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MLB Weekend Series - Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekend Series - Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekend Series - Five Key Takeaways
By David Malinsky

It's time to continue our look at the 2014 MLB season from Point Blank range, as we break down the weekend series to find major edges that can keep you ahead of the game in the days and weeks ahead.

Astros - Scott Feldman, “Believe it or not”

Feldman’s performance at Texas on Friday was a great human interest story, working seven shutout innings two days after his father passed away. He deserves kudos. That performance lifted him to a most unlikely 2-0/0.44 for the 2014 season, statistical evidence that he has been as good as any pitcher in the sport so far. But he hasn’t. This has been a classic example of “Baseball Being Baseball”, and as such you need to adjust properly.

To generate numbers that impressive, a pitcher ordinarily needs to be doing a lot of things right. They are not easy to find with Feldman. He has not commanded the strike zone, missing with 38.3 percent of all pitches. He sports a downright awful ratio of eight W’s and five HBP vs. only seven K’s. But two magic outliers have built his bottom line – of the 21 runners he has put on base, only one scored, and opponents have a microscopic .119 hit rate on balls in play.

Consider that latter number through this comparison – all other balls in play vs. the Houston defense have turned into hits at a .321 clip, which would rate #27 in the Majors. That shows just how much good fortune Feldman has been receiving from baseball’s geometry. He is who he is, a competent journeyman who could end up in a contender’s uniform by mid-summer, but not someone that can maintain this level.

Royals - Does the Offense have an upside

Minnesota’s struggling pitching staff sent Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson and Kevin Correia to the mound against Kansas City this weekend, with that trio sporting a 6.41 ERA and 1.76 WHIP entering the series. In sweeping the Royals, they  worked to tunes of 2.11 and 1.03 in the same categories, and it could have been even better – a misplayed bunt by Trevor Plouffe in the 8th inning would have turned Correia’s earned run count from three to one, had the official scorer ruled it differently. Meanwhile a mediocre Twins bullpen did not allow a run over 5 2/3 frames.

The end result was a sweep that dropped Kansas City to the bottom of the AL Central, despite the season beginning with such optimism. It is easy to see where the problem is. Again. In 2013 the pitching and defense were good enough to make the playoffs – a 3.45 ERA ranked 6th in the Major Leagues, and the defense was #8 on the Park-Adjusted ratings. But the Royals were #18 in runs and #24 in total bases. So far this season the pitching has actually improved a notch to 3.38, while the defense checks in at #5. Yet they have gone backwards in the standings. The offense brings up the bottom of the MLB tables in runs and total bases, with the alarming total of a lone home run through 356 at-bats. And while the opposing starters have included names like Verlander, Scherzer and Sale, as a group they have worked to a 4.40 tune, with a 1.36 WHIP, against all other opponents. In other words, close to average.

Once upon a time there was optimism fueled by home-grown prospects  Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Gordon has turned out to be good, not great; Butler’s slugging percentage fell of by nearly 100 points in 2013, and you need a magnifying lens to find the current rate; Moustakas has been arguably the worst everyday player in the Majors this season; while Hosmer still has time on his side at 24. Those four bat at key offensive positions in the lineup, and the gap between their production, and what a contender needs from those spots, may be too wide for pitching and defense to make up for.

Reds - Billy Hamilton, “You can’t steal first base”

The Reds really want Hamilton to succeed – his speed is so dynamic in the way that he can alter games on the base-paths and in CF. Those 333 stolen bases across his first three Minor League seasons is something that may never be seen again. But stealing requires being on base, of course, and that is the problem. For as good as those counts were, he actually had more strikeouts than steals in the Minors – 348. That was a warning sign, and yet Cincinnati broke spring with him as the lead-off hitter, despite his ominous .256 average and .308 on-base at AAA Louisville LY. It isn’t working. And it isn’t working at a truly awful level.

It is one thing to struggle, and Hamilton certainly has – a dismal .195 on-base, with 50 percent more K’s than hits, and only two walks. But that becomes magnified when you are struggling at the key leadoff spot. How bad has it been? Hamilton has been the No. 1 hitter in the lineup in eight home games in his career. In three of those games the Reds lost 1-0. That already matches the number of 1-0 defeats they had suffered in their 11+ seasons at the Great American Ballpark, and nearly 900 games.

Now the question becomes how long Cincinnati management waits before sending him down for a second tour at AAA. There is an old baseball axiom that “You don’t learn to hit in The Show”, and they are running the risk of ruining his confidence. It is awfully hard to draw walks in the Majors when pitchers know that you can’t hit strikes. It is also awfully hard to generate offense with that little production at the top; having already lost three games in which they allowed two runs or less, they simply can not afford to let too many get away.

Nationals - Defensive adjustments:

When Washington took the field at Atlanta on Sunday, there were only three Nationals playing the position they were projected to back in the spring – Jayson Worth in RF, Ian Desmond at SS, and Adam LaRoche at 1B. So naturally there is the usual handicapper’s task of making adjustments, and plugging other players and their abilities and characteristics into those spots. But this time it may be a bit more of a challenge – several players are now at a position that might not be fully comfortable with.

Danny Espinosa replaces Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup. Naturally that is a big offensive drop, but there is also a glove issue, with Anthony Rendon sliding over from 2B to 3B. Rendon is showing his ability to handle MLB pitching so far, but can he handle 3B? Because of his fast trajectory to the Majors, Rendon skipped AAA, and Sunday was only his 79th game as a professional at the position. The Nats also chose to bat him at leadoff, which adds an additional mental pressure.

In the OF it may not seem like a big offensive drop in going from Denard Spann to what will likely be a Kevin Frandsen/Nate McLouth platoon, assuming that McLouth’s knee is OK. But that platoon will be in LF, with Bryce Harper moving over to CF. There is a major defensive gap between Spann and Harper in that key spot, while Frandsen did not play in the OF at all with the Phillies the last two seasons, and McLouth did not take up LF full-time until the Orioles put him there in 2012. As for catcher, it is a case of trying to patch with Jose Lobaton and Sandy Leon until Wilson Ramos returns.

This defense bears watching, especially with Desmond’s ugly glove start to the season (five errors), and there should be a quick focus on the range charts. But if there is a sliver lining, it is the fact that the Washington pitching staff leads the Majors by a wide margin in Strikeout rate, which helps to keep the ball out of play. In the immediate future, they may need to.

Diamondbacks - Brandon McCarthy “Takes one for the Team”

The next time McCarthy takes the mound the pitching forms will show an 0-2/7.78, and with the Diamondbacks behind him also playing poorly, the oddsmakers may have to be generous to find takers. You may want to be among them.

McCarthy is doing a lot of things right. His upper-end velocity is up a full two mph, and he has only issued three walks over 19 2/3 frames, building on a command that has led to one free pass or none 18 times over 25 starts since coming to Arizona. His ground ball rate has been phenomenal, with 35 outs recorded vs. only three in the air. In his past two starts, neither the Dodgers nor the Rockies managed a fly-ball out, while 26 were retired on the ground. Which leads to part of the conundrum – those teams did manage four HR’s. Four HR’s without a fly-out is a distribution we will not see often. Giving up homers is obviously not good, but when those are the only fly balls, it calls for a different interpretation.

Let’s take it a step further. McCarthy’s box vs. the Dodgers on Friday will show six runs on 10 hits over seven IP. That is bad, but the last two runs, and three hits, never should have happened. He actually worked a decent seven frames, retiring 11 batters in a row in one stretch. But the Arizona bullpen was gassed, with Kirk Gibson using six relievers to throw 103 pitches at San Francisco the previous evening. So McCarthy was sent back out for the 8th to “Take One for the Team”, and face the heart of the Dodger order. That sequence cost his early-season ERA nearly a full run, and raised his WHIP from 1.17 to 1.32, but the shrewd handicapper might be able to take advantage of those misleading counts going forward.

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