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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 is time to once again isolate the weekend MLB results from Point Blank range, looking for the key edges that can put you way ahead of the game in the days ahead.

Red Sox – Time to buy in on Jon Lester?

The next time that Lester takes the mound the pitching forms will show a 6-7/3.52 that can induce yawns, especially with the Red Sox now at 28-34 (we have detailed their issues here in past takes), and ahead of only the Rays and Astros in the AL standings. For a guy that entered this season at 100-56, tied with Hugh Casey at #31 all-time for win percentage, Lester’s opening to the campaign has been a disappointment. And considering the way he was roughed up at Detroit on Saturday night, his market value could wane. It might be a market mistake that can be exploited.

First, note that the poor showing vs. the Tigers was not “news”. If you are a Steamwire subscriber, and you should be, one of the Saturday morning send-outs focused on the fact that the top of the Detroit order, Davis-Kinsler-Cabrera-Martinez-Hunter, had handled Lester to a .372/.430/.581 tune over a significant 142 PA’s. So that bump in the road can be excused. But how about this for the overall picture – what if the Boston ace is actually pitching as well as he ever has, despite that uninspiring bottom line?

Lester’s 10.1 K’s-per-9 are a career high, and far above his 8.2 standard. His 2.4 BB-per-9 are a career low, compared to a 3.20 previously. His xFIP of 2.90 is a career best, and rates #10 in the Majors this season. So why has that not translated into more wins? Three key factors.

First has been the quality of competition – of the 126 pitchers that have worked at least 50 IP, his DBF is #7, a collective .260/.321/.408. Second has been a lack of run support, with the Red Sox only scoring 3.4 per game in his 13 starts (he has three losses in which he allowed two ER or less). Third, the MLB dice have been a little unkind. Lester’s BABIP checks in at a lofty .342, and of those 126 pitchers in the charts that places him #119. That number will come down a bit, but not likely to the league average of .294 – in this case it is not just bad baseball luck, but also bad Boston defense. The Red Sox are #29 in that category, allowing a .316, and their #29 in PADE has been a proper reflection of who they are so far. Does it get better when the left side of the IF becomes Bogaerts/Drew full-time? That bears watching, especially with a lefty on the mound. It could also enhance the value that Lester can bring in the weeks ahead.

Indians – Carlos Santana’s re-boot

There may not have been a more disappointing player in the Majors through the first two months of the season than Santana. A combination of the mental aspect of switching to 3B, and an inability at the plate to deal with defensive shifts, reduced him from an All Star candidate to being one of the least productive position players in the sport. Fittingly, the Indians actually began playing their best baseball of the season when he went on the DL, putting together a six-game win streak. But that time off might have been just what the doctor ordered, literally, which means that measuring Santana’s numbers from the return point is significant. And while Terry Francona will have a decision to make later, could having Nick Swisher also on the DL turn out to be a good thing?

Santana had a solid weekend at Texas – he was 4-8, with a HR and two rbi’s, while also drawing four BB and not striking out. It was the positive of being a little refreshed mentally after that time off, and perhaps also being more relaxed playing 1B, in place of Swisher. Now it is time to watch closely to see if the turnaround becomes a surge for a guy that is still more than 100 points below his career SLG (.326 vs. .435).

There are some important aspects to the awful start by Santana. First note that he never seemed to press, or lose his patience at the plate. If anything, the way he managed the strike zone was rare for a player going through such a slump – his BB% of 20.3 is exemplary, with no one else above 17.9. Where the production has fallen off is a .191 BABIP. How extreme is that? Of the 167 qualifying batters, Jedd Gyorko is the only other player below .220. But while there is some misfortune involved, it is not all about luck.

Defensive shifts are becoming much more common this season, and Santana has struggled against them. When magnified by his ground-ball rate being a career-high 49.3 percent (up from 43.3), it has been a double-whammy. Too many ground-balls, against a defense positioned to scoop them up, has materially contributed to that low BABIP, which otherwise might appear to be an outlier. Now we will all see if that time off has Santana better able to correct for that, and if it happens, the Indians could be intriguing over the remainder of the season – the fact that they are over .500 despite getting so little production from him carries significance.

Mets – Not the (David) Wright stuff

There was a true “sign of the times” in the betting markets on Sunday morning – an almost deathly trading silence for the first hour after Terry Collins announced that Wright would get a day off, and then actually a steady flow of Mets money that led to one of the days bigger moves as first pitch approached. Sure, there were some that wanted to get in play against Tim Lincecum, after four straight starts of 18.7 PPI or higher. But for a guy (Wright) that would have rated #13 in WAR value in 2013 (if his injury-shortened season was pro-rated to just eight more plate appearances), and was #5 in 2012, to be given such regard was most telling -  it shows that the markets really are in tune with the 2014 version of the New York 3B.

After 62 games, the cement of current season statistics begins to dry. And in Wright’s case it was a full 62, perhaps part of the problem – Sunday was his first day off. That may not only have mattered in terms of his numbers falling, but with the Mets also not playing on Monday, it gives us a chance to do a Before/After to see if the two-day break helps.

Was Collins too late on the trigger? Saturday’s loss at San Francisco was New York’s 16th game in 15 days, and the 10th on the road trip, including those three straight draining affairs in Philly that went to extra innings. Wright was just 6-44 on the excursion, with no HR’s and three rbi’s, and a key throwing error on Saturday paved the way for a pair of UE Giant runs that turned the game around, after the Mets had built a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the 6th.

Now to the bottom line. It has been a .280/.336/.379, and look at the dramatic contrast to the last two seasons –

2013 - .307/.390/.514
2014 - .306/.391/.492

Those previous campaigns were marvels of consistency, and you can see the shocking drop in SLG punch. But it has actually been even worse than that. The batting average is down despite a .350 BABIP. His K% is 21.7, well above his career 18.5. His BB% is 7.3, off of a career 11.1, and with no full season below 10.0. His HF/FB rate is 5.9, not even at half of his career 13.4. His swinging strike rate is the highest since 2010. Add it all up, and an elite player is hovering around MLB league average for his position.

Wright is still only 31, and should be at the peak of his career. His return after the off days bears watching closely – it will not be as dramatic of a break as the one Santana (above) got, but it still could be enough to make a difference. In particular, watch the BB% to see if he shows his old patience at the plate, after noticeably pressing on the road trip (12 K’s).

Angels – Josh Hamilton’s return, and the “Double Plus”

More along the same theme this week – talented players benefitting from some time off to re-charge their batteries. In Hamilton’s case it becomes an interesting study because his numbers have been so volatile – from the meteoric .359/.411/.633 with Texas in 2010, down to a .250/.307/.432 in his first season as an Angel LY, a campaign in which he registered a career low in all but the SLG (he turned in a .426 in an injury-shortened 2009). Which makes projecting 2014 a challenge, but now some of the early returns are in.

Hamilton just had a 7-12 weekend as the Angels swept the White Sox, with a pair of doubles and four rbi’s. It takes his season to a gaudy .400/.474/.660 over 57 plate appearances, and while you should not be too excited by that just yet, there is one number that does bear charting immediately – his 12.3 BB% is far above his career 8.2, following the 7.4 of 2013 that was his second worst. Is this a sign that he is more relaxed, after carrying the burden of too much pressure when he moved his career to the west coast LY? Follow this – he is swinging at 49.3 percent of pitches thrown his way, significantly off of the career 55.7 he brought into the campaign.

From a team power aspect, there is a dynamic story in play – the obvious benefit of Hamilton’s production becomes the “double plus” of Raul Ibanez not playing. Ibanez just celebrated his 42nd birthday, and at .143/.249/.259 his bat speed is no longer up to MLB standards. There are 233 players that have at least 150 plate appearances, and in WAR grading Ibanez checks in at #227. The fact that the Angels had to send him to the plate 169 times, yet still escaped his production to be 34-28 at this juncture, could bode well for the time ahead. As always, when factoring personnel adjustments it is the quality of the player in the lineup vs. the quality of the player being replaced, and in this instance it is a most significant upgrade.

Yankees – Managing the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour

Santana and Hamilton have returned well after time off. Wright may do the same, but as the Yankees fell to .500 this weekend in Kansas City they face a different issue – how does Joe Girardi schedule time off for Jeter, who will badly need it over the course of the schedule. Or is it better to phrase it as the team needing him to take time of? It is a difficult conundrum for Girardi - the Yankee captain turns 40 in two weeks, and how he handles him over the remainder of the season bears watching closely. Managing a pennant race, and managing the Yankee captain’s “Farewell Tour”, presents conflicts. From a handicapping standpoint, one must be ready to actually upgrade New York a bit when Jeter gets his occasional day off.

For as great of a competitor as Jeter has been, there just is not much game left. At 62 games into the season his offensive production has been a .254/.312/.300, with only one stolen base. The trending is worse, not better – since that 4-5 game vs. the White Sox on May 25th it has been a .174/.191/.196, with only two rbi’s, over 47 PA’s. This past weekend at Kansas City he was a dismal 1-12, with three K’s. Opposing pitchers are so well aware of his limited punch that they are working the strike zone without hesitation, with his 6.8 BB% far below his career norm of 8.7.

Of course, you can get away with weak offense at SS, even though the league-wide SLG at the position is .370, if the glove-work is there. But for Jeter that part of the game has been in gradual decline, and while the individual zone ratings are still a bit too embryonic to fully trust, the bottom line of the Yankees being #27 in PADE is real. Not all Jeter’s fault, of course, but he been the anchor weighing that defense down.

So what is Girardi to do? Jeter is naturally popular with the home crowd, and there is a “sporting” obligation to write his name into the lineup for many of the road games, letting fans seeing him for the last time pay respects. But the Yankees are also a high-payroll team that is expected to contend, and it is a challenge to be in the hunt with below average production both offensively and defensively from that position. The best thing for the team is to begin regularly giving him days off, and you need to make sure that your power rating adjustments are done properly when that happens.

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