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April 21, 2014

What You Need to Know

Weekend Wrap-Up, 4/21

by Nick Bacarella, Morris Greenberg and Chris Mosch

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In the past, Tyson Ross has been viewed as a player with the raw talent to be a successful big-league pitcher, but one unable to put his skills toward sustainable success at the big-league level.

However, after an excellent outing on Friday against the Giants, Ross looks like a very good big-league pitcher. He completed eight innings with nine strikeouts, four hits, one walk, and no runs. This comes directly after another strong showing against the Tigers, in which he threw seven innings with seven strikeouts, six hits, one walk, and one run. Obviously, a two-game sample does not define the greatness of a big-league pitcher, but it is certainly a promising start. On the season, he owns a 2.13 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, and 25 strikeouts. Considering that he had a very solid second half of last season as well (2.93 ERA, 85 K in 80 IP), he may be hitting his stride.

Although his mechanics have raised red flags in the past, Ross still seems to have a similar throwing motion, with an upright posture and secondary recoil:

A more likely reason for Ross’s change in success is his pitch mix. The 6-foot-6 righty has been using his slider much more effectively of late, specifically getting the Giants to chase pitches outside of the zone:

Another potential factor to consider for Ross’s newfound success is catcher Rene Rivera. The Padres have dedicated three roster spots to catchers this year, and Rivera has gotten the nod for Ross’s past two starts, and all of Andrew Cashner’s starts, too. While the other catchers (Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley) are better hitters than him, Rivera is a very good framer, and perhaps allows a pitcher like Ross, who locates a lot of his pitches toward the outside corner, to be more effective in implementing his game plan.

Time will tell if Tyson Ross truly has become a better pitcher, or if he has just had a hot start, but at the moment his results look promising. —Morris Greenberg

Quick Hits From The Weekend

Pirates fans showered Ryan Braun with boos whenever they could during this weekend’s four-game set, but the controversial slugger let his bat do the talking by crushing ninth-inning home runs on back-to-back days to help the Brewers take three of four in Pittsburgh.

After getting trounced 11-2 in Thursday’s series opener, the Brewers came back to win Friday’s game despite some messy play on the field. Kyle Lohse didn’t get much help from his defense, which committed four errors behind him, leading to a pair of unearned runs.

Fortunately for Lohse, Milwaukee’s bats tore the cover off the ball, both figuratively and literally. In the fifth inning, Carlos Gomez’s blasted a towering shot to center field that traveled an estimated 457 feet, which was followed an inning later by a Martin Maldonado groundball to Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez that literally took part of the cover off the ball.

The Brewers were able to take game two by a score of 5-3 despite leaving 11 runners on base and playing sloppy defense. It was the first time the Brewers had prevailed in a game in which they committed four or more errors since 2005.

A five-run fifth inning helped the Pirates jump out to a 7-5 lead on Saturday, but that lead proved to be fleeting. In the seventh inning, Braun connected on a 1-1 slider that Tony Watson left over the heart of the plate and lined it into the visitor’s bullpen.

Jason Grilli entered in the ninth to close things out for Pittsburgh; however, with Jean Segura on first, Braun had different plans:

It was the first time that Grilli had allowed a run to the Brewers since 2007, when he was a reliever for the Tigers, but Braun’s second dinger of the night proved to be the difference in Saturday’s contest.

Sunday’s matinee featured similar late-inning heroics from Braun, but it was Milwaukee’s other superstar outfielder that ended up making the headlines. After hitting a long drive to center field, Carlos Gomez flipped his bat and admired his shot while jogging down to first base – only to realize shortly after that the ball hadn’t actually left the yard. Gomez turned on the burners and made it into third base, but Gerrit Cole had a colorful choice of words for Gomez. During the ensuing melee, Gomez threw multiple punches (one with his helmet in hand), Pittsburgh outfielder Travis Snider knocked Gomez to the ground and Maldonado blindsided Snider with a punch of his own. You can see it unfold here:

This isn’t the first time that Gomez has admired a long fly and it isn’t the first time a brawl has ensued because of it. It probably didn’t help that just last week, Gomez styled out another bat flip in the third inning on what turned out to be a sacrifice fly. After the game, Gomez was unapologetic and said that he plans to appeal whatever suspension Major League Baseball hands him.

But Cole wasn’t without fault either as the young hurler admitted afterward that he let his emotions get out of hand.

“I grabbed the ball from Harrison and I said, 'If you're going to hit a home run, you can watch it. If you're going to hit a fly ball to center field, don't watch it.' I didn't curse at him, I didn't try to provoke a fight. I was frustrated, and I let my emotions get the better of me and I ended up getting one of my teammates hurt, so I'm not too thrilled about it."

It was an ugly situation that is likely to result in multiple suspensions and ended up taking away from another late-inning thriller. For the second game in a row, Braun blasted a home run off Grilli in the ninth inning, this time knotting up the game at 2-2 on a slider that the Pittsburgh closer hung over the heart of the plate. It wasn’t until five free innings of baseball later that Khris Davis would break the tie:

Francisco Rodriguez would shut the door for his third save in as many days and the Brewers improved their league-best record to 14-5. It’s the second consecutive weekend that the Brewers have gotten the best of the Pirates, as last year’s Cinderella story has won just one of the seven matchups between the two teams this season. —Chris Mosch


Baseball’s heavy tome of Unwritten Rules Infractions was dusted off again this weekend when Bryce Harper, the lazy ingrate that he is, failed to run out a ground ball during Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals. Nationals manager Matt Williams, identifying that Harper had clearly violated one of the book’s most important rules (“Thou shalt never imitate Manny Ramirez”), removed Harper from what was then a 3-1 game. The Nationals went on to lose 4-3, but not before Harper’s spot in the order came up in the bottom of the ninth inning with two runners in scoring position. Kevin Frandsen grounded to third and drove in a run in Harper’s place, and Jayson Werth struck out a batter later to end the game.

In cases like this one, it’s easy to fall victim to the magic of counterfactual thinking. In an alternate universe, Harper steps to the plate, drives in a couple of runs, and, at the very least, forces the game into extra innings. Using the same logic, though, you could argue that if Harper stepped to the plate in the ninth inning, he blows out his knee and is shelved for the rest of the season. In this scenario, Williams is a savior, not a villain.

The point is, we can’t know what Harper could have done, and it’s pretty useless to guess. But just because Harper might have fared no differently than Frandsen doesn’t mean Williams is exonerated of blame. If this incident is an indicator of Williams’s priorities as a manager, then the Nationals might have several more headaches ahead of them. His adherence to baseball’s overwrought and outdated macho complex (and his willingness to prioritize it over winning games) is a genuine concern. A rookie manager is liable to make a mistake or two, sure, but a man at the helm of a championship contender needs to fulfill his duties to the team—that is, maximizing their chances to win games—before gratifying his own principles. (He also might want to take a look at the team magazine before making such decisions.) Harper is by all measures a better player than Frandsen, and when Williams pulled him, he did not maximize Washington’s chance to win the game. And it’s not as if the Nationals can really afford that sort of statement, either: the Braves are good, and will probably battle the Nats for the NL East crown all season long. Williams didn’t lose the game for his team, but he didn’t make winning it any easier. —Nick Bacarella


Another example of the learning curve that umpires and managers are facing in the use of instant replay came when the Braves unofficially got four outs in the second inning of Friday’s game in Queens. With two outs and Lucas Duda on first base in the bottom of the second inning, Travis d’Arnaud hit a weak ground ball to second base and was called out on a bang-bang play at first base. Given how close the play was, Freddie Freeman threw the ball across the diamond to Chris Johnson, who tagged out Duda, who had slowed down considerably after seeing that d’Arnaud had been ruled out.

Mets manager Terry Collins came onto to the field and appeared ready to challenge the call at first, but was told by the umpires that the inning would be over even if the call was reversed because they had called Duda out at third base. Given the information, Collins decided against challenging the play, but was later told by MLB officials that that the call at third base could have also been overturned.

“Due to the camera above the ballpark, which allows you to see where the runners are, if Lucas slowed down because of the play at first base, they could have probably sent him back to second base,” Collins told Newsday.

There was certainly confusion on both sides, and to Collins’ credit, he admitted that he could have handled the situation better.

“Due to the fact that [replay] is so new to us, both sides didn't interpret it very good . . . So I should have been more aware that I could have had them check that baserunner, where Lucas was, and we could have continued the inning,” Collins said.

It’s not a guarantee that the call at first would have even been overturned, as it’s questionable whether the replay of d’Arnaud’s foot touching the bag would have met the threshold needed to overturn the call. A reversed call would not only have prolonged the inning and given the Mets a scoring opportunity, but it was also the closest that the Mets came to getting a hit off Aaron Harang, who held the Mets hitless through seven innings. However, Harang issued six walks, which drove his pitch count up to 121 and forced manager Fredi Gonzalez to pull Harang after seven innings. Considering the recent turmoil of Atlanta’s starting rotation, Gonzalez’s decision was an understandable one.

It already appears that MLB will eventually adjust the rules regarding plays at the plate and the interpretation of the transfer rule, both of which have been topics of debate through the first three weeks of expanded replay. Hopefully this should be the last time controversy rears its head on a play similar to Friday’s oddity, now that there is a better understanding of how to handle such a scenario. —Chris Mosch


Jed Lowrie must be a fan of Ben Lindbergh’s work, as he became the latest to try and beat the shift with a bunt on Friday against the Astros. Lowrie’s attempt failed when he was unable to push his bunt past Houston pitcher Paul Clemens and thrown out at first to end the first inning.

The only problem was that the Athletics had already tacked seven runs on the board off Jarred Cosart and Houston’s subsequent actions appeared to imply that they had already conceded defeat. The first pitch Lowrie saw from Clemens during his next at-bat ended up sailing between his legs and the next pitch was also thrown inside. After flying out to end the inning, Lowrie appeared to have some calm words about the unwritten rules with former double-play partner Jose Altuve before Astros manager Bo Porter stepped in. A fired-up Porter pointed and screamed, “Go back to shortstop” at Lowrie before heading back to his own dugout and knocking over a water cooler.

Porter didn’t have much to say to the media afterward, but the whole scenario left Lowrie a bit perplexed.

“We're talking about the first inning of a Major League game,” Lowrie told MLB.com’s Jane Lee. “These games are important, and there's a lot on the line. I think, at one point, they were one swing away from being two runs down. So if I get on base there and we pick up a couple more runs, that's important.”

“I didn't understand the thought process of trying to hit me, especially in that situation,” added Lowrie. “It doesn't make sense. I just don't get it. I don't know what it shows but not a lot of confidence in his own team, point blank. I don't want to make a big deal of it, but it's the first inning and every run is important.”

It’s easy to understand the frustrations from the Houston side, as the Royals had just swept them at home and they were in quick 7-0 hole on Friday. Even though Oakland ended up winning by a final of 11-3, Lowrie’s gripe about the play occurring in the first inning and the Astros being within striking distance later in the game seem legitimate (Houston was actually one swing away from being down by just one run, not two, in the fifth inning). In this episode of how to correctly interpret baseball’s unwritten rules, the Astros deploying the shift on Lowrie (and getting presumably what they wanted out of the at-bat) only added another confusing layer. —Chris Mosch


It took only two games for Wil Myers to bring his counting stats more or less in line with preseason expectations. Myers exploded on Friday and Saturday, collecting six hits (including his first two home runs of the season) in just nine at-bats. He’s striking out a touch more than he did last year – thanks in large part to a large decline in contact on pitches outside the strike zone—but he’s also walking a bit more, too. He’s been the cause of many fantasy team freak-outs early this season, but it seems like he’s trying to put those concerns to rest as quickly as possible. —Nick Bacarella


In the last season and change alone, there have been two pitchers—Alex Cobb and Aroldis Chapman—who have suffered line drives to the head. Juan Nicasio endured the same gruesome fate in 2011; Matt Clement did, too, in 2005.

Until this weekend, it looked like pitchers were forever saddled with the more painful end of the batter-pitcher relationship. This photo of Delino DeShields, Jr., however, might nudge the fulcrum back in the other direction.

DeShields, Jr., was hit in the right cheek by a 90-mph fastball on Friday night. Luckily, he’s doing just fine, and was actually back at the ballpark Saturday afternoon. It may be a while before he’s back in the batter’s box though, and with good reason. —Nick Bacarella

Defensive Play of the Weekend

One thing James Russell’s inelegant flip to beat Billy Hamilton teaches us about the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable: Just because the Tortoise wins the race doesn’t mean the victory looks pretty. —Nick Bacarella

What to Watch For on Monday

Aces haven’t been getting much help from their offenses to start the season, and three of the league’s best are slated to pitch Monday evening. Yu Darvish, who has been mowing down his opponents over 22 innings so far, has received just 2.33 runs per start. Francisco Liriano’s number is even worse: he’s gotten one measly run every time he’s taken the mound. Then, of course, there’s the perpetually unlucky Cliff Lee, who pitched a complete game in his last outing and still took the loss (the Phillies were shut out 1-0). Lee is the only pitcher in baseball to fall in the bottom 10 in team run support for the past two seasons. It’s hard to believe this is a streak he’d like to keep alive. (7:05, 10:05, 10:10 PM EDT)

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols have been on fire over the last week. Since last Saturday, Trout is slashing .385/.412/.733 with a couple of homers and steals, while Pujols is looking like “The Machine” again with four bombs and .360/.412/.763 in the same period. They’ll take on Tanner Roark, who has struggled to find his footing in his first full major-league season. It seems a little cruel to root for two of the games best hitters to feast on a pitcher so young, but hey… home runs are fun! Speaking of which, Pujols is sitting on home run no. 498, so if Roark doesn’t have his best stuff, it could be a very special night. (7:05 PM EDT)

Tom Koehler has been a nice story for the Marlins early this year. He’s 28 years old and seems to finally be finding his groove in the majors… if you ignore his peripherals, that is. Koehler has posted a 1.89 ERA over three starts despite walking almost four batters per nine innings. That number is a little skewed considering Koehler walked five in seven innings in his last start, but the same can’t be said of his meager strikeout totals: in 19 innings, he’s punched out only 10 batters. Like winter, regression is coming, but we can’t know when. Fortunately for Koehler, he’s up against another force of chance in Julio Teheran, who is striking out even fewer batters than Koehler and has still managed a sub-2.00 ERA. Both boast some of the games highest strand rates, so this game has all the ingredients of a 2-1 “slugfest” with 20 runners left on base. (7:10 PM EDT)

If you’re the dude that said that bad thing about Felix Hernandez, I’d watch out because he definitely heard you. He’s angry, and batters are bearing the brunt of his cruelty: Hernandez is fanning better than 12 per 9 innings. His furious start combined with the woes of the Astros gives us one of the season’s most lopsided matchups yet. Houston is leading the league in strikeout rate at 25.2% – somehow an improvement from last year – which certainly seems like a lot in a vacuum. It gets a lot worse when you realize that they’re the only AL team anywhere near the top. And then it gets funny when you realize exactly what these things mean: with 8 positions players and a DH, the Astros are actually worse off than the 15 teams forced to bat a pitcher every night. They’re 29th in runs, 30th in batting average (at .195!), 30th in OBP, and 29th in slugging percentage. They’ve scored 14 runs in their last six games. King Felix, you may begin your royal feast. (10:10 PM EDT) —Nick Bacarella

Nick Bacarella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Morris Greenberg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Morris's other articles. You can contact Morris by clicking here
Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here

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