SweetSpot: Alfredo Simon

A night dominated by starting pitchers

May, 17, 2014
May 17
12:49
AM ET
Earlier on Friday, one of baseball's best young pitchers, Jose Fernandez, underwent Tommy John surgery. Martin Perez, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Brandon Beachy and a list of far too many players have also been victimized by the same elbow injury. Just two months into the baseball season and it's growing hard to find teams that haven't been affected by this year's rash of pitching injuries.

After these surgeries, we're seeing more and more teams rely on their sixth starter, their seventh starter, and at times pitchers that we've hardly heard about. Just two days ago, the Yankees sent Chase Whitley to the mound after he had made just 14 minor league starts. And despite the talent level of pitchers seemingly declining with every subsequent injury, pitching in baseball has hardly taken a hit. We're seeing a ton of these no-names pitch better than some of the big-money starters of just a decade ago.

In 2013, starting pitchers owned an average 4.01 ERA, a 3.95 FIP, an 18.9 strikeout percentage, and a 7.4 walk percentage. This season, numbers have improved to an average 3.85 ERA, a 3.85 FIP, a 19.7 strikeout percentage, and a 7.5 walk percentage. I've seen and heard a handful of theories to explain baseball's evolution toward lower run totals. Some say that shifts significantly help pitchers save hits, while others say that the steroid era has ended and with it the home run boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Whatever you believe, there's no denying that even with a plague of injuries to very talented pitchers, more and more young starters are emerging in their place.

With the weather warming up and pitchers continuing to build arm strength, Friday night featured some prime examples of starter dominance. We saw a handful of shutouts, and even some complete games to go along with them. Teams like the Red Sox, Royals and Rangers were held to no runs. Starting pitchers dominated the night.

Max Scherzer was perhaps the most predictable success of the night, however, it came against the reigning World Series champion Red Sox. Despite a 47-minute rain delay, Scherzer and Jon Lester pitched following the weather stoppage and both succeeded. Lester's five innings of four-hit and one-run ball just wasn't good enough to overcome Scherzer's six innings of shutout stuff. While we expected a pitching duel from both starters, their success through a rain delay and against such daunting offenses was somewhat unforeseeable.

Perhaps one of the night's most stunning performances came inside baseball's toughest pitcher's park. Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies allowed just two baserunners all night, and didn't give up his first hit until the seventh inning. He ended the night with seven shutout innings, five strikeouts and 11 groundouts with no flyouts. Inside Coors Field, that is nearly the perfect strategy, keeping the ball on the ground or simply avoiding contact all together. After a dominant 2013 and a sour start to 2014, De La Rosa has now put together six consecutive quality starts.

Then there was Chris Tillman, who pitched a complete-game, five-hit shutout to shut down the Royals. Though he didn't dominant Kansas City's lineup with strikeouts (he had just three strikeouts while he walked just one), he showed a great command of the strike zone and induced weak contact with his four-seamer. Tillman now owns the lowest ERA (3.34) in the Orioles' rotation, beating out Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Reds' rotation, which projected to include Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani in the offseason, is now showcasing Alfredo Simon, a career reliever prior to this season. But Simon has emerged as far more than adequate, and after pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings with eight strikeouts against the Phillies, the right-hander now owns a 2.45 ERA over his first eight starts of the season.

Yet the strongest performance of the night came by a 23-year old right-hander who's hardly a household name in the prospect scene. Drew Hutchison, who has spotted lofty peripherals all season, finally put together a brilliant performance for the Blue Jays against the Rangers. Entering the game, Hutchison owned a strong 9.73 K/9 ratio, a 2.98 BB/9 ratio and an outstanding 3.14 FIP. The problem with that was he also had a 1-3 record with a 4.37 ERA. On Friday, Hutchison dominated the Rangers with a complete-game shutout. He allowed only four baserunners and finished with six strikeouts. He outdueled Rangers ace Yu Darvish and it only took him 105 pitches to finish off Texas.

There were a handful of other great starts on Friday, as baseball is slowly evolving towards a pitcher's game. Even with the injuries taking a toll on countless teams, it feels like young and unexpected starters are taking to the scene faster than ever.

Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Reds getting production from all over

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
11:55
PM ET


The Reds received a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning to take a 5-2 lead against the Braves on Thursday night, leading to their sixth consecutive victory and their first sweep of the Braves since 1980. It wasn’t superstar Joey Votto who provided the knockout punch, nor was it mainstays Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce. The home run came off the bat of one of the Reds’ many unheralded young players: 23-year-old rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco.

The blast also marked Cincinnati’s 10th home run of the series, leading to 14 of its 16 runs in the series. Winning with home runs is nothing new for this Reds squad, not at Great American Ball Park and certainly not in the Joey Votto era. But Votto didn’t hit a single homer in the series. Neither did Bruce. Phillips hit two. Instead of the three stalwarts on this Reds squad, it was the supporting cast leading the way: Mesoraco (1), Drew Stubbs (3), Zack Cozart (2), Todd Frazier (1) and Mike Leake (1).

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Reds
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco's grand slam in the sixth inning on Thursday put the Reds ahead for good.
Leake’s homer backed up a quality start on Monday, and the other home runs backed up quality starts from Mat Latos (Tuesday), Bronson Arroyo (Wednesday) and Homer Bailey (Thursday). The Reds saw scoreless outings from five different relievers and saves converted by three. To accomplish this in any series is excellent; to do so against the second-highest-scoring team in the league in one of the best hitters’ parks in all of baseball is another.

Depth and pitching have set this year’s Reds squad apart from last year’s version, a preseason favorite for the National League Central crown that was eventually lapped by both the Brewers and Cardinals. The 2011 season saw a 156 OPS+ from Votto and 119 OPS+ marks from both Phillips and Bruce. No other full-time starters came close; only part-time players Chris Heisey (113), Ramon Hernandez (113) and Miguel Cairo (101) even mustered an above average mark.

This season has seen the likes of Paul Janish, Edgar Renteria and Jonny Gomes excised in favor of Cozart (.727 OPS) and Frazier (.887). It has seen Stubbs come to life after three horrible series to open the year -- he owns a .266/.324/.430 line since April 17 to go with his typical fantastic defense. It’s seen Ryan Hanigan pick up his game as well, with a .794 OPS in 27 games as the starting catcher.

Johnny Cueto owns a phenomenal 2.22 ERA over 33 starts dating back to May 2011, but it was the other four Cincinnati starters who held down the Braves this week. Latos started out cold, but has a 2.35 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings in May. Arroyo has a 121 ERA+ after allowing a near-record 46 home runs last season, owning an absurd 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 58.2 innings. Bailey and Leake have had their rough spots, but they fit well in the back of the Reds’ rotation -- a tough job with half of their starts coming in the bandbox in Cincinnati.

The bullpen has established itself as one of the league’s best. Regardless of what one thinks Aroldis Chapman’s role should be, it is undeniable that he is the league’s best reliever. In the four-game sweep of the Braves, he pitched two more scoreless innings. Chapman fronts a bullpen full of talented pitchers: Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon all own ERA+ marks of 137 or higher. Sean Marshall shouldn’t be counted out either despite a rough start -- he was one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons.

The Reds currently sit atop the NL Central, with a half-game lead over the Cardinals. As usual, Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Bruce lead the way. But if the Reds maintain their current success and carry it through to a playoff run, it will be because this year they didn’t have to do it all themselves.

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