MLB Weekend Series: Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekend Series: Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekend Series: Five Key Takeaways
By David Malinsky

It is time once again to round the weekend MLB bases from Point Blank range, looking for the key edges that can put you far ahead of the game in the days ahead.

Blue Jays – “Casey (Janssen) on the Hill”

It would be fun to start this take with a little poetry, and a modern riff on “Casey at the Bat”, but a busy Memorial Day board filled with early start times precludes that. There are some intriguing notions of the Toronto power ratings, however, that you need to be factoring into your equations. Even after a sizzling week they are still just 29-22, and “just” fits, because it keeps the marketplace at bay - in going 9-1 over the last 10 games they were underdogs six times, and never favored by more than -120.

This team can hit, and will continue to. The .442 SLG and .771 OPS are each second in the Majors, with only those Coors-inebriated Colorado numbers rating better. The top of the rotation is steady, especially as Drew Hutchison emerges. But to understand how good they can be, one first has to acknowledge how good they could have already been.

Toronto is 12-2 since Janssen returned as the closer. He has been superb, not allowing a run over eight appearances, and notching seven saves. He walked the first batter he faced this season, Efren Navarro of the Angels back on May 12, and no others. Since becoming a reliever full-time in 2010, his count is now 16-4/2.69, converting 65 of 72 save opportunities. He is good.

But it was a much different story while Janssen was on the DL to begin the season. There was an early take in this space about the struggles of that bullpen to patch until he could return, and as a group they had nine losses and six blown saves while he was sidelined. Imagine that that 29-22 could have been, with Janssen available all along? Now his presence allows others to fit their roles better, and as former starters Dustin McGowan and Brett Cecil adapt to their new specialties, the set-up cast can make positive contributions.

Red Sox – Peavy isn’t “jake”

Last week in this spot there was a detailed breakdown of how that lack of punch in the OF would catch up with the Red Sox, and in their current slide that group has been a prime culprit, capped by that collective 0-14 at Tampa Bay on Saturday, when just one hit at the right time could have turned the game. But there is something else from Saturday that absolutely bears tracking.

The next time Jake Peavy takes the mound the pitching forms will show a 1-2/4.65 that could induce yawns, with the allowance not far from his recent seasons – 4.63 in 2010, 4.92 in 2011, 3.37 in 2012, and then 4.17 LY. But you don’t want to be among those caught napping - there are warning signs. Perhaps none more clearly visible than the Boston loss on Saturday – he was sported a 5-0 lead before he threw a pitch, yet despite facing a weak offense in a pitcher’s park, he could not hold it. Peavy left after six innings, with the game deadlocked at 5-5.

In this prime, Peavy was a terrific combination of power and control. Not anymore. While his ERA may seem in line with recent campaigns, note that his xFIP is the worst of his career, and you can see the issues across those key categories where he was once so dominant. His K’s-per-9 are at 7.2, a career low, and far from his 8.6 standard. That is not necessarily a call for alarm – many veteran pitchers overcome a loss of velocity by working the strike zone to get hitters out. But that is not the case - his walks-per-9 are 4.2, not only a career high, but far above his 2.7 rate entering the season. Of the 103 qualifiers, he sits at #96 in that category. It shows a loss of confidence, as he tries to nibble the corners instead of going after hitters, and perhaps the most enlightening chart would how his 7.6 rate of K’s-to-walks, which is less than half of his career 15.8.

Why the nibbling? His swinging strike rate is only 7.8 percent, drastically off of his career 10.7 mark. And when contact is made it has often been hard contact – a 1.4 HR’s-per-9, nearly 50 percent above his career .97. He seems fully aware that his stuff is not what it once was, and until the marketplace develops that same awareness there can be value settings available when he pitches (his ROI is a -397 through 10 starts so far).

Tigers, Part I – Those lineup holes…

Detroit’s 1-6 week is not going to alter the market landscape all that much – the Tigers were popular, for good reason, at the start of the season, and still sport the second-best win percentage in the Majors. But there are some serious perception issues going forward.

This is an easy team to like when measured from the top down, with Miguel Cabrera leading the offense and Max Scherzer heading a talented starting rotation. And that is how a lot of the money that shows up in the marketplace views things – from the top down. From the bottom up it is becoming a different story, however – how long can any team maintain such a winning clip when the entire left side of the IF remains so ineffective?

It was supposed to be the quality glove of Jose Iglesias at SS, a good enough fielder that his bat could be overcome with this lineup. But he may not see the field this season because of stress fractures in both legs. An early experiment with 37 year-old Alex Gonzalez was properly terminated quickly, but an answer has not been found. Andrew Romine’s defense does not make up for his feeble .204/.2676/.247 production (five extra-base hits in 235 career MLB at-bats), and Danny Worth (.212/.250/.242) has not been any better. They are not of World Series caliber at the position.

Nor are they at 3B. Nick Castellanos only turned 22 in March, but Detroit was confident enough that he was ready to have traded Prince Fielder, moving Cabrera over to 1B, and graduating Castellanos into a full-time big leaguer. It may have been early. He ended the week at .236/.270/.365, and his struggles to make contact could lead to confidence issues – 37 strikeouts in 155 plate appearances, while only walking seven times. He has driven in one run over the last 14 games.

Based on the track record, and the names on the uniforms of their starting pitchers, the Tigers are going to carry high price tags throughout the summer. But with the left side of the IF struggling the way it is, their ceiling may be significantly lower than the market expectations. Especially with another issue coming over the horizon…

Tigers, Part II – The Justin Verlander career arc…

As noted above, the Tigers have been able to overcome some lineup weak spots through outstanding starting pitching. But despite going 7-4 through the 11 Verlander starts, he has not contributed anywhere near his past level, a pedestrian 5-4/4.04 with the two no-decisions. There may be a bigger story emerging – in a season filled with assorted surprises, there may not be a single more alarming stat yet than the fact that Verlander has allowed 28 hits, while getting only seven strikeouts, over his last three starts. Only seven punch-outs, out of 88 batters?

Verlander’s K’s-per-9 are at 6.3, a shadow of his career 8.4 count. His top-fastball velocity is down 2.4 miles from peak. It may seem too early for this to be happening to a pitcher that is only 31, but in “pitchers years” he may be far beyond that. The 2013 season marked the 7th straight that he had thrown over 200 regular-season innings, and in each of the last three campaigns he was extended into October, 11 more starts and 71 2/3 frames under playoff pressure. Since 2010 he has worked 1003 1/3 regular season innings, more than anyone else. No one has more than his 145 starts. And because of his high strikeout rates the pitch counts magnify the innings even more. Has the workload simply taken a toll? The recent numbers say so, and perhaps as important Verlander may feel it himself.

From a numbers standpoint, note that his struggles have not been about baseball geometry or luck. If anything he has had the best of it in one key category – the 0.38 HR’s-per-9 and the 3.1 percent ratio of HR’s-per-FB are both career bests (his norms have been 0.78 and 7.7). Of the 103 qualifying pitchers, he rates #8 and #3 across those categories. Perhaps that is where the loss of velocity may have actually helped him a bit.

Then there is the matter of his psyche. After being hit hard at Cleveland earlier in the week, on Saturday vs. Texas he went back to a delivery he had used in high school and college, taking the ball back over his head during the windup. His take – “Felt pretty good in the bullpen, but it didn’t really translate into the game.” No, it didn’t – the Rangers tagged him for the astonishing count of 11 hits and three walks vs. only one strikeout.

It will take the markets a long time to adjust to this, since his value point has been at such an extreme – since winning the 2011 Cy Young, he has burned $$$ at a -2082 over 78 starts. Until he shows signs that he can get his own swagger back you want to be putting the weight on his 2014 counts, and not that Hall-of-Famish history (of those 103 qualifiers, his current xFIP is tied with Kyle Gibson for #98!). He may be a good enough competitor to re-adjust, but that change in delivery on Saturday should resonate loudly in your processes – until he shows concrete signs of a turnaround, do not be afraid to take the value that the “D” on the front of his uniform, and his name on the back, will create.

Braves – An Offensive bias emerging?

Only San Diego has scored fewer runs than Atlanta so far, and one of the first takes in this column this season concerned the hole in the bat of B. J. Upton, that has been allowing pitches through for a long stretch now (at .211/.290/.343 with 58 K’s vs. 35 hits, he remains remarkably unproductive). But are there times in which you can actually get behind this offense with a little confidence? There is a bias issue taking shape that calls for some closer attention.

The gap between how the Braves fare against left-handed vs. right-handed pitching is becoming a canyon – the OPS vs. lefties is at .864 through Sunday, the best in the sport, while vs. right-handers that falls to .627, and #29. Take a look at the slash lines, and where they rate among MLB teams:

L’s - .284(#5)/.356(#2)/.507(#1)
R’s - .223(#28)/.280(#29)/.347(#29)

That is quite a gap. You should not take it to the betting windows by itself yet because the balance is skewed a bit – 1,289 at-bats vs. right-handers, and only 335 vs. lefties. But the data points are getting big enough to be food for thought. And while beating up on Franklin Morales on Sunday should not set off any pre-Memorial Day fireworks, they have been up against Madison Bumgarner twice, while also facing the likes of Cliff Lee, Jon Niese, Gio Gonzalez and Jaime Garcia.

While watching the team in general, pay attention to Freddie Freeman in particular. He has improved vastly vs. left-handers this season, with not much to distinguish between the .296/.361/.593 vs. that side and the .310/.403/.496 vs. right-handers, and note that his sample is not shaded nearly as wide as the overall team distribution because so many times lefties are brought in out of the bullpen to face him (29.5 percent of his at-bats are vs. that side, compared to 20.6 for the team). It is early, but there may be something to see here.

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