The Braves might be atop the National League East, the beneficiaries of Justin Upton's slugging largesse, and they just got Jason Heyward back from the disabled list after getting Brian McCann back in action earlier this week.
Yet for all that, the news in the bullpen seems dire after the past 72 hours or so. Start off with Jonny Venters' Tommy John surgery on Thursday: expected, but glum. Then, Jordan Walden landed on the DL on Friday. And then Eric O'Flaherty joined him there on Saturday -- with the always-ominous appointment with Dr. James Andrews to look at his torn ulnar collateral ligament and a likely Tommy John surgery in his future to look forward to.
How much can a team meaningfully prepare for losing just about everybody in your bullpen but your closer? The Braves had already insured themselves by dealing for depth, trading for Walden -- the Angels’ former closer -- during the winter and then adding Orioles veteran Luis Ayala last month.
This isn’t new territory for the Braves: They’ve seemingly used up top-shelf relief talent before, and they probably will again. They worked Aussie side-armer Peter Moylan hard in 2007; he blew out his elbow in 2008. Moylan came back to pitch 172 games combined between 2009-10, scragged his shoulder and hasn’t been the same since. But the Braves got three tremendous relief seasons out of somebody nobody else had even noticed -- and without spending top dollar to get it on the open market.
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJust after Atlanta got Brian McCann back, it lost lefty Eric O'Flaherty, right -- perhaps for the season.
Venters threw 81 games (majors and minors combined) in 2010 before his league-leading 85 in 2011. He wasn’t the same pitcher last season. After he recovers from Tommy John surgery, we’ll see if he’ll ever be that rubber-armed shutdown reliever again.
But you can’t really put that on the Braves as instances of bullpen abuse. Would O’Flaherty or Venters or Moylan have ever amounted to as much? Would they have blown out their arms at some point? They were assets, and the Braves used them to good effect over multiple seasons. For all the advances that have been made in evaluating starting pitcher workloads, there’s still a relative lack of hard information about what’s possible out of the pen in terms of appearances and innings.
It’s also pretty clear that when it comes to ideal workloads, one size does not fit all, so even individual examples don’t form a basis for useful comparison. Not everybody should grow up to be Rollie Fingers or Dennis Eckersley -- pitching one inning and only one inning; not everybody who is left-handed could do what Jesse Orosco or Rick Honeycutt did, either. Not everybody could handle the kind of workload that Mark Eichhorn or Mike Marshall did. In short, managers and general managers are in a constant cycle of adapting to the talent at hand and adapting those to their teams’ needs.
So you can gnash your teeth over these losses, because if you’re a Braves fan, you have the right to be worried. But if anybody can cope, it’s the Braves. One of the most overused tropes about them throughout the '90s and on into the 2000s was that the Braves needed relievers, but whether it was a matter of fishing Kerry Ligtenberg out of the independent leagues, finding Moylan at the World Baseball Classic or investing their full faith in a journeyman like Mike Remlinger, few teams have been as consistently good at conjuring up quality relief help out of thin air to augment their bullpen as the Braves. O’Flaherty came over a waiver claim. They’ve made mistakes (Danny Kolb, anybody?), but they’ve rarely hurt them badly or cost them much.
So, if anybody is going to find quality help on the fly without having to spend top dollar, I’d bet on the Braves doing so in their moment of need. To put their problem in perspective, consider what they still have going for them: Craig Kimbrel owns the ninth, and even if he has had a moment of vincibility or two, he’s still arguably the best reliever in baseball right now. They still have a nifty situational side-arming righty in Cory Gearrin and another live-armed righty in Anthony Varvaro. Walden’s injury doesn’t appear serious; he’ll be back. So will Ayala.
On the other side of every ballgame, Atlanta has a rotation armed with four men who can consistently pitch into the sixth or seventh inning. In the fifth slot, the Braves have a top prospect in Julio Teheran, a live arm who, for his own workload as well as the team’s need for relief, stands ready to bump back into the bullpen once starter Brandon Beachy comes off the DL in a few weeks.
In the aggregate, they’ll be fine if they keep their heads and stick with what they have. What the Braves will need with an eye toward high-leverage matchups later in the season will be a top-shelf lefty, because that’s where they’ve been truly spoiled by having both Venters and O’Flaherty around. If (when) Joe Beimel disappoints, Braves general manager Frank Wren could settle for dealing a Grade C prospect for a similar vet at the deadline. But if he decides to replace like with like and aim for better southpaw support, it’ll be interesting to see whom he targets. The Angels’ Scott Downs or Sean Burnett? Matt Thornton of the White Sox? J.P. Howell of the Dodgers? All it takes is a little bit of big-budget heartbreak and a visible white flag, and those will be run up in good time. The Braves can supply a suitable semi-promising Grade C prospect not yet on the 40-man roster to make it all seem reasonable.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
But, perhaps most fundamentally, any logical impetus to shift Tulo over to third base would trip over a true blue-chip stumbling block: top Rockies prospect Nolan Arenado. After years of anticipation for Colorado fans looking forward to his arrival, Arenado is showing that the future of third base in Denver might already be his.
“Everything’s going good so far. I’m enjoying my time. It’s nice being up. It’s a blessing from God, and I’m very fortunate to be here,” Arenado said earlier this week in Wrigley Field.
Arenado’s arrival was big and splashy. At a time when pitchers have made most of the early headlines, Arenado ripped three home runs in his first seven games. Inevitably, though, the league started adjusting, and he’s hit .170/.200/.508 in the two weeks since.
“They’re throwing different pitches in different counts,” Arenado said. “It’s an adjustment, but I believe when I’m feeling alright, I’ll be alright,” he said with a smile.
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsColorado rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado is taking advantage both of big-league scouting reports and advice from neighbor Troy Tulowitzki.
Rockies infield coach Stu Cole reflected, “I’ve had both of those guys. I had Tulo earlier in his career just after he got drafted. I had Nolan in the Arizona Fall League couple of years ago. I’ll tell you what: This guy made some exciting plays. You just knew once this guy was ready to go to the big leagues and be consistent with what he’s able to do, he was going to make some plays. To have those two guys on the left side, it’s nothing but a plus. You’ve good gloves over there, good arms, and both those guys are going to save a lot of hits for us.”
Cole is one of several familiar faces helping make sure that Arenado settles in. “Stu helps me out big time,” Arenado said. “He always tells me where to go and where to play. It also helps being on major league fields -- they’re really nice, so you’re really fortunate on hops. Starting double plays, Josh Rutledge, I trust him, I’ve been playing with him for a while. I’ve been playing a while with a lot of these guys. As far as positioning, we’re always going hitter by hitter and making adjustments.”
One of the concerns about Arenado as he came up was that he was trying to do too much in the field, something that will have to change as he settles in alongside Tulo on the left side. As Cole noted, “Both of those guys are in that mode of trying to get every ball that’s hit their way. I think Nolan just has that instinct of breaking to the ball whenever it’s hit in his direction.”
“A lot of balls that are going to be hit short, where Tulo might have had to come up and make a one-handed grab, now Nolan’s going to be there to get to some of those balls. In the past, we might have had a few third basemen who wouldn’t have been able to get to some of those balls. I think that’s going to take some pressure off Tulo,” Cole said.
Arenado takes it as a challenge to be part of an effective team with Tulo. “We always communicate about where we need to play,” Arenado said. “I know if he’s playing left, I can still move over a little to the right, because we know we can still cover the hole. We’re definitely good and have a lot of range, so we’re able to split it out in different ways. It’s been fun.”
““Communication between those two guys, that’s something that’s going to get better down the road: Nolan’s going to know where Tulo’s playing, and Tulo’s going to know that there are balls Nolan’s going to get to when he’s coming in," Cole predicted. "Those things will only get better, because two guys will be able to complement each other.”
To have those two guys on the left side, it's nothing but a plus. You've good gloves over there, good arms, and both those guys are going to save a lot of hits for us.” -- Rockies infield coach Stu Cole,
on Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki
One of the other advantages is that at the big league level, Arenado plays with the advantage of better data and scouting info, as well as the benefit of playing alongside one of the best players in baseball at short.
Of the Rockies’ deployment of advanced metrics on defense, Cole said, “That’s something we’ve been using pretty much all season. We use the scouting reports to position these guys, and that’s something Nolan’s still getting used to, but he’s adjusted to it well. He’s not only asking questions, he’s also paying attention, looking into the dugout to see if there’s a place he needs to be moved to and making sure he’s in the right spot. He’s a great student of the game.”
Which is where Arenado has plenty of additional homework to look forward to as he adjusts to pitchers who are already developing a big league book on him.
“There’s a lot more stuff going on up here,” Arenado said. “It’s a lot better in terms of scouting reports. In the minors, it’s still word of mouth: This is what this guy has. But here, we get to see a lot of film of all the different pitchers. We had no video projection screen in the minors and no video of anybody, but here you get everything.”
And here again, he’s getting the benefit of his new teammates. “Tulo and CarGo [left fielder Carlos Gonzalez] add a lot of insight about hitting,” Arenado said. “They’ve seen a lot of these pitchers, but it’s the first time I’m facing them -- they give me a lot of insight from their experience.”
With that sort of assistance on top of his talent, Arenado’s a big part of the Rockies’ future. And now that the future is now, that should leave them well covered for years to come -- at third base and at shortstop.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
ST. LOUIS -- Troy Tulowitzki belongs on the baseball field. Whether a product of self-determination or God-given talent or a little of both, he was made to play shortstop. Where other shortstops simply take their position on the field, Tulowitzki becomes one with his.
As the Rockies go on to the field, Tulowitzki kicks the dirt with his cleats, backward and forward, making a path on the infield. It's ready. Then he spits in his glove, wipes it with his throwing hand and punches the inside. Now his glove is ready, too. He is standing where he has wanted to be since he was a kid: at shortstop, a man with his glove and the infield dirt.
"I think I just enjoy being out there," he said.
Tulowitzki, now in his eighth season in the majors, is off to a great start, batting .319 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs, and hitting .389 with two outs and runners in scoring position. "Usually in my career I struggled early in the season, so it's been nice to get off to a good start and not have an uphill battle," he said.
It wasn't Tulowitzki's bat that generated an interesting tweet this season, however, but his defense. Chipper Jones recently provided his thoughts on the best shortstop in the game:
Y'all are watching the best all around shortstop in the big leagues! Andrelton Simmons.— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Then later, after what we can assume were many responses from fans saying Tulowitzki is the best shortstop:
Lots of Tulo fans tonite. No offense people. Tulo is a great player. If I was a GM I'd move him to third. Simba and Castro r true shortstops— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Tulowitzki was aware of what Jones tweeted.
"I don’t know why he tweeted that. Maybe he's a little bit bored or something, just watching the games," Tulowitzki said jokingly. "But Chipper is a great guy, someone who I have a lot of respect for."
Most consider Tulowitzki the best all-around shortstop in the game, and he won Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011. But although offense is easy to measure, fielding is more difficult. Between fielding percentage, range factor, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, there are many ways to evaluate a player's defense.
Jones' tweet is a great example of the difficulty in using the eye test to evaluate a fielder. Everyone sees things differently. Even the statistics disagree. Simmons leads in defensive runs saved (plus-11; Tulowitzki is second among shortstops at plus-7) and in UZR, where Tulowitzki ranks 10th.
"We are never going to be able to replace or not utilize true eye scouting," said Justin Hollander, director of baseball operations for the Angels. "I think what the defensive metrics will do is allow us to either verify the eye test or make us question the eye test and have some sort of comparison between the two. I don't think it's a replacement. It's just what we have now we can do better on the data that we have, and I think we will."
Suppose a ball comes off a bat toward Tulowitzki at 104 mph and he gets to it. Then suppose the next inning the ball comes off the bat toward Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma at 94 and he gets to it, as well. It might look as if both fielded their positions well, but there's a difference in the range and reaction time needed to make each play.
"It's not good enough to say the ball was hit in this spot and the fielder didn't get to it so therefore he either does or does not have the range of someone else," Hollander says. "Well, where did he start? Where was he lined up? How quick was his reaction? What was the velocity off the bat?"
What will it take to have the perfect fielding statistic?
"We all are sort of sitting here anxiously awaiting FIELDf/x to roll out," Hollander said. "I think what we are really missing, and one thing that we would love to see, is more precision with the whole game tied together.
"So, where the fielder was exactly the moment the pitch was released, what the exit speed of the ball was off the bat, what angle the ball came off the bat, how fast the fielder reacted once the ball came off the bat or even before the ball came off the bat. And then, what line or what route [the fielder] took to the ball. And you know then you can measure arm strength, you can measure release time from getting the ball from your glove or if you barehanded it out of your hand, so I think those are things that would tie the whole game together."
At a recent game in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter hit a line drive over Tulowitzki's head. Tulowitzki almost caught it. He jumped and just missed it. Should he have caught the ball? Right now, we don’t know.
That scenario represents one of the most important missing elements from fielding statistics.
"There's an episode of 'Seinfeld' where Jerry says, 'Oh, little Jerry Seinfeld just ran from my place to Newman's place in 30 seconds.' And they smile and somebody says 'Is that good?' And everybody says, 'I don’t know.'
"So we need to develop a baseline for what is a good [fielder] and what is great; what is average and what is below average. If we start getting all of that information, which we will have with FIELDf/x over the course of seasons, not months or half seasons, we can start to develop baselines for what is normal and what is extraordinary."
Range factor is, simply, assists + putouts per nine innings. It's plays made. Tulowitzki led the NL in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 and ranks second this season. How many shortstops would have caught Carpenter's line drive? Maybe none. Tulo came close.
"I've got Fielding Bible awards, stuff that I don't understand," Tulowitzki said. "These zone ratings and things like that, there's so many different numbers you can look at. I think the one thing you can't tell is the anticipation, where the [shortstops] are setting up, just the smartness of it. It's not even on defense. You can really help by going and telling a pitcher to calm down. I've been there before. That's the stuff that is not going to come up on the stats sheet at all."
Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Francis said Tulowitzki is always thinking on the field, always trying to find that edge.
"He's one of the best shortstops in baseball, so knowing that he's behind you certainly gives you a lot of confidence to let the hitters hit it, knowing that he's going to make most of the plays behind you," Francis said. "Not only that, when he makes trips to the mound at certain times, you can tell he knows what's going on in the game, when he's just giving you a rest ... things like that."
For Tulowitzki, the model shortstop is Derek Jeter.
"Obviously I idolize him," Tulowitzki said. "He's someone that's a leader, a clutch player, just very smart. There's a reason why he plays short at the age he is; it's just because he's very headsy."
Tulowitzki, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is built like Jeter. Watch Tulowitzki take ground balls before the game and you'll notice he has similar movements and a fluid motion like Jeter does when he’s fielding. Jeter and Tulowitzki seem to have the same sense of timing. (Of course, the defensive metrics have long suggested Jeter's range is subpar.) Is there something he can see as the ball comes off the bat?
"I think anticipation is the best word to describe it. Anticipating where the ball would be, knowing what the hitters in this league like to do. I can position myself better than some guys. I'm a bigger guy than a lot of those guys. ... The athletic ability does help, but then the downside of it is being so big, I think it's taken its toll on me with some injuries, but it's the only position I know. I feel like I'm the most valuable there."
Although 38-year-old Jeter has cemented himself as one of the best shortstops of all time, Tulowitzki is 10 years younger and has had some injuries in the past few years. This is why Jones' tweet about Tulowitzki moving to third raises an interesting point.
Tulowitzki said that if there is ever a point in his career when it would benefit the team more for him to play third base, "I'll be all for it."
"But now I'm more valuable at shortstop than I am anywhere else," he said. "We have a great young third baseman (in Nolan Arenado). I'm still one of the better [shortstops], so I don't think there's a reason to make the switch. The other thing is, my injuries haven't happened on defense. They've been more running the basepaths. Things like that. So I feel like I should stay there."
As a shortstop, Tulowitzki said, you are in control of so much on the field, and he enjoys that. He says great shortstops are leaders on defense, and, during the games, he's constantly talking on the field, putting guys in certain spots.
"He's a very unique player," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think there was a trend there several years ago where there were some offensive shortstops. People thought that was going to be the new wave; I disagree. I think the position is far too demanding to expect guys to contribute that type of offense. Tulo is a very unique player. He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the entire game, and he hits in the middle of the lineup."
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Chris Quick of Bay City Ball has an excellent post, complete with graphs and video, pointing out that Cain's release point is different:
From 2007-2010 Cain had a fairly consistent vertical release point. He lowered it in 2011 and it remained at pretty much the same point in 2012. This year, he’s dropped even further. His pitches, across the board, are coming out of a lower release point these days.
Now, this might mean something, it might not mean anything. Chris does point out that since 1980, Cain is 15th in most innings pitched through age 28, and he'll climb several notches higher as the season progresses. Some of those pitchers burned out -- Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Witt, Bret Saberhagen -- while others had long and storied careers (Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens). I don't believe Cain has ever missed a start in his career, and there have been no reports of arm issues. It could just be one of those stretches. For example, he had a 10-start stretch in 2010 where he gave up 33 runs in 62 innings for a 4.65 ERA.
As Chris writes:
It's possible that, at the moment, Cain is just going through some horrible luck and getting burned on home runs. It's possible that once things even out, he'll look a lot like the guy we've seen pitch in San Francisco for so long. His effectiveness with his new release point will be something to keep an eye on all season long, as the Giants will definitely need Cain firing on all cylinders if they want to compete in the NL West.
Here are some other things to keep an eye on:
1. Best of the rest: With Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish having opened the Detroit Tigers-Texas Rangers series Thursday night by allowing a combined 12 runs (eight by Verlander), the pitching should improve as the Tigers will throw Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister out there, and they're thriving with a composite 2.54 ERA and two home runs allowed in more than 100 innings. The Rangers can't match that, but keep an eye on the Sunday night ESPN matchup when lefty Derek Holland faces Fister. The big two of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are hitless in eight at-bats against Holland, while Fister has been torched by David Murphy for four home runs in 18 at-bats.
2. Who's back? The Tigers might think the division is simply theirs to lose, but Terry Francona's Cleveland Indians continue to score many runs and get good enough pitching to have won 14 of 18 games. The Seattle Mariners come to the Lake and will first get to see if right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez is really back. I'm skeptical. OK, so that's not accurate: I don't believe it. Jimenez and his new, consistent mechanics have looked good the past three outings, having permitted three earned runs in 18 2/3 innings. The strikeout rate looks nice, too. I still want to see more. Felix Hernandez is scheduled to start Sunday after leaving his Yankee Stadium outing this week prematurely with back spasms. If the M's lose him, well, forget it.
3. Hello, Coors! Likewise, the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies opened their four-game set Thursday night with aces on the hill and many runs scored, and the bloated ERA of the defending champions isn't likely to look any better after a thin-air weekend in Denver. With Ryan Vogelsong struggling and perhaps soon to be replaced, many eyes will be on inconsistent Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito, scheduled to start Saturday and Sunday. Each hurler has been all or nothing this season; in 16 combined starts split evenly, 10 of them have featured two or fewer runs. The other outings have been considerably worse. The Rockies sure do hit at home, so watch out.
4. Hey, hey, hey! The first-place Atlanta Braves could get right fielder Jason Heyward back from the DL as soon as Friday for their series opener with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they expect him to hit considerably better than his current .121 batting average. Of course, their outfielder problems don't end there. The Braves have been using either catcher Evan Gattis in left field or a Jordan Schafer/Reed Johnson platoon, but Heyward is an obvious upgrade. As for the Brothers Upton, B.J. is hitting .145. That's not a misprint. MVP candidate Justin is hitting .156 over his past nine home games. The Braves could fall out of first place with a bad weekend.
5. Tony Be Good: Cincinnati Reds lefty Tony Cingrani is scheduled to start in Philadelphia on Friday night, and no matter what the hotshot rookie does he could be headed back to the minor leagues. The team's ace right-hander Johnny Cueto is to come off the disabled list Monday, and manager Dusty Baker has already given the vote of confidence to right-hander Mike Leake, who held the powerful Miami Marlins offense scoreless this week. Sorry, Tony, your 2-0 record with a 2.89 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 28 innings is impressive, but hope you kept that apartment in Louisville. There's just no room in the rotation, so enjoy Friday night.
Have a great weekend!
The baseball gods don't give us these matchups often enough: Justin Verlander versus Yu Darvish, two first-place teams, a beautiful 81-degree night in Arlington, Texas.
Seems like a good time for a running diary. So let's do it.
Darvish enters with a 6-1 record, 2.73 ERA, .163 batting average against and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a rate that would break Randy Johnson's single-season record for starters. He throws so many different pitches that Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski says you need special signs for all of them. His wipeout pitches are his slider (33 strikeouts in 76 plate appearances ending in the pitch) and curveball (21 strikeouts, one walk in 35 plate appearances), which he throws at two speeds, unveiling a slow 60-mph-ish curve of late. He sets up those pitches with his four-seamer, two-seamer and cut fastball.
He cruises through a 1-2-3 inning, striking out Torii Hunter on an 0-2 four-seamer up in the zone, as the Rangers fans yell "Yuuuuuuuuu!!!!!", and then getting Miguel Cabrera to fly out to left-center on the first pitch.
* * * *
Verlander enters at 4-3 with a 1.93 ERA, .229 average allowed and just one home run. His control has been a little off, however, as he's walking 3.2 batters per nine innings, about one more than last season.
Ian Kinsler, off to a terrific start for the Rangers, lined a 3-2, 95-mph fastball into right-center for a single. A lot has been about Verlander's fastball velocity being so far this year. Let's check his average fastball velocity the past few seasons through May 15:
2009: 95.6 (max: 101.0)
2010: 95.5 (max: 101.1)
2011: 94.8 (max: 101.4)
2012: 93.7 (max: 100.3)
2013: 92.2 (max: 97.1)
Of course, he's learned to dial it down a bit on his fastball the past couple of years, especially in the early innings, and saving that maximum velocity for big moments. Still, he's down across the board so far, not that it's created a problem in results.
Anyway, Elvis Andrus grounds a single into center just past a diving Omar Infante, with Kinsler hustling to third with an ugly face-plant into the bag. He comes up laughing, but he could have inflicted some damage there. Tom Verducci, the analyst on the MLB Network broadcast, makes a good point about Don Kelly, filling in in center for the injured Austin Jackson, playing pretty deep, making it easy for Kinsler to go first to third.
Lance Berkman grounds out to score a run and then Adrian Beltre grounds into a double play.
AP Photo/Jim CowsertYu Darvish finished with 130 pitches against the Tigers, the most he has thrown as a Ranger.
On the other hand, check out the Tigers' BABIP allowed the past three seasons:
2011: .292 (17th in majors)
2012: .307 (26th in majors)
2013: .312 (27th in majors)
Obviously, that's a team statistic, but collectively the Tigers do allow more balls than average to drop for hits. Brennan Boesch was the main culprit last season, but he's gone.
Don Kelly homers to right for the Tigers off a 3-1 slider, kind of a hanger down the middle. OK, didn't see that one coming. But we never see Don Kelly coming yet he always finds a way onto Leyland's roster. Kind of a good-luck charm.
Infante singles to center, Andy Dirks drops in a soft liner for a base hit, Infante advances on a wild pitch and then Hunter gives the Tigers a 2-1 lead with a sac fly. Cabrera swings at the first pitch again -- a 91-mph two-seam fastball -- and doubles to left field. Suddenly, Darvish is in trouble. The Rangers intentionally walk Prince Fielder to load the bases.
Victor Martinez, after missing all of last season for Detroit, has struggled so far, but Leyland hasn't moved him out of the No. 5 spot. He battles Darvish in a 10-pitch duel, fouling off seven pitches, before finally lining a sacrifice fly to center. Martinez is a tough guy to strike out, but Darvish has been putting batters away all season, so maybe he doesn't have his Grade A stuff on this night.
Alex Avila flies to left to end the inning, but Darvish threw 36 pitches in the frame and is at 63 already.
As Verlander takes the mound, I tweet: "Somewhere, somebody is saying: You need a shutdown inning here. Don't you always need shutdown innings?"
Well, the short version: Verlander does not deliver a shutdown inning. Instead, he delivers the worst inning of his major league career as the Rangers score seven runs.
Verlander did crank up the fastball as runners reached, touching 99 on a pitch to Nelson Cruz, but it was over the place -- high, low outside. He walked Andrus and Beltre with the bases loaded, but Mitch Moreland had the big hit, a two-out double down the right-field line on an 0-2 slider. Batters had been 2-for-32 against Verlander on 0-2 counts. As I'm looking that data up, Geovany Soto crushes a fastball over the wall in left. Rangers 8, Tigers 3. Verlander is gone, his shortest outing since 2010.
Instead of Darvish and Verlander we got Joe Blanton and Vance Worley.
The rest of the game
We'll fast-forward from here. Peralta homers off Darvish in the fourth but the Rangers make it 9-4 after five. Darvish then gets on a roll, looking like the Darvish we expected. After the Peralta home run, he retires 15 of the next 16 batters he faces.
The most interesting aspect comes as Darvish is left in for the seventh and then the eighth as his pitch count piles up. With the big lead you would have expected Rangers manager Ron Washington to perhaps go to the bullpen, but he leaves Darvish in to throw 130 pitches, his high in two seasons with the Rangers. I don't really have a problem here -- hey, I defended Clayton Kershaw throwing 132 pitches the other night -- but I'm not sure it was necessary with such a big lead. You can look at it as Washington taking advantage of the lead to save his bullpen; or look at it using Darvish for an extra 25 pitches when he didn't have to. The Rangers don't have an off day Monday, so it's not like Darvish will get an extra day of rest before his next start. Either way, I see both sides.
His final pitch: A 96-mph fastball to Martinez.
Give Darvish a lot of credit for battling through that third inning to go eight innings in what finished as a 10-4 Texas victory. If this game is to be viewed under the lens of "best pitcher in the American League," Darvish gets the leg up. For Verlander, a game to forget. We didn't get our great pitching duel, but that's baseball: Always expect the unexpected.
So, since 1969 and the divisional era, here are the pitchers who accumulated the most WAR but never started a playoff game:
1. Ferguson Jenkins (67.7 WAR, 16th overall)
His career WAR is actually higher, but we're only counting WAR earned from 1969 and beyond. Anyway, Jenkins played for the Cubs, Rangers and Red Sox and had 284 career wins. Those late 1960s/early 1970s Cubs teams have four Hall of Famers -- Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo -- and had some other good players (Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman, Milt Pappas) but never reached the postseason.
2. Mariano Rivera (54.9 WAR, 30th overall)
Well, he hasn't started a postseason game ...
3. Mark Langston (50.2 WAR, 41st overall)
Very underrated pitcher in the '80s and '90s, spending most of his career with the bad Mariners and mediocre Angels. From 1986 to 1993 he averaged 247 innings per season. Did pitch in relief for the Padres in the 1998 postseason.
4. Wilbur Wood (45.9 WAR, 47th overall)
Had 11.7 and 10.7 WAR in in 1971 and 1972 when he pitched 334 and then 376 innings for the White Sox.
5. Goose Gossage (41.9 WAR, 57th overall)
See Rivera. Pitched in four postseasons, including three World Series.
6. Danny Darwin (40.6 WAR, 48th overall)
Won 171 games and an ERA title, but never pitched in the postseason although he played for eight different franchises. He was on the '86 Astros, who made the playoffs, and went 5-2, 2.32 ERA, after they acquired him from Milwaukee, but was injured and missed the playoffs. Also pitched for the '97 Giants, who made the playoffs, but didn't appear in the postseason.
7. Charlie Hough (39.3 WAR, 61st overall)
Pitched in relief for the Dodgers in three World Series, but spent the bulk of his rotation days with the playoff-less Rangers.
8. Felix Hernandez (36.3 WAR, 71st overall)
And now we get to Hernandez, the active leader among starting pitchers in this dubious category. Is he destined to become the Fergie Jenkins of his generation?
Connie Mack, 85-year-old boss of the Philadelphia Athletics, and 78-year-old Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, finished their heralded foot race in a dead heat at Orlando, Fla., yesterday.
Both discounted the outcome as any indication of how their teams would finish in the American League pennant race.
An ambulance drove through the left field gate at Tinker Field, stopped at home plate and a doctor and two nurses stepped out, followed by Mack and Griffith.
The president of the Senators stepped along sprightly enough but long-legged Connie matched strides with Griffith and Baseball Commissioner A.B. Chandler proclaimed the race a dead heat.
Perhaps we take ourselves a little too seriously these days.
It's always interesting to see the different opinions. Everybody agrees on guys like Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun, but here are some guys where the rankings differ or have changed from preseason projections:
Bryce Harper (14th overall, up from No. 36 preseason): Our guy Eric Karabell has him the highest at No. 9 while his lowest ranking was 26th. I'm in line with Eric here, although he hasn't run yet (one stolen base) and needs to stay away from walls.
Stephen Strasburg (32nd overall, down from No. No 23): Wild variance in opinion, as he was as high as 22nd and as low as 73. Strikeout rate is down nearly two per nine innings from last year and left-handers have a .357 OBP against him. Somewhere in the 30s seems right to me.
Shin-Soo Choo (33rd overall, up from No. 75): As high as 18th, as low as 53rd (that's Karabell). He's helped carry my team to first-place in the one auction league I joined this year with all the ESPN fantasy gurus (shameless self-promotion), but I can't say he's going to hit .322/.465/.589 all season. Still, his power is playing up in that bandbox. The concern is he still can't hit lefties (.159) and you're not going to hit .322 when you can hit one side of pitchers.
Matt Kemp (18th overall, down from No. 6): The fantasy guys are expecting his power to come back (one home run so far). My concern: In his big 2011 season, he basically had two strikeouts for every walk; this year, it nearly 4-to-1.
Albert Pujols (25th overall, down from No. 7): He's hitting .248/.328/.418 with six home runs and 23 RBIs, so the fantasy guys expect a big bounce moving forward to rank him 25th. I'm not so sure. Yes, he'll get his RBIs hitting behind Mike Trout, but you have to be worried about a DL stint at some point and he's not going to give you those few stolen bases he always gets.
Matt Harvey (55th overall, up from No. 160): Thought he'd be a little higher, but I guess he may not win many games with the Mets' offense behind him.
Jean Segura (87th overall, up from No. 276): Hitting .349 and leads the NL with 13 steals. Obviously, if he comes close to that he'll be better than 87th, but keep in mind he always had trouble staying healthy in the minors.
Hisashi Iwakuma (134th overall, up from No. 243): He's not this good, but he is good, with that devastating split-fingered. His track record goes back to when he joined the Seattle rotation last July. With eight walks in nine starts, that WHIP will remain low even as his BABIP regresses to more normal levels.
Shelby Miller (135th overall, up from No. 261): Unlike Harvey, he'll get better run support. But will the Cardinals limit his innings?
Kyle Seager (138th overall, up from No. 162): But still below Brett Lawrie. I'll take Seager.
Eric Karabell speculates on who the Rays will start in his place. As Eric points out, Jake Odorizzi started Wednesday for Tampa's Triple-A club, so he's on Price's schedule, although he pitched poorly on Wednesday. I love Chris Archer and the way he pitched down the stretch in the majors last year, but he hasn't pitched as well in Triple-A, although his strikeout rate is fine. Maybe he's one of those guys who does better on the big stage.
Personally, I like Archer's upside a lot more, but Odorizzi's Durham numbers are pretty solid (3.83 ERA, 47 SO, 15 BB in 44 innings). Alex Torres (2.39 ERA, 49/14 SO/BB ratio) has also been outstanding, and Alex Colome (2.84 ERA, 51 K's in 44.1 inings) might finally be reaching his potential. Basically, Tampa Bay's Triple-A rotation is probably better than several major league rotations.
No matter who gets the call, that's some nice depth. Now the Rays just need to get the big league staff rolling as they're 11th in the AL in runs allowed, an unusual position for a Tampa Bay club.
- Watched a lot of the Indians' 10-4 win against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon as Cleveland knocked around Cole Hamels, who fell to 1-6 with a 4.61 ERA. Ignore the win-loss record since that's dependent upon run support. Has Hamels been as bad as that ERA? That ERA ranks 79th out of 110 qualifiers, which means Hamels isn't pitching like a $19 million pitcher. (Only five, or possibly six, years to go on his contract!) It's pretty easy to pinpoint his issue: Walk rate up 4 percent, which translates to 1.6 more walks per nine innings, strikeout rate down 1.5 per nine). Basically, he's taken one strikeout per game and turned into one walk; such is the fine line between one of the best pitchers in the game and a guy with a 4.61 ERA. A quick look at the numbers suggests his changeup has been fine (.077 average, no home runs), although he has walked seven batters on PAs ending with the pitch compared to just 10 all of 2012. Hitters have been pounding his fastball: Six of his nine home runs allowed have come off the pitch compared to 10 in 2012. Hamels is too good to keep struggling like this; pitchers of his quality don't usually lose their command overnight. Hamels will figure things out and since the Braves have come back to the pack, the Phillies are still just 3.5 games out of first.
- The Indians, meanwhile, continue to score runs, ranking tied for second in the AL at 4.9 runs per game. While everyone pointed to Cleveland's rotation as the big problem in 2012 (and it was), the offense was equally bad. Only Seattle scored fewer runs in the AL as the Indians ranked 13th out of 14 teams in slugging percentage. They did rank sixth in OBP so there was some ability here. They just needed power and Mark Reynolds has been the big key there with his 11 home runs. Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer against Philly and after a slow start he's coming around, hitting .288 with six homers his past 16 games. It's a good offense, nothing flukey going on here. Now if the pitching ...
- Watched Shelby Miller in his first start since last week's one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout. He struggled with his command, especially in the first two innings when he threw 45 pitches. He tried to mix in his changeup more, throwing it 10 times after throwing it only 10 times total in his first seven starts. (Congratulations, Mets, you are now used for practice purposes!) Mets announcer Keith Hernandez pointed out that Miller was tipping the pitch by slowing his arm motion down a bit. Only two of the 10 pitches were strikes, so the changeup remains a big work in progress for the young righty. Still, despite battling his stuff all night Miller still pitched 5.2 scoreless innings.
- Obviously, a huge lift for the Dodgers as Zack Greinke returned from the DL and pitched 5.1 solid innings in a 3-1 victory over the Nationals. "Stuff was pretty good, just stamina needs to be a little bit stronger," Greinke said. "I was feeling pretty drained after the fifth." His fastball velocity wasn't great -- around 90 -- and I thought he got away with a few pitches, but he made pitches when he had to and didn't walk anybody. He replaced Josh Beckett, who hit the DL with a pulled groin, so the rotation is still a work in progress. Now if Matt Kemp can get his power stroke going ...
- Another win for the Pirates as lefty Wandy Rodriguez shut down the Brewers' right-handed attack. Rodriguez is a solid 4-2, 3.25, and has walked just nine batters in eight starts. I still have doubts about the Pirates' rotation, but if Rodriguez can keep pitching like this, he's a nice No. 2 behind A.J. Burnett.
- The Astros won in dramatic fashion as Miguel Cabrera flew out to the warning track with the bases loaded for the final out.
The San Francisco Giants are built around their starting rotation.
That would seem more a statement of fact than an assertion of opinion.
After all, conventional wisdom tells us the rotation carried the Giants to a World Series title in 2010 and then another in 2012.
But if that is a statement of fact, then here's an opinion: The Giants, despite their current half-game lead over Arizona in the National League West, are in trouble. Because this is not a championship-caliber rotation right now.
The past two games in Toronto exposed an issue that has plagued the Giants the past two seasons: The Giants don't pitch nearly as well on the road. Facing a Blue Jays lineup that batted Mark DeRosa, who has a .302 slugging percentage since 2010, cleanup on Tuesday and J.P. Arencibia and his .252 on-base percentage cleanup on Wednesday, Barry Zito and then Ryan Vogelsong got battered around as the Blue Jays put up 21 runs in the two games. Zito allowed 12 hits and eight runs Tuesday; Vogelsong allowed eight runs in just two innings in Wednesday's 11-3 loss.
Vogelsong's bad outing was the latest in a string of bad outings for him. Among 110 qualified starters, Vogelsong's 8.06 ERA ranks 110th. Vogelsong gave up two more home runs to the Blue Jays, running his season total to 11 in just 41.1 innings. Chris Quick looked at Vogelsong's home-run problems before this start and found, not surprisingly, that several of them came on pitches up in the strike zone. This long blast by Arencibia wasn't off a pitch up in the zone, but it was left out over the middle of the plate; Adam Lind's two-run homer in the first also came off a pitch down the middle.
As Chris wrote,
And that, to me, is the biggest knock on Vogelsong so far this season. His command has been un-Vogelsong-like. We're used to seeing Vogelsong surgically dissect hitters like this. Not so much the guy that’s chucking neck-high fastballs above. ... Like most pitchers, Vogelsong needs to locate in order to succeed. And only time will tell if his current dingeritis is a sign of cracks in the facade, or if he’ll eventually find his release point or arm-slot or whatever and start throwing the ball where he wants to.
It's possible Vogelsong's next start is in jeopardy:
Bochy not ready to say one way or the other who will start Monday on Vogelsong's day. Will be discussed on flight.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) May 16, 2013
But Vogelsong isn't the only culprit in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner has been outstanding but the rotation still ranks just 20th in the majors with a 4.41 ERA. Heck, the Marlins' starters have pitched just 13 fewer innings but allowed 23 fewer runs.
It's when you dig even deeper, however, that the problems become more severe. Giants starters have a 5.01 ERA on the road, 23rd in the majors. Here, a comparison to 2012:
2012: 3.09 ERA, 3rd in majors
2013: 3.98 ERA, 17th in majors
2012: 4.45, 18th in majors
2013: 5.01, 23rd in majors
As you can see, the Giants weren't that great on the road last season, either. But this season, they're not dominating at home. And that's where we get back to that first sentence: The Giants have transformed into an offensive team, a fact obscured somewhat by playing in a park that favors pitchers to a large degree.
San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean loves to add veterans during midseason. Instead of making a big splash in the winter, he evaluates the team's weaknesses and then makes his move. In 2010, he added outfielders Pat Burrell and Cody Ross. In 2011, he traded for Carlos Beltran. Last year, he picked up Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro.
But if he properly assesses things this year, I believe Sabean should be on the search for a starting pitcher. Certainly, I expect Matt Cain to turn things around. Vogelsong will be given a fairly long leash, I suspect, given his track record of the past two seasons, but is certainly the guy on the hot seat right now. The Giants are likely to keep Zito and Tim Lincecum, even given their superficially OK ERAs, but those two are hardly strengths right now.
The Giants can certainly still win the West. But right now it will have to be the hitters and the bullpen that will have to carry the load.
I hope you've checked out our Battle of the Uniforms package. I still say the Phillies cream jerseys with the blue cap are the best in baseball, although I love the Cardinals' new alternate jerseys.
Anyway, check out the video above as Jim Caple and Uni Watch's Paul Lukas discuss MLB's sense of style. And then check Jim's list of the worst uniforms ever. I won't disagree with him on his top selection.
Retread veteran Freddy Garcia has made three starts and looked like a retread veteran, including a rough outing in Wednesday afternoon's 8-4 loss to the Padres. Former All-Star Jair Jurrjens will make his first on Saturday against Tampa Bay. Jurrjens was an All-Star with the Braves in 2011, but got pounded last year in 10 starts, with a 6.89 ERA and .350 batting average allowed. His Triple-A numbers at Norfolk were OK, but he never was a big strikeout guy before hurting his knee in August of 2011, an injury that might have affected him last year.
He'll become the 10th different pitcher to start for the Orioles, and they might need an 11th to start on Tuesday. For now, however, that won't be prospect Kevin Gausman, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft. GM Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun: "He's not a candidate for us to recall. He's doing fine at Double-A, and he's getting used to professional baseball. He's doing fine where he is. He's getting his feet on the ground. He's learning about the routine in pro baseball. He's doing well where he is."
Gausman has a 39/4 strikeout/walk ratio in 40.1 innings, but has averaged fewer than six innings per start. It seems wise to give him more time in the minors, although pitchers -- especially a college guy like Gausman -- can be put on the fast track more so than hitters. If Garcia and/or Jurrjens don't pitch, Duquette's patience with Gausman will definitely be tested. The O's recalled Manny Machado from Double-A last August; I suspect we'll be see Gausman before the All-Star break.