Now that teams outside of Texas have kicked off, more quick notes:
- Long plate appearances should be a statistic. I might be found embarrassingly incorrect, but it seems to me that certain batters, while able to attack a first-pitch meatball, are better at really driving deep into counts and making the pitcher work if that doesn’t happen. Jayson Werth is, fairly obviously, the best such hitter on the planet. Look at last year’s game-winning, walk-off home run in the NLDS against St. Louis, but also, look at the nine-pitch strikeout he had yesterday. Werth just takes over the zone once he gets two strikes against him, worrying about making contact and using his long arms to get wherever his bat needs to be in order to foul something off. He works that way until he thinks he knows what’s coming next, and then he loads up for a real Werth swing.Sure, I can see that Werth ranked highly with 4.37 pitches seen per plate appearance last season, and new-fangled data can even tell me he had a slightly abover-average percentage of foul balls. However, to really get a feel for Werth’s uncanny ability to derail an opponent’s inning by forcing them to throw eight or nine pitches, we probably need a separate statistic. Batters hit very well on the first pitch. What we need is a number that captures a guy’s ability to adapt and adjust within an at-bat, and make a pitcher throw three or four more pitches than he meant to throw if nothing easy presents itself.I love Werth, Bryce Harper (no big deal, just two home runs on Opening Day at age 20) and Stephen Strasburg. They’re among my 10 most favorite players to watch, anywhere in baseball. That said, I picked the Atlanta Braves to win the NL East this year, and they showcades a few of the reasons yesterday.All that came against Cole Hamels, who in addition to being very good, is left-handed. It stings less to face a lefty with Brian McCann shelved anyway, but still, what Freeman and Heyward were able to do against an elite southpaw is a good sign.
- In 1993, the Montreal Expos won 19 of 21 at one stretch in August and September, and overall, took 30 of their last 40 contests. It wasn’t enough to catch the Phillies in the old NL East, but they finished at 94-68, and there was a general feeling that they had done quite well to make such a run after trading their ace, Dennis Martinez.
The Milwaukee Brewers went 24-6 at one stretch toward the end of 2012, and finished 29-13 in their final 42 games. They couldn’t catch the Cardinals for the second Wild Card entry, but they finished at 83-79, and there was a general feeling that they did quite well to make such a run after trading their ace, Zack Greinke.
As Montreal was then, MIlwaukee is baseball’s smallest market now. As Montreal was then, though, Milwaukee is an encouraging story about fans who really do come out in droves when given a good club for which to cheer. As Montreal was then, Milwaukee is a talented team with a bit of youth and some great cornerstone parts, despite a thinning farm system. I don’t want to carry the comp too far, but you get the point. Surprising rotation strength, bullpen regression (the good kind) and a bounce-back season from Rickie Weeks will push the Brewers to 90 (or so) wins and an NLDS berth, one the Expos never got thanks to the 1994 strike. To draw another parallel, the Brewers feel a bit like the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies, a team with a very good offense and good enough run prevention, despite sort of a patchwork approach, to make it work. The Phillies had more depth in the outfield, and better gloves, but the Brewers probably have better pitching.
Yesterday, the Brewers only allowed runs on home runs by three very good players, in the homer-friendly ballpark they call home. John Axford blew a save, it’s true, but I don’t take that as an omen of doom for the bullpen again. I think Axford will figure it out, and if he doesn’t, I think the Brewers have sufficient confidence in Jim Henderson to turn things over to him. I always want to see a contender build everything aside from the bullpen, and let that part just fall into place. First of all, building a consistent contender in a systematic way will eventually churn out some relievers, the way lard was just a byproduct of making other food that turned out to be a delicious additive. It can happen when you have enough strength at the top of the 40-man roster to make aggressive claims and moves on the margins, or it can come when a solid starter gets relegated thanks to a logjam of solid starters. In the Brewers’ case, it was a bit of both, as they nabbed some left-handed depth in free agency, then were able to move Chris Narveson once they signed Kyle Lohse to flesh out their rotation.In short (okay, maybe too late for that), I’m the high man, the big believer in this team. There’s no one else on this limb with me, but that’s kind of fun, really. If the Brewers reach October, you heard it here first, okay?
- The Bruce Rondon saga, from its hysterical beginning to its half-baked end, was a farce all along. The Tigers let a poor pitcher whose velocity was running away from him and which he was never going to catch, because he was fat and said velocity was not a delicious glazed doughnut, walk away this winter, and slotted a 22-year-old fat guy who throws much, much harder in as their presumptive closer instead of lunging out into free agency and making bad choices. Reaction was mixed, but histrionics were for everyone.Rondon played Jekyll-and-Hyde all spring (joke: he could actually BE both guys, he’s that big. Hey-O!), and public opinion swayed in the wind with each appearance. In the end, they elected not to carry Rondon Redondo, and the predictable cries went up about their lack of a closer, even their lack of a bullpen. It kind of makes you wonder what, if anything, has gotten through in the two decades that statheads have been shouting the right answers at the world.THis is a fine, even a potentially strong bullpen. It goes something like Joaquin Benoit-Phil Coke-Al Alburquerque-Octavio Dotel-Duane Below- -Drew Smyly, which just means you have to play matchups. No one there is dominant, and all have limitations, but if you get them into the game at the right times, keeping them healthy and facing same-handed batters, they’re going to be quite good. Jim Leyland did just that yesterday, and lo, the lead held. Alburquerque, whose fragility could always become an issue but who has the most performance upside, struck out two in tow thirds of an inning. Benoit got four outs, from the start of the bottom of the eighth through Josh Willingham leading off the ninth. Coke came in to face Justin Morneau and closed it out. Obviously, you’d prefer guys who can pitch full innings, and even multiple innings, because relievers can’t just pitch every day. But today is the obligatory off day after Opening Day, and Justin Verlander pitched only five frames yesterday. Leyland had a chance to use those guys optimally within the game, with almost no penalty in the longer view, and he took it. If he does more of that this season, Detroit will have nothing to fear from its lack of a normal bullpen hierarchy.
And some specific notes pon starting pitchers:
- Jeff Samardzija – I am unsure which lineup I would rather face, of Miami’s and Pittsburgh’s. It’s probably Miami’s under neutral conditions, but since it was approximately 40 degrees as Samardzija mowed down the Bucs yesterday, I think Strasburg’s effort rates as more impressive. Still, it was lovely to see Samardzija not miss a beat after a season in which he broke out, and it looked very real, but no one was left 100-percent convinced he could repeat the feat. He’ll face his share of tough offenses this summer. He may as well get some extra Spring Training in until the time comes. Removing A.J. Burnett’s two three-pitch strikeouts, Samardzija got 13 groundouts, and 13 swings and misses on 104 pitches.
- A.J. Burnett – Needlessly picked a fight with Mother Nature, and the natural cycle of the baseball season. At a time when strikeouts are at their lowest rates of the season, before his stuff has cranked itself up to full, Burnett was wading deep into counts and fighting for whiffs. He was lucky to be facing a bad Cubs team, who couldn’t really take advantage. After throwing five first-pitch strikes to six first-inning batters, he threw just one to the next 15 hitters he faced, a brutal approach even for he, who has always pitched that way to some extent.
- Yovani Gallardo – Gallardo has a history not unlike Burnett’s, in terms of the mental side of the duel. He has always had a radically different appraoch than anyone else out there, going straight at hitters but being wholly unafraid to spend all day getting one out. He ended up in the most full counts of any pitcher in baseball last season, and it was not especially close. With the defense behind him, who were responsible for at least a couple of the 10 hits he surrendered Monday, it makes a modicum of sense, but at some point, you have to just aim for the bottom of the zone and put the at-bat to an end. Gallardo fought that Monday.
- C.C. Sabathia – The craziest thing about the Yankees’ spring is not that Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are hurt; it’s that Sabathia is at least quasi-healthy. He’s got a ton of mileage on his arm; went to the DL last year with elbow trouble; and now lacked just about everything that once made him great, from velocity (excusable in early starts, not a major concern) to command and depth on his secondary stuff (a real issue). The Red Sox were meticulous to the point of trifling on Monday, but Sabathia played right into that approach. He looked pretty discouraging.
- Edinson Volquez – BOOM! CRASH! He’s so bad. He can be good, occasionally, but he’s so, so bad. He reminds me of Carlos Zambrano, a bull in a china shop on the mound who never figured out what pitching after the dying of the light (or lights, specifically the ones differentiating 98 miles per hour from 93) would look like. He just doesn’t seem to like baseball well enough, or consider it carefully enough, to remake himself as a more subtle but solid pitcher. He doesn’t quite have Zambrano’s fury going, but Chicago drove Zambrano crazy, not the other way around. Volquez is what Zambrano would have been playing in the same markets: a merely disappointing starter who will chew innings like cud until he totally loses it in his early 30s, and the market puts him out to pasture.
- Stephen Strasburg looked like Maddux yesterday. So did Clayton Kershaw. For that matter, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Cain did, too. Here’s the thing to remember, even though all of these are genuinely very good pitchers: It’s really easy to look like Greg Maddux in April. Strikeout rates are as low as they will be all year in April, but so are BABIP, home-run rate on flies and the frequency of those flies. Ground-ball pitching happens naturally in April. We can safely say absolutely nothing about any of these guys based on Opening Day starts, because they just aren’t a good model for how baseball goes the rest of the season, at least not for arms like these.
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