddie Freeman, the A's one-two punch, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, the first manager to be fired, Red Sox injuries and Jose Abreu.
According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.
Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."
You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.
Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.
Thoughts on other games ...
- Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
- I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
- With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
- Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
- After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
- Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.
The Atlanta Braves might have signed Ervin Santana out of dire straits when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both went down in spring training with season-ending Tommy John surgeries, but this wasn’t a typical desperate act of digging around in cemeteries to find some retread veteran who had been good four or five years previous.
No, this was a guy who ranked ninth in the American League with his 3.24 ERA with the Royals in 2013. Santana has been inconsistent throughout his career, with three seasons where his ERA was over 5.00, three seasons where he pitched over 200 innings with an ERA under 3.50, and some other seasons in between. That pattern, plus the fact that a team would lose a draft pick for signing him, led to lukewarm interest in Santana’s free agency this winter. He didn’t sign until March 12 and had to settle for a one-year, $14.1 million contract; Atlanta also forfeited its first-round pick in the June draft.
Yes, this came against the Mets, a team hitting .190 and leading the majors in strikeout percentage, but it’s also fair to point out Santana threw an efficient 88 pitches, starting off 20 of the 27 batters he faced with a strike. His first 20 pitches of the game were strikes and he threw just one ball in the first three innings. You command your fastball like that and good results often follow.
"In the bullpen I was all over the place," Santana said. "I just stepped over the line and focused and threw strikes."
Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Info noted that Santana became the third pitcher with at least eight scoreless innings in his first game with the Braves since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. The others to do this were Greg Maddux in 1993 and Derek Lowe in 2009.
There’s nothing fancy about Santana. He throws a lot of four-seam fastballs up in the zone and a lot of sliders, mixing in about five to 10 changeups per game. In 2012, the slider lost some of its bite, he hung a lot of them and he gave up 39 home runs with the Angels in just 178 innings. He regained the feel of the pitch last year and his home runs dropped to 26 in 211 innings and he was a big reason for Kansas City’s first winning season in a decade.
One of the fascinating aspects of his repertoire is that he succeeds despite getting few swings-and-misses with his fastball. Against the Mets, he registered just two in 31 swings (out of 57 total fastballs thrown), but that’s not that unusual for him, as he had just 84 swing-and-misses on his fastball all last season.
When Santana was still available in March, the Blue Jays also made a push to get him, but Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters that Santana’s agent said, "he wanted to pitch in the NL. ... It wasn't money. It wasn't years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL, and there was no way to compete with that."
Signing with the Braves could prove to be a smart move for Santana. He’s pitched his entire career in good pitchers’ parks -- eight years in Anaheim, one in Kansas City -- and now moves to another park that helps fly ball pitchers like himself, not to mention the advantage of getting to face the pitcher in the lineup instead of a designated hitter. Add a strong defensive outfield with the likes of Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers (although Jordan Schafer played center for the struggling B.J. Upton on Wednesday) and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and you have a pitcher who could post an ERA well under 3.00 and turn into a sleeper Cy Young candidate.
Of course, Cy Young candidates usually need run support to help in the ol' win column, and the Braves’ offense has been a nightmare so far, with just 19 runs in eight games. The Braves have managed to go 5-3 despite the offensive struggles because the starters have allowed eight runs, a deadball-era 1.37 ERA.
Considering staff ace Mike Minor is still out as well, that's a nice start for an unheralded group of starters.
Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.
The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.
Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.
Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
- Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
- The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
- The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
- Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
- Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
- Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.