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MLB Weekday Series - Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekday Series - Five Key Takeaways

MLB Weekday Series - Five Key Takeaways
By David Malinsky

It is once again time to round the bases from Point Blank range, focusing on those key issues from the MLB mid-week series that can lead to major profits in the games ahead.

Royals – James Shields, and the toll of innings

The next time Shields takes the mound the pitching forms will show an 8-4/3.93. That will not cause many second takes; if anything it would appear to be “business as usual” for a consistent veteran that has worked to a 108-87/3.80 over 269 MLB starts. But it might be time to start taking a closer look – the bells of pitching age may be beginning to toll.

Shields turned in a solid 13-9/3.15 in his first season with the Royals LY, a strong enough bottom line for there to not be major concerns over his K-per-9 falling from 8.8 in 2012 to 7.7, and his BB-per-9 being the highest since his rookie season. He brought a reputation as a guy that could eat innings at a quality rate, and that is what he did. But over time, has he eaten too many innings?

2013 marked his seventh straight campaign of 200 IP or more, and when post-season games are added, only Justin Verlander worked more over that span. But Shields does not have Verlander’s stuff, which means that he has had to work harder to get through those frames, and while there were some signs of decline creeping in LY, they are becoming even more apparent now. But not necessarily apparent to the betting markets – he has been favored in 15 of his 18 starts, nine times by -135 or more.

First, ignore the W/L tally – in the six games in which he did not get a decision he was knocked around to a 6.28 tune, but bailed out by the Kansas City offense. That was most fortunate – the Royals have backed him with 5.1 RPG, despite averaging only 3.9 in all other games. His K-per-9 has taken another significant drop, down to 7.1, but while his BB rate has been terrific, he is giving up a lot of hard contact. Over the past six starts it has been particularly ominous – 50 hits vs. only 23 K. In those six games his PPI reached 18.0 on four occasions, something that only happened eight times in all of 2013.

Shields is not going to fall off the table – he is too savvy for that, and being in a pennant race will have some of those competitive juices flowing again. But the issue of decline is genuine, especially now that he is not pitching all of his home games in air conditioning. He is not the pitcher that the markets are pricing him to be, and there will be opportunities for the savvy handicapper to take advantage.

Blue Jays – Mark Buehrle, and those recent bombs

Buehrle could actually snicker at the Shields workload – he has topped 200 IP in 13 consecutive seasons, and seemingly shows no sign of aging, with his 10-5/2.50 for the first half of 2014 having him on pace to have his best season ever. Don’t bet on it.

The crafty left-hander has set a terrific ERA pace, and understand the extreme via a little context – that is a full run below any season he has had since 2005. Yet there is nothing all that different about his “stuff” – K-per-9 is at 5.2, which is his career mark; 2.3 BB-per-9 would actually be the highest since 2003, though not far off of his career tally; and a 42.9 percent ground-ball rate is not far off of his 45.4, though actually trending the wrong way. So how do the same basic pitches lead to such better results? There is one key category that got him off to the great start, and it turned in recent starts that is worth a closer look.

Buehrle has allowed at least 20 HR in 12 of his 13 seasons as a full-time starter, and dealt 17 in the only time he came up below that plateau. But somehow he got through his first 12 starts this season allowing only two, despite the fact that his fly-ball rate had gone up. Now things are beginning to even up, with six HR over the last five starts. But it is who hit them that may really tell the tale for what we can expect going forward.

How about this group – Derek Jeter (one HR in his other 298 at-bats); Brian Roberts (hitting .245, with three HR in his other 244); Brian McCann (hitting .224, with eight HR in his other 271); Moises Sierra (hitting .206, with one HR in his other 106); and Randal Grichuk (back in the minors after hitting .136 in 44 at-bats, with that lone dinger). That is not a very powerful cast, and Buehrle may be a short-odds favorite to be the answer to the trivia question of “Which Pitcher Gave up Jeter’s Final HR?”. It also means that it is might just a matter of time until the better hitters also find the seats, especially in the AL East ballparks.

Buehrle’s HR/FB rate of 6.4 percent would be the second best of his career, and on only one other occasion was it below 8.0. There could be a lot of correction in that category ahead, and he just does not have the stuff to work around it – his LD% of 23.1 matches his career-high from back in 2003. He has been giving up as much contact, at as hard of a rate, as in the past, it has just converted into HR’s at a lower rate. Hence an FIP of 3.67, and xFIP of 4.16, which are much better indicators for where his 2014 is heading than that current ERA. But like Shields, his past reputation will carry a lot of weight even through a decline – he has been favored in 12 of 16 starts, and with the Blue Jays in first place in the AL East those prices will stay high.

Dodgers – Understanding Dan Haren, circa 2014

It is a case of being a little late to the party on this one, after Haren’s sparkling outing vs. the Indians on Monday night. But it really took time to come to terms with his transformation, preferring caution and patience as the season progressed to a knee-jerk reaction. The numbers are still not easy to believe, and when you see them under the microscope you will understand why.

Haren appeared to be on the downside of his career entering 2014, off of back-to-back registers of 12-13/4.33 and 10-14/4.67. The Dodger uniform was his fifth since 2007, which is rarely a good sign. He was 33 when the 2013 season ended, but looked older than that in “pitchers years”, having thrown at least 217 IP from 2005-2011, which can certainly age someone that relies on power. And in both 2012 and 2013, he set new career highs for HR/FB ratio.

With that in mind, Haren’s numbers in some key categories through the mid-point of 2014 would ordinarily scare you to wit’s end. His 6.0 K-per-9 is by far a career low, well off of his 7.6 average, and trending worse – in 10 of his L11 starts it has been five or fewer. His HR-per-9 has increased again, to 14.4 percent, and of the 132 pitchers with at least 60 IP, that puts him at #118. His swinging strike percentage is an almost shocking 6.5 (#118!), off of a career 9.4. If he was already in decline, and those numbers are factored in, this season would be a mini-disaster, right? Based on the peripherals alone, you might even project him to have already been on the waiver wire.

But that would be Wrong. Haren is sitting on an 8-4/3.57, and he has done it via something that was visible early, but not trustworthy – he is getting ground-balls. His 47.4 percent rate is by far a career high, and it jumps off the page compared to the 39.6 and 36.0 of the previous two seasons. It was a transition that was difficult to believe through his early starts, since it was so far off of his norm, but then he put it into perspective himself, and one had to take heed - "I'm trying to do what I did in the second half of last year, to focus on location and not focus on how hard I'm throwing. Really I'm just trying to focus on keeping the ball down."

So should anyone feel bad for missing that “second half of last year” change? In truth, it was not an easy read. He was indeed a better pitcher overall after coming off of the DL, but a 34.9 percent ground-ball rate in the first half of 2013 only elevated to 37.9 the rest of the way. There just was not enough there for even the smallest of bells to chime. But his own words, and the recent results, show that he had made a conscious change, and while all of those MLB innings can take something out of an arm, they also represent the opportunity to gain a lot of savvy. Haren seems to have done just that. The brilliant outing vs. Cleveland on Monday is not likely to be repeated, but for now the lower K counts and velocity can be mitigated – at over 100 IP in 2014, there have been enough ground-balls to be accepted as the new norm. Of course, what happens after Haren leaves games is another matter entirely…

Dodgers – But after those starters leave…

Isn’t it nice to have the #5 guy in your rotation working at an 8-4/3.57 clip? Over the first half of the 2014 season there has been an individual take in this space on every one of the Dodger starters, now that Haren makes concrete sense, every one of them dealing with a positive issue. As a group they check in at 43-23/3.00, the allowance a quarter of a run less than any other team, and nearly a full run better than the rest of the league. It is why they draw so much money in the Futures markets – a Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu trio in October can be dynamite, and Josh Beckett is as good as any current #4. Haren would likely be reduced to long relief, something that the team rarely has a need for.

But you will already notice that there is something that they do need, given that those special numbers from the starters only has them 10 games over .500. It is in the latter stages where things have not worked out, and when you are as close as they are to being an October factor, it could mean some activity as the trading deadline approaches. The Los Angeles bullpen is 6-16/3.73. Only the Mets have more losses, and as a group the Dodgers are #27 in BB-per-9.

Closer Kenley Jansen has been fine. While he is 0-3 in decisions, he has converted 26 of 29 saves, taking his career mark to 88 of 105. That 3.79 ERA may jump off the page, after his 1.88 of 2013, but you can comfortably ignore that – his xFIP is at 1.84, a career best. He has far more K (57) than Hits + BB (45), and that is with the hit count inflated by a BABIP of .388, more than 100 points above his career average in the category. His ERA will gradually drop. It is the group that needs to patch between the starters and Jansen that is struggling.

Brian Wilson came into the season as a wild card, and in going 1-3/5.52 he has found the strike zone elusive, to a danger zone of 6.8 BB-per-9. Like Wilson, Chris Perez was a former closer with another team, and a wild card. He has not fared much better, an 0-3/4.85, at a 4.3 BB-per-9 that would be his highest since 2009. Jamey Wright and Brandon League have been decent, but neither sports the K ratios needed for high- leverage situations in the 8th inning of a close game, and while J. P. Howell is effective in his particular role, the Left/Right gap will always be there.

It is rare that teams go after set-up men at trade time. But midway through the season Don Mattingly still does not have an “automatic” option for the 8th inning of a close game, and there should not be all that much confidence that someone from the current cast is going to step up and lock it down.

Diamondbacks – Aaron Hill “better walk (before they make him run)”

Any time a Keith Richards reference can be thrown in you should seize the opportunity. But as the trading deadline approaches and Hill’s name gets mentioned often, with several contenders needing help at 2B, there is an issue that the decision makers have to deal with – what happened to his batting eye at the plate? And for those of us having to generate a rating each day, it is an issue regardless of which uniform he is wearing over the second half of the season. The Diamondbacks have certainly been a disappointment through the first half, and Hill has been a prime reason why.

Hill seemed to have found a second-life in the desert, turning in that terrific .302/.360/.522 of 2012, with 26 HR, and while injuries shortened his 2013 campaign, it was still a solid .291/.356/.462. This season has been much different, entering the 4th of July at .248/.285/.368, actually posting a negative value in WAR. You do not have to look much further than plate discipline to see why.

In the 4th inning of a 2-1 loss to the Padres last Sunday, Hill drew a BB from Odrisamer Despaigne, who was making only his second MLB start. They did not stop the game to give him Hill the baseball, but it was almost to that point – it was his first free pass after 120 PA’s, dating all the way back to May 25 against Jose Valverde, who was appearing in what was likely his next-to-last MLB game at the time. And since taking that trot down the first base line, Hill has followed up with 15 more trips to the plate without a free pass. That is an ominous stretch for a competent MLB hitter.

Here are the bottom lines – a 4.5 BB% that is by far a career low, and 32.8 percent below his career rate. And a 17.5 K% that is not only a career high, but a full 23.5 percent above his career norm. Those numbers are alarming when there are now 337 PA’s into a season, and especially when they are getting worse, instead of better - since the end of May Hill has contributed a .236/.243/.300 line. Over a span in which he has drawn one BB, he has struck out 19 times.

There have been many instances in this column where the focus was on a performer that seemed to be underachieving in the box scores, but was actually playing well and merely suffering from some of Baseball’s idiosyncracies. Hill is not one of them – he has lost his patience and is pressing badly at the plate, and until that changes the downward spiral will not end. Opposing pitchers are adjusting accordingly, and so should shrewd handicappers.

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