I don’t get to a great many live baseball games. I live in the Twin Cities area, which means any affiliate minor-league ball is a five-hour drive away, and the cost of going to MLB contests (even using StubHub to get in cheap when the Twins are bad) limits my opportunities to take in a game. Whenever I do manage it, though, I’ll try to pass along a few observations.
I attended the A’s-Twins game Thursday afternoon at Target Field, sitting directly behind home plate, if a bit farther back than the scouts sit. Oakland thumped the Home Nine 6-1, preying on Mike Pelfrey’s shaky command and flat stuff. It could actually have been much worse; the A’s left 10 men on base. Every guy in the Oakland lineup reached base, and only Derek Norris failed to reach twice, or went without a hit. The A’s ran into outs on consecutive plays in the top of the sixth, one of them very bizarre.
The game got away from the Twins early, and their offense never showed much life, so I won’t try to build an unnaturally pretty narrative around the game. Here’s a quick rundown of things that stood out to me:
- I counted seven swings and misses by A’s batters against Pelfrey, who threw over 100 pitches. Nick Punto and Daric Barton accounted for four of them. Pelfrey’s central problem is that he can consistently beat bad hitters, but that average or better ones crush him. They just crush him. Pelfrey threw a lot of fastballs, and rarely slipped below 90 miles per hour, but the highest he touched was 92. He has control of the offering, but no command of it. The pitch has no natural movement, and when Pelfrey fails to really get over his front leg as he releases the ball (too common), it can get up in the zone and blink at batters like a neon “HIT ME” sign.
Being able to pound the zone with tepid stuff only gets bad hitters out, and the depth of the Oakland lineup quickly forced Pelfrey to start nibbling and mixing his stuff more. Neither of those things work for Pelfrey. He doesn’t have a good secondary pitch. He might have some good starts against less dangerous offenses this year, but Oakland is too good a team for him to handle.
- Oakland sent Dan Straily to the mound. Straily’s a fun pitcher to watch. He only touched 90 a few times in seven very strong innings, sitting around 88, but he has much livelier (especially lateral) movement on his heat, and has a more varied secondary repertoire than Pelfrey.
The most noteworthy observation I can share about Straily is that, like many pitchers, he should abandon the windup and pitch always from the stretch. His wind-up delivery is pretty strange. He never raises his hands especially high; he has no exaggerated leg drive; and he lets his throwing arm get long and stretch behind his body at about a 25-degree angle. He’s not gaining extra momentum from his extra mechanics; he’s just creating more moving parts. More things can go wrong. More things can drag.
As a result, Straily’s stuff is actually better when he pitches from the stretch. His arm path gets shorter and looser. His secondary pitches are more deceptive. Three innings into his start, I consulted Baseball-Reference, and sure enough, Straily has allowed opponents a .725 OPS with the bases empty for his career. That number drops to .663 with men on. That’s the opposite of the usual direction of change, and helps illustrate the point. On Thursday, the Twins only managed three hits and two walks against Straily, but four of those baserunners—including both walks and the solo home run that accounted for the only Minnesota run—succeeded while facing wind-up Straily.
That said, while he’s no stud, Straily is a good pitcher. Thirty-six starts and over 200 innings into his career, he’s answered the question of whether his marginal stuff can play at the back end of a contender’s rotation. He dominated the Twins, staying one adjustment ahead of them all afternoon.
- I was eager to watch both catchers in this contest, for similar but not identical reasons. Twins rookie Josmil Pinto got the start, after Kurt Suzuki caught all 11 innings on Wednesday. That was a relief. I was worried that Pinto would see too little playing time as Suzuki’s backup, but in the early going, the Twins have done a better job than I had anticipated of mixing in Pinto.
The question with Pinto is whether he can stay behind the plate in the long term, though, and what I saw on Thursday was not encouraging on that score. His mechanics are unorthodox, and that might be kind. He carried Pelfrey’s first pitch of the day about a foot off the outside corner with a poor glove-side sweep. I’m not sure whether it should have been a strike, but Pinto didn’t give it a chance. His movements toward pitches that miss the target by a substantial margin are anything but quiet, and he shifts his weight or lunges onto one leg way more often than good catchers do.
He’s such a mess right now, though, that I can’t help but forecast some development. He’s more athletic than I had imagined him; he just doesn’t know how to apply his physical skills to the art of catching yet. He had a couple of nice receiving moments after the early bungling. Although he’s 25, he has the profile of a much younger, more raw rookie. I had criticized the Twins’ choice to carry him without committing to starting him, but I better see the merit of that decision now. His bat needs to develop against big-league competition at this point, and with Suzuki and Joe Mauer around, he can do some on-the-job training and brain-picking on the other side of his game.
- Derek Norris, like Pinto, will always be a bat-first catcher. Unlike Pinto, no one much worries that Norris can’t remain at the position. He’s very big, not fat but very thick, and that helps him stay more quiet than Pinto behind the plate (though Pinto is no pixie himself). He moves okay, he throws okay. Norris appeals to me especially because, on the now-defunct Up and In podcast, Kevin Goldstein used to talk him up as something between Mickey Tettleton and Gene Tenace, and I adore those two players.
And I can totally see it. Norris, again, went hitless Thursday, but he did draw a walk, and the power in his swing was evident even when held dormant. In the top of the second, Norris came to bat with two on and nobody out, but the A’s down 1-0. To that point, Pelfrey had thrown 20 pitches to six batters, and he was working fast. Pelfrey is generally among the league’s slowest workers. Last year, he threw just one pitch every 24.6 seconds. On Thursday, though, he and Pinto seemed to have been focused on finding a rhythm, and it was working. Pelfrey had gotten ahead of five of the first six batters on the first pitch, and although Yoenis Cespedes and Alberto Callaspo had each singled, they seemed off balance.
Norris broke Pelfrey. He took the first four pitches, getting ahead 3-1, before grounding into a fielder’s choice, but it wasn’t just the pitches. It was the timing. Norris stepped out of the batter’s box repeatedly during the at-bat. I think he even stepped out twice between the 2-0 and 3-0 pitches. He forcibly slowed Pelfrey way, way down, and Pelfrey never got that rhythm back. Daric Barton singled to start the Oakland scoring on the first pitch of the ensuing at-bat.
- Aaron Hicks still can’t hit right-handed pitching. Or more accurately, he can’t hit as a left-handed batter. His swing is long and flat (you don’t see that double threat very often) from the left side, and he’s unable to do damage with it. He drew a walk, as he will continue to do, because he’s very patient and smart at the plate, from either side. He needs to either stop switch-hitting or switch-hit less, though, because he just doesn’t have a left-handed swing that can do damage.
He doesn’t even attack pitches with confidence from the left side. He attempted to bunt for a hit in one at-bat, and while it was a good bunt and he was nearly safe, that was a bizarre choice. Hicks was batting eighth, the bases were empty and Oakland already led 5-1.
It wasn’t the most thrilling game on which I hope to be able to report this year. The action lacked tension, many of the performances were uneven and the gameplay got sloppy. Still, it was great to be in a ballpark again, sitting back, savoring the aesthetics, loving the pace of a baseball game.
Also: the new rule about home-plate collisions is imperfect and in need of adjustment, but I really like the way it has changed the movements of players approaching a close play at the plate. When Hicks threw out Jed Lowrie at the plate in the sixth inning, Lowrie’s slide typified the new way things are done: runners loop toward the plate from a steeper angle, and try to slide to the back corner of the dish more. It makes for something pleasing to the eye, is all I’m saying.Next post: It’s Time to Put an End to Doctoring the Ball
Previous post: Choose Your Own Adventure: Changing the Look of Extra Innings