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May 3, 2013

What You Need to Know

Old Dog, Old Tricks

by Will Woods

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Thursday Takeaway
The Jake Westbrook bubble will not burst. The Cardinals righty once again clogged the bases but kept his opponents mostly off the scoreboard last night, surrendering one run on six hits with three walks as his ERA ballooned to 1.07. Westbrook has all but ditched the cutter this season and essentially become a two-pitch pitcher, attacking both lefties and righties with a sinker/changeup arsenal that hasn’t kept runners off base but has gotten the job done.

He has walked 17 in 33.2 IP. He has just 18 strikeouts so far, marking his lowest K rate since his first big league season. And when I said, “two-pitch pitcher,” that really only applies to lefties; righties know that sinker is coming and still can’t make solid contact. (Although Westbrook did an excellent job of surprising the Brewers’ righties with the curveball the second time through the order.) Can this continue?

Maybe. Westbrook is generating phenomenally low fly-ball rates on all of his pitches. He also isn’t really doing anything differently enough that advance scouts might catch up to him. Other than fewer cutters, the book on Westbrook is the same as it always has been. The empirical evidence backs that up as well—when Westbrook fell behind in the count, it was usually because his sinker moved so much that he couldn’t control it. On the negative side, to no one’s shock, the usual BABIP concerns do apply (.276, and his career average is .301), but I think there’s an argument to be made that the other peripherals—higher walk rate, lower hit rate—indicate we may actually be dealing with a vastly improved sinker. Of course, in spring training, he was the same old Westbrook, and he’ll likely revert closer to his norms. But if he truly has revamped the pitch and then gradually learns to control it… hey, Cards fans can dream.

Matchup of the Day
After spending the season’s first three weeks on the DL, David Ortiz has come back and driven the Red Sox offense—well, it’s tough to say “single-handedly” about one man out of nine, but man, look at those box scores. He’s hit in every game he’s played, had an extra-base hit in all but his season debut, and generally made everyone forget about the left side of the infield and Jackie Bradley’s demotion.

If there’s a caveat to Ortiz’s early season success—and there isn’t, really, but bear with me—it’s that his success skews toward righties, and he has been downright pedestrian against southpaws for a guy who’s batting close to .500. Friday, in a battle between two of the best teams the AL, Derek Holland should be a stiff test. The inappropriate mustache king is off to an excellent start, yielding less than a baserunner per inning, walking just 2.3 per nine. Saturday against the Twins, Holland uncharacteristically broke 96 on the gun and threw over 70 percent of his pitches strikes, including an impressive 24 strikes out of 36 sliders. Holland has fully doubled his slider count to left-handers thus far in 2013—and has started lefties with the slider more than twice as often this year vs. 2012—and one figures he’ll try to continue his off-speed success and keep Ortiz off-balance.

Yet there are recent indicators that may favor Ortiz. Papi’s willingness to hit to the opposite field seems to come and go, and right now he’s waiting on the ball. This year, 14 of Ortiz’s 19 hits have gone to either left or center field, including the majority of his extra-base hits. (Six of Ortiz’s nine singles have come on pitches away, so he has been able to shorten his stroke and not overswing at balls outside his happy zone.) The sample is small, but it’s indicative of the groove Ortiz has been in.  Holland is also pitching to a career-low .227 BABIP, though I don’t think anybody’s getting too worked up about that in early May.

And if you really want to talk about small sample sizes, Ortiz is 2-for-8 lifetime off Holland with a double and a pair of walks, and all three of his hits on the road this season have gone off the wall or over it. Now that’s a small sample size.

What to Watch for on Friday

  • Amidst all the Matt Harvey rabblerousing, hey, remember Matt Moore? Yeah, he’s appointment viewing once again. Moore takes his act to Colorado tonight in what should be a trial by fire for the first-place Rockies—not one guy on the team has had a plate appearance against Moore. Tampa’s young lefty is actually down a few ticks from the blazing 96 mph fastball he averaged when he first came up in 2011, but he’s been throwing it more often and more effectively this season. However, his 2013 advanced metrics don’t look all that far off his 2012 performance: His changeup and fastball are actually getting fewer whiffs, and there aren’t any pitch outcome peripherals that appear drastically different. The .149 BABIP also looks alarming, but that doesn’t come close to accounting for his April success.
  • We seem to be on a “Can ____ keep up his April numbers?” binge today, so let’s finish up with Barry Zito, who starts against the Dodgers tonight. Zito’s fly-ball rate on the curveball sits under 1 percent, he’s walking a career-low 2.6 per nine innings—an outstanding number for a guy who throws fastballs about 40 percent of the time, and .5 lower than when he won the Cy Young in 2002. Zito’s BABIP also sits at a career-high .318. If he keeps this up any longer, the baseball media may need a new laughingstock.
  • And because I need a Mets note, Shaun Marcum leads the Amazin’s to the slaughter in his second start of the season tonight against the Braves. Marcum was roughed up by the Phillies in his first start on Saturday, and then took an unexpected loss on his midweek throw day, giving up a walk-off run in Miami in the 15th inning. He has yet to regain his velocity, and with Dillon Gee struggling and the back of the rotation a serious question mark, the man many called one of the steals of the offseason may have to round into form quickly if the Mets intend to play meaningful games in September August.

Will Woods is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Will's other articles. You can contact Will by clicking here

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