Results tagged ‘ Nick Swisher ’

Brian Cashman Has a Vernon Wells Problem

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles AngelsIf the rumors do indeed come to pass (and it looks like they are going to), Vernon Wells will be moving across country to join the New York Yankees. The Yankees have been searching for an outfield bat with some pop throughout the Spring and apparently GM Brian Cashman. The Angels have been trying to dump Wells since they decided to shoot themselves in the foot, acquiring the outfielder at the steep cost of Mike Napoli, which meant the gears for a deal where properly greased. But the big question is why would the Yankees want a player the Angels are so desperate to get rid of?

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Is Cleveland Going to be 2013’s Stealth Contender?

swisher“I’m really excited,” Francona said on the air as an ESPN analyst, his job for the past season. “People who don’t know me may have thought I was looking for something different.” – Terry Francona, on accepting the job to be the manager of the Cleveland Indians

“We have better talent than our record shows.”- Indians GM Chris Antonetti, a couple of days before hiring Terry Francona

Optimism is abuzz in Cleveland as we approach the reporting of pitchers and catchers, thanks to a flurry of offseason activity that brought new manager Terry Francona, who should be a perfect fit. GM Chris Antonetti was a busy bee this offseason, bringing in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jason Giambi among others to beef up the roster to make a potential playoff push. And you know what? I think they have quite a few reasons to be optimistic:

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Can the Yankees Come Back, sans Jeter?

The American League Championship Series got off to a rousing start last night before, ultimately, ending on a sour note. Tigers closer Jose Valverde continued his season long battle with the save, giving up a pair of 2-run homers and a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. A couple innings later, the Tigers were able to parlay an atrocious display of defense by Nick Swisher and some timely hits into a pair of 12th inning runs to escape with a 1-0 series lead. The game was particularly disastrous for New York because not only did they hand over home-field advantage, captain Derek Jeter was also lost for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken ankle.

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Around the Horn: Previewing the Biggest Weekend in Baseball Thus Far

With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:

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Can the Yankees Turn it Around?

The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:

Injury

The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.

The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.

The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.

The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.

Pitching

The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.

In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.

Defense

Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.

Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.

The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.

 

Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.

Defensive Shifts Part II: New York at Kansas City

For Part 1 click here.

One trend I noticed and paid special attention to over the weekend was the use of defensive shifts by the Royals and Yankees. Both teams used a variety of shifts, mostly on left-handed hitters, successfully and frequently. These teams came into the series ranking in the top-5 in baseball in defensive shifts, using the tactic over 50 times apiece, nearly 100 shifts less the Rays. I was able to capture a few of the defensive setups and I want to discuss the variety of factors that go into playing shifts.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals frequently shifted on the Yankee lefties all series long. More than not they used the standard overshift, which looks something like this, which was used on Mark Teixeira:

The Royals played an overshift on Mark Teixeira every time he came to the plate. Teixeira was unfazed by the shift, although he had little success against it, drawing a walk and flying out a couple of times. The Royals’ defense isn’t shifted as severely as some teams shift Teixeira, (Tampa Bay would be one, playing their 2nd baseman about 20 feet deeper) but they place a fielder, in this case 2nd baseman Chris Getz, right in the hole and the shortstop plays up the middle. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas was typically playing about 25-30 feet off the line against the lefty sluggers, and as you can see the base isn’t even in the picture.

Here’s another look at the shift they used against Nick Swisher, which was also somewhat effective:

The shift worked on Swisher once, taking away a ground ball single into hole on the right side of the infield. Swisher also hit a mammoth solo homerun in the game, so its evident that the shift didn’t bother him too much.

The shift the Royals used on Robinson Cano was even more drastic.

Kansas City played him very deep all around the infield, and pulled all of their fielders about 8-12 steps right. Cano has been a little more pull happy this season and defenses are catching on. The Royals took away a couple hits from Cano over the course of the series with the shift, but on Sunday he was able to get a fat pitch from Luke Hochevar and deposit it into the seats.

Hochevar’s poor performance, allowing 7 runs in less than 3 innings again proves that one of the most important aspects to the shift is a quality pitcher. Without one it just doesn’t work, just like on Sunday in Kansas City.

New York Yankees

The Yankees used the shift as well during this series, although not as much as Kansas City. The Yankees have used defensive shifts much more this season, ranking in the top-5 after finishing around the middle of the league last year. They have even begun to use the shift on right handed hitters like they did against doubles machine Billy Butler on Sunday.

Butler is a fairly solid gap to gap hitter, but he has a tendency ground out to the left side of the infield, as evidenced by his spray chart:

Butler was still able to claim a couple of doubles over the weekend, but not before the shift worked when a grounder up the middle was taken away by a well-placed Robinson Cano.

The struggling Eric Hosmer also saw a form of a shift from the Yankees defense. When he came up to the plate the Yankees shaded him to pull the ball left. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter each moved about 5-10 feet left, giving Hosmer the 3rd base line and taking away more up the middle. Cano and Teixeira played fairly standard on the right side, and they Yankees were able to continue Hosmer’s frustrating season. Here’s an example of the shade the Yankees played:

Hosmer appears to be uncomfortable at the plate right now, so it was tough to tell if his struggles were due to a mechanical problem, or if the scouting report has caught up to his talent. The Royals should still continue to play Hosmer every day and let him work through his struggles in order to regain his .300 hitting ability.

Teams across the league seem to be catching on to what Tampa Bay has been doing for years. Its not just the little guys either. The most expensive baseball franchise, the Yankees, are also seeing the value in defensive positioning and is taking advantage of the new information available. It should also be a positive sign in Kansas City that the front office is using the information available and is actively trying to get the Royals back to the playoffs. It was interesting to watch in person how the defenses were moving and adjusting based on scouting reports, and its just another sign of the information age in baseball.

Joe Maddon, Spray Charts, and Defensive Shifts: Part I

Part 1 of a season long series to discover the effects of the shift, particularly in Tampa Bay where its most ardent supporter manages.

Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.

First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.

It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.

The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.

So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson, as evidenced by his spray chart, is a dead pull ground ball hitter.

He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.

Albert Pujols

Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year. 

Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.

Mark Teixeira

The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.

Batting left-handed

Batting right-handed

The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.

Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.

Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.

An Epic Day in Baseball

Yesterday was one of those days in baseball that just makes you wonder how a game that’s over 150 years old can continue to surprise? I mean just about everything has happened in baseball, but yesterday contained not only the 21st perfect game in baseball history, but also a 9 run comeback after the 5th inning. April 21, 2012 was a day that truly showcased everything that is great about baseball.

Phillip Humber began his game yesterday as a successful reclamation project and solid middle of the rotation starter for the Chicago White Sox.  After being drafted by the Mets 4th overall in 2004 and made his major league debut in 2006 but struggled to find success, bouncing around to Minnesota and Kansas City before being claimed by the White Sox off of waivers in 2011. Chicago’s pitching coach Don Cooper worked on adding a slider to his repertoire and they changed his mechanics slightly, improving Humber’s balance on his follow through. Humber posted a 112 ERA+ last year and was reliable for 163 total innings, his first sustained success in the majors.

Humber was facing a team he figured to have some success against. The Mariners entered yesterday as the 2nd worst team in batting average and the 3rd worst in team OPS (an atrocious .285!!!). He got the first 3 hitters out and really found his groove in the 2nd inning, striking out the side.  By the 3rd inning the White Sox offense had spotted him 3 runs, one run courtesy of a Paul Konerko home run, and he was officially rolling.

Meanwhile baseball had begun in Boston, where the New York Yankees were visiting for Fenway Park’s 100th. Freddy Garcia was on the mound for the Yankees and continued his early season swoon, getting bombed for 5 runs on 7 hits in 1.2 innings of work. The Red Sox hit double after double off Garcia, playing a game of wall ball off of the Green Monster. After 3 innings the Yankees found themselves in a 7-0 hole. Felix Doubrant was on the mound for the Red Sox and he was baffling the Yankee hitters with an array of fastballs, sliders, and curves. By the 5th inning the Red Sox had gotten 2 more runs and the game was getting out of hand at 9-0. Doubrant finally gave up a run on a Mark Teixiera homer in the 6th and he was pulled after the inning, finishing with 4 hits allowed and 7 strikeouts.

Back over in Seattle, Humber continued to dominate and was now entering the later innings of the game. By the 7th inning no Mariner had even threatened a base hit off of him. Humber primarily stuck to his fastball and curveball, mixing in the occasional 2-seamer or changeup or slider. He was locating his pitches all over the zone, keeping the Mariners putrid offense off-balance. In the 8th inning Brett Lillbridge came in to play left field, and only received one ball hit his direction. Humber’s 8th inning was another quick 11-pitch affair and he was off to the 9th, perfect game intact.

Back in Boston, by the 7th inning the Yankees had finally gotten into the Red Sox bullpen, the worst in all of baseball. Vincente Padilla was the 1st up from the bullpen and was immediately carpet-bombed by New York’s offense. After striking out Andruw Jones, Padilla gave up 2 straight singles, walked Derek Jeter, and gave up a 1st pitch grand slam deep over the Monster to Nick Swisher. Bobby Valentine decided that 4 runs wasn’t enough out of Padilla, so he left him in to face Robinson Cano, who played wall ball in left field, rapping out a double. Matt Albers was the next to face the firing squad, and after Alex Rodriguez reached on an error by shortstop Mike Aviles, Mark Teixiera bombed his 2nd home run, a 3-run job.  Franklin Morales would be the next to come in the game, and was able to end the inning. The comeback was officially on, the score now 9-8 in favor of the Red Sox.

Phil Humber was entering the 9th inning in what was now the most important game in his life. All that stood between Humber and baseball immortality was 3 more outs. Michael Saunders was first up to the plate, and he was nearly walked before being struck out. Humber was nearing the 90-pitch mark and didn’t appear to be throwing as free and easy as he did in the early innings. The Mariners sent a pinch-“hitter” up to the plate in John Jaso, who lazily flied out to right field after falling behind 0-2. Humber was now 1 out away, and the Mariners, desperate not to have a perfect game thrown against them decided to counter with defensive specialist Brendan Ryan. Ryan has hit .248 and .223 during the past 2 seasons and is no ones definition of a good bat off the bench, but he does know how to work the count. He battled Humber for 6 pitches, working the count full. Humber decided to risk his entire game on a low and away slider, which generated just enough of a check swing to get the 3rd strike. The perfect game was his!!! Humber became the 21st member of the perfect game club, becoming the 4th pitcher in the last 3 seasons to throw one. (And for anyone who wants to argue that Ryan checked his swing, who cares? It’s Brendan Ryan!!! He’s not exactly the authority on hitting, and he went around enough for the pitch to be called a strike.)

Back over to Boston, the comeback was about to be on again. Boston’s Franklin Morales was left in to begin the 8th, and he immediately gave up a leadoff single to the pesky Eduardo Nunez. Valentine decided to make an immediate change, and brought in his de facto closer Alfredo Aceves. Aceves pitched for the Yankees from 2008 to 2010, and was excellent in relief last year for Boston, holding the pitching staff together down the stretch, throwing 114 total innings. But his early returns this season have been rather ugly, and yesterday was no exception. Aceves immediately walked Jeter, which brought up Nick Swisher. Swisher, already with a grand slam to his name, hit an 84-mph change-up that caught too much off the plate to deep right field for a double, plating 2 runs and giving the Yankees the lead.

Next, Valentine decided not to face the dangerous Robby Cano and put him on intentionally, bringing up Alex Rodriguez, who also worked a walk. The bases were now loaded for Mark Teixiera, who pummeled a ground-rule double to left, scoring 2 and giving the 1st baseman 6 RBI on the game. The Yankees now had the lead 12-9 all the way back from 9-0!!! The inning would continue to get uglier and uglier for Boston. Russell Martin doubled home 2 more runs and Jeter would single home another, bringing the score after 8 innings to 15-9, in the Yankees’ favor. Valentine was booed lustily every time he came out to discuss tactics or remove a pitcher.

The Yankees would close out the 9th inning to take the 15-9 victory, dropping the Red Sox to a measily 4-10, last in the AL East. The 9-run comeback by the Yankees tied the largest in franchise history, and was the 3rd time that New York has pulled the trick on Boston. Coupled with Phil Humber’s perfect game, April 21st was baseball’s finest day so far in 2012, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.

For more on Humber’s perfect game, check out these links from SI.com. Verducci’s take is especially interesting, as he looks at the game as a microcosm for the decline of offense around baseball.

Tom Verducci

Cliff Corcoran

Thoughts on Strasburg, and Around the League

Stephen Strasburg claimed his first win of the year yesterday, a 4-0 victory over Johan Santana and the Mets. It was notable for him personally because for the 1st time in his young career the righty was allowed to exceed 100 pitches, throwing 108 with 63 going for strikes. Strasburg was superb over those 108 pitches, allowing only 2 hits and 3 walks while striking out 9 in 6 innings. The Nationals have won both of his starts so far, and the young right-hander has looked every bit like an ace.

Strasburg has compiled 13 innings, allowing 7 hits, 4 walks, and 1 earned run, while striking out 14. If he continues to dominate, Washington will pick up a lot of wins and stay competitive in what is shaping up to be a brutal division. Strasburg hasn’t fully hit his stride yet either. His location has been a bit spotty in both of his starts, and as he finds his rhythm as the season continues, the big ace should only get better. As you can see in this chart below, (provided from BrooksBaseball.net) Strasburg was a little erratic with his location against the Mets, and even so, he still only allowed 1 run. He’s going to dominate once he locates a bit better, so expect at least 3 games where he strikes out more than 10 batters.

The only problem is that the Nationals have already announced an innings limit on the ace, as they plan to end his season after 160 innings. Strasburg is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and is still just 23-years-old, so Washington’s conservative plan isn’t a terrible one, but it may need to be altered.

Washington could consider skipping Strasburg in the rotation a couple of times over the next 2 months, thus reducing his work load going forward and keeping him available later in the season. This course of action could have some unintended consequences, such as getting away from a steady throwing routine as well as knocking Strasburg out of rhythm. Many pitchers like to take the ball every 5 days, while having 1 or 2 throw days in between, and some tend to struggle if given extended rest. Both Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia are on record with their disdain for extra rest, preferring to throw every 5 days.Another possible plan, if the Nationals are competitive down the stretch, would be to reevaluate the innings limit and up it by 20 or 30.

National’s GM Mike Rizzo has already said that neither of these would be an option “There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on. We’re going to run him out there until his innings are done … He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues. I think it’s unfair to get him ramped up in spring training and start the season on a regular rotation and then shut him down or skip him. We’re just going to make him comfortable.” This could come back to hunt the Nationals, who appear to be a franchise who could contend for a playoff spot this season. It will also be interesting to see if Rizzo sticks to his word, if say, Washington is up 4 games in the NL East with a month to go when Strasburg, in the midst of a phenomenal season at that point, hits the innings limit wall. This story line will be an interesting one to watch play out.

Other thoughts:

-Tim Lincecum has been roughed up so far during the 2012 season, throwing only 7 innings while being rocked for 11 runs. The Freak had his worst start of his career last night in Colorado, lasting only 2.1, giving up 6 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks, striking out 3. He announced before the season that he was scrapping his slider, which has held true, as he has not thrown a single one. Throughout the course of his career he has thrown the pitch about 11% of the time (courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net). Lincecum claims that he doesn’t want to use it because it damages his arm, which is more than reasonable, but it may hurt his chances of success. He has been compensating by throwing his change-up and absurd 33% of the time. Timmy has always had one of the best change-ups in baseball, but the pitch loses its effectiveness if thrown more than its usual 19% of the time. Lincecum’s velocity has also been a bit down, which is normal for most pitchers in April, and his location has also been poor. If his velocity bumps up a mile or two per hour, and his normally stellar location return, everything will be all right in San Francisco.

-Amazing comeback by the Rays yesterday to get to Justin Verlander in the 9th inning, after being dominated by him all game long. Verlander is now 0-1, despite pitching 8+ innings in both of his starts, and is not having as good of fortune in the win column as he did in 2011. There is no quit in Tampa Bay, which is a feather in the cap to their manager Joe Maddon, for always getting his players to believe.

-Equilibrium has returned somewhat in the AL East, after the Yankees completed their sweep over the Orioles with a 6-4 extra innings win last night. Nick Swisher hit the game-winning 2-run homer in the 10th to give both teams identical 3-3 records. Elsewhere in the East, Toronto took the series from Boston, leaving the Red Sox at a miserable 1-5 to start the season. The Red Sox have played a tough schedule so far, and its not getting any easier any time soon. Boston’s next 3 series, all at Fenway: 4 against Tampa, 2 against Texas, and 3 against New York.

-Finally, Cincinnati managed to avoid the sweep to the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals, winning 4-3 behind Joey Votto’s 4-hit day. I will be in St. Louis this weekend to catch the Cardinals home opener against the Cubs with a most excellent friend, Patrick, and will have a post about it over the weekend.

Wei-Yin Chen’s Debut Against the Yankees

Yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles clash was an exciting game for quite a few reasons. It was the first opportunity to get a look at one of the most dominant pitchers from the Nippon Baseball League in Wei-Yin Chen. It was also a game that featured 2 of the finest shortstops in baseball, Derek Jeter and JJ Hardy.  By the end of 12 innings there had been, 5 wild pitches, a great relay throw to the plate, and countless clutch plays.

In the top of the 1st Derek Jeter came up to the plate and got the game started right for New York, smashing a homer deep to centerfield, well clear of the wall. Wei-Yin Chen looked a little nervous, much like Yu Darvish two nights ago, during the first inning. He admitted as much after the game saying “To be honest with you guys, this is my first major league outing. I was so nervous,” Chen said. “But after the first inning everything was fine for me.” His location was poor, and he was leaving plenty of pitches over the plate, and the Yankees hit him hard but only got the 1 run, leaving 2 men on base. Not to be outdone in the bottom of the 1st inning, JJ Hardy also took an upstairs fastball deep, tying the score at 1. From there the game really got interesting.

After escaping the 1st inning Wei-Yin Chen really began to settle in and show what he can do. Chen showed an array of pitches, featuring a lower 90s fastball, a plus changeup that Yankee hitters struggled with, and an average slider. He locates all 3 pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance, which is the mark of a successful big leaguer. At one point he ran of a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. He looked every bit the part of a successful major league pitcher, and will fit nicely in the middle of the Orioles rotation. Chen is an excellent find for Baltimore, and their front office and scouts should be applauded for the pickup.

His counterpart on the mound, Freddy Garcia, struggled mightily all night with his command. Garcia threw 5 wild pitches, the most in one game since 1989, and was downright AJ Burnett-like. Garcia also walked 3 batters and hit another despite only making it through 4.2 innings.  His breaking pitches in particular were terrible, with at least 50% of them bouncing in the dirt. Some pitches were missing the plate by more than 2 feet. Two of Baltimore’s runs were directly attributable to Garcia’s wildness and it makes one wonder why Joe Girardi stuck with him for so long, because the Yankee bullpen was dynamite.

By the 6th inning, the O’s were cruising, up 4-1, when Chen began to wear down. As he approached 90 pitches his command started slipping, and he started leaving pitches out over the middle of the plate. The Yankees managed a couple of singles, and then Chen walked his first batter of the night, Curtis Granderson, to load ‘em up. With one out Andrew Jones hit a meager fly ball to right and Robinson Cano was able to tag-up and score on a slick slide at the plate. Showalter decided to leave the tiring Chen in the game to face Russell Martin, and he was able to induce a grounder to 3rd, where Mark “Iron Hands” Reynolds plays. Reynolds botched the play badly, allowing a 3rd run to score. The next batter Brett Gardner hit a sharp single and the game was tied at 4 and the Yankees had chased Chen from the game. A battle of the bullpens ensued.

For the next 3 innings neither team was able to push across a run and the game would go into extras. The Yankees had their best chance in the 7th inning, with Nick Swisher on 1st and Robinson Cano at the plate. Cano laced a sharp double down the 3rd base line and it went all the way to the wall, where Endy Chavez picked it up. Chavez fired the ball in to shortstop JJ Hardy, who was perfectly positioned 10-15 feet into the outfield grass along the foul line. Hardy turned and fired a perfect line drive strike to the plate from 120 feet away, just in time to nab a sliding Swisher. If either throw had been less than perfect Swisher would have scored. The Chavez-Hardy-Wieters relay was executed with textbook precision, and should be used as a model for how the play properly works.

By the 12th inning, the Yankees were able to muster another offensive rally. Robby Cano hit a leadoff double, and 3 batters later, Raul Ibanez brought him home with an RBI double. Mariano Rivera was brought in for the save, and collected the 604th of his illustrious career.

Box Score Observations:

-The final line for Wei-Yin Chen: 5.2 IP/4R/2ER/7H/1BB/6K/101 pitches. Chen showed me a lot of ability tonight. He has excellent control with and understands how to mix his pitches, which will serve him well. He could be the most productive pitcher on the Baltimore staff this season. The 26-year-old has a bright future ahead.

-The Yankees bullpen was superb. They pitched 7.1 innings, allowing no runs while striking out 12 batters. Corey Wade and David Phelps were both individually impressive, striking out 4 batters apiece.

-The middle infield is carrying the Yankees so far in the young season. Jeter and Cano are the only regulars hitting above .300, and they combined to go 5-12 with 3 runs, 3 extra-base hits, and 1 RBI. Both have played solid defense as well.

-The Yankees were 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Baltimore was 0-8. Ouch.

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