With J.J. Putz’s elbow hurting, the Diamondbacks have turned to Heath Bell in the closer’s role. Tuesday night against Atlanta, Heath Bell converted his fifth save in six last-inning save opportunities in impressive fashion: after the first baserunner reached on an error, Bell struck out Evan Gattis and Dan Uggla swinging before retiring Chris Johnson on a fly ball to center. Wednesday afternoon, Bell added another, as he worked another hitless and walkless inning, including a strikeout of Justin Upton.
Bell’s debut outing with Arizona looked like the beginning to another ugly season, as he allowed three runs on four hits (including two home runs) and managed just one out. Since then, Bell has been brilliant: over 18 appearances (17.2 innings), Bell hasn’t allowed a home run and has recorded 22 strikeouts against just two walks, good for a 3.06 ERA and a stunning 0.87 FIP. These two saves against Atlanta featured the drivers behind Bell’s success: impeccable fastball control, and the willing to go to it whenever he needs a strike.
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Last night, the Mets won 3-2 over the Pirates on three runs deserving the “manufactured” classification. Every run required a baserunner to take an extra base. John Buck scored on a sacrifice fly in the third inning after he went first-to-third on a single. Andrew Brown scored from first on a double in the seventh inning, and Marlon Byrd scored the game-winner on a relatively shallow single to center field by Mike Baxter.
Don’t be surprised. The Mets now lead MLB in runs added from baserunning at 5.6, just over the Red Sox at 5.4, and they’ve done it despite stealing just 13 bases, 24th in the league. How? They don’t make outs, and they take nearly every base possible when the ball is put in play.
Win probability said the Reds had a 4.3 percent chance of winning when Devin Mesoraco stepped to the plate against Craig Kimbrel. There were two outs and nobody on base. Win probability obviously didn’t know Craig Kimbrel was pitching.
According to Tom Tango’s run frequency calculator, given Kimbrel’s career .154/.240/.208 line against, a run is expected to score off Kimbrel 2.3 percent of the time with two outs and the bases empty. Actual win probablity, then, is more like 1.0 percent, considering Atlanta would be expected to win half the times Kimbrel gets out of the inning with a tie.
Naturally, then, Mesoraco and Shin-Soo Choo hit back-to-back home runs, and the Reds left with likely the most improbable walk-off win of the season.
I offered my explanation for Clay Buchholz’s success this season yesterday, citing improved fastball command and a recently harnessed but always nasty changeup. Jack Morris, now on the radio call for the Toronto Blue Jays, has other ideas:
I found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game,” he said. “I didn’t see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s throwing a spitter. Cause that’s what it is.
The scandal, if one can even call it such, involves video of rosin on Buchholz’s left forearm. The accusations are tenuous at best, and as Morris himself put it, “I can’t prove anything. I can’t prove anything.” Although Morris wasn’t the only one to accuse Buchholz of throwing a spitter — former pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, also with the Blue Jays radio team, joined in — it’s hard to imagine these accusations going anywhere.
However, Morris and Hayhurst give us an opportunity to revisit the spitball, in my opinion one of the most unique pieces of baseball history, from its time as a legal pitch in baseball’s early years to Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame spitball and everywhere in between.
Although Clay Buchholz had enjoyed his share of success heading into 2013, from a no-hitter to a 17-win season, one assumes the Red Sox were hoping for more. Buchholz was Baseball America’s fourth-best prospect entering 2008 and appeared to be a top-of-the-rotation power arm capable of ace-level dominance. Instead, Buchholz has had one very good season — a 2010 with a 2.33 ERA and a still-solid 3.61 FIP. He has otherwise pitched like a back-end rotation-filler, with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.38 FIP over 500.1 innings.
Wednesday night, Buchholz’s fifth start of his age-28 season, is the latest signal of the step forward the Red Sox have been waiting for. Buchholz held the Blue Jays to just two hits and three walks over seven shutout innings as he struck out eight to lower his ERA to 1.01. And fret not, the peripherals are fantastic as well: he owns a 2.28 FIP and 3.00 xFIP.
The strikeout total he put up Wednesday night has been there all season, and it’s the main difference between the new Buchholz and the old Buchholz. Despite his blazing fastball and breaking pitches lauded as grade 70 pitches in Baseball America reports, Buchholz was posted remarkably consistent and mediocre strikeout rates from 2009-2012, always between 6.1 and 6.7 K/9. He now has 47 strikeouts in 44.2 innings in 2013.
Additionally, Buchholz kept a Blue Jays lineup loaded with power hitters without a home run, and he has allowed just one this season. His HR/FB was a horrible 13 percent last year and he had four seasons above 10 percent in his last five.
So what’s new? Via last night’s Blue Jays broadcast, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Buchholz’s biggest difference is improved fastball command. And indeed, the numbers (via BrooksBaseball.net) bear this out: Buchholz has thrown his four-seam fastball for a called strike 27.5 percent of the time this year after just 22.8 percent in 2012. Conversely, the pitch has seen a similar drop in in-play rate. Considering Buchholz has allowed a .537 slugging on contact on the pitch for his career — the worst by over 100 points for any pitch he still throws — the fewer four-seam fastballs put in play the better.
By keeping the fastballs on the corners, something he did proficiently Wednesday night, he’ll turn what used to be balls in play into called strikes or foul balls. He has thrown the fastball for a strike but not in play 51.8 percent of the time this year, six points higher than last season. And, with 160 four-seam fastballs thrown already this season, this difference is already statistically significant (in a 90 percent confidence interval, to be specific).
His HR/FB won’t stay grounded at 3.7 percent, but keeping fastballs out of play will keep it from escalating too quickly. It’s especially key because he needs to be able to throw the fastball to get into favorable counts — it’s his best-controlled pitch at about 68 percent strikes the last two seasons, slightly better than the two-seamer and much better than his off-speed options.
And thanks to those fastball strikes, Buchholz has been in plenty of two-strike counts. The next question, then, is which pitch will be the out pitch. His curveball has been shockingly bad at drawing whiffs — under 10 percent since 2007, close to the major league fastball average — and that hasn’t changed this year. But his changeup, at least in 2013, has been an elite swing-and-miss pitch. Of the 74 Buchholz has tossed, hitters have waved at 20, a massive 27 percent.
As mentioned above, Buchholz’s changeup has been heralded in the past; a 70 grade is frontline material. But he was struggling mightily with the pitch last season, so much so that he scrapped it for a splitter Josh Beckett taught him after he threw the pitch for a ball nearly 50 percent of the time in April last season.
That arsenal change didn’t take as the calendar flipped to 2013. Buchholz had little trouble drawing swings and misses when he used the changeup in 2012 — 18.9 percent is still an excellent mark for a changeup — and his control issues have disappeared. Buchholz threw 13 changeups Wednesday night with nine (69 percent) going for strikes, and his 63 percent overall strike rate works fine for a pitch designed to fool hitters. The pitch has been devastating to left-handers and right-handers alike, with whiff rates over 20 percent to both sides. It’s been so good, he’s put the splitter back in the toolbox, leaving it as a side project for bullpen sessions.
Things will come back to earth. Buchholz’s changeup probably won’t finish with a higher whiff rate than Aroldis Chapman’s slider (currently at 24.4 percent). Teams will tag his fastball for a few home runs. But Buchholz has already thrown enough fastballs to suggest his control and command of the pitch have improved this year, and his changeup has been a highly regarded pitch dating back to his time in Double-A. If he can maintain even a fraction of the improvements he’s shown over his first five starts with these two pitches, the Red Sox can expect Buchholz to finally step into his frontline potential.
Travis Hafner is hitting like it’s 2005. The 35-year-old has raced to a .318/.438/.667 line, replete with six home runs, three doubles and a triple in April. He has helped breathe life into a lineup missing its usual stars. With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez all shelved, the Yankees have still managed 4.6 runs per game, good for ninth in the league.
The Yankees’ lineup has been 14 runs above average this year by wRAA. Hafner is at plus-9 himself, powering the Yankees lineup like he powered those mid-2000s Cleveland teams.
It’s still April and the samples are still small, but we’re over 10 percent of the way into the 2013 season and a few statistics are beginning to stabilize. Approach-related statistics in particular are starting to reach the point where the regression can be a little less aggressive. Swing rate begins to tell a bit of a story after just 50 plate appearances, for instance.
It’s a pretty intuitive result — the batter’s choice to swing is less dependent on pitcher quality and independent of fielder quality. By now, qualified players are in the 75-100 plate appearance range, and so we can get an idea of who is making a big change to their approach this year.
Monday night, Jesus Montero went where no man has gone before — at least in 2013 — with this mammoth home run to center field at Minute Maid Park. With the blast, Montero became the first player to homer to dead-center field at Minute Maid this season. Observe, all home runs at Minute Maid Park, with 2013 home runs in blue (Montero’s marked by a “+”):
Jackie Bradley Jr.’s fantastic spring did not turn into April results. The highly regarded Red Sox prospect was sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket following Thursday’s game after he managed just three hits and six walks in 38 plate appearances. It’s clear what Bradley needs to work on with his everyday at-bats at Pawtucket: hitting advanced changeups and curveballs.
The biggest baseball event of Thursday night came outside of game action. In the top of the sixth inning of the Dodgers-Padres game in San Diego, Zack Greinke hit Carlos Quentin with a fastball on the wrist on a 3-2 count. After one step towards the mound, Quentin bull-rushed Greinke. As Quentin charged, Greinke threw his shoulder into Quentin’s body, and the result was a broken collarbone for the Dodgers’ starter. There is no timetable for Greinke to return to the mound; he will be examined by doctor Neal El Attrache on Friday.
Although we occasionally see this kind of aggressiveness from players without any prior provocation, it usually indicates some sort of history, either between player and team. A look into the pair’s past suggests there was already tension brewing, and said tension came entirely from Quentin’s end.