Inside the Boxscore
April 25, 2005

Just a few observations on today's games

Kansas City vs Chicago - The number of people who are down on Denny Bautista since his marvelous debut is growing.  However, that may not be such a good idea.  Today against a hot ChiSox team he pitched pretty well.  He struck out Scott Podsednik 4 times... unfortunately, John Hirschbeck was behind the plate and called "ball" on three of those pitches.  He actually got the fourth one right.  I counted 8 pitches that might have been called strikes had there been another umpire behind the plate, or a more well known pitcher on the mound.  And it's not that umpires are biased against young pitchers; they are just more familiar with veterans so they anticipate pitches on occasion.  Once he gets around the league a little, Bautista will begin to get those pitches called his way.

Even so, after getting past some first inning struggles with the strikezone, he went six innings, allowed one hit, one walk and struck out three.  As I said when I first commented on him this season, he's young and so there will be some ups and downs.  But he has the goods, and he appears to be learning quickly.

Also in this game, I saw something I had never seen before.  With a runner on first and a two ball count, Orlando Hernandez threw a pitchout to catcher Chris Widger.  With Widger already standing with the ball and reaching into his glove, Ruben Gotay swung at the pitch.  I've seen guys swing late before, but never when the ball was already in the catcher's glove.  And never on a pitch that was obviously thrown with no intention of allowing the batter to hit it.  Gotay eventually struck out the first of three times, the first two on change-ups in the dirt and the last on a fastball up.  His numbers aren't bad so far, so this was probably just a bad day at the office.

New York vs Texas -  Well, the Pedro Astacio ride had to end, didn't it?  He got wracked to the tune of 9 hits and 7 earned runs in just over 4 innings work.  But honestly, we don't know if it's over or not.  For all we know, this was merely a market correction.  We knew he wasn't going to finish the season with an ERA in the low 1s and a WHIP under 1.  Including today's start, his WHIP is at an even 1.125 and his ERA is now 3.71.  Those numbers may still be low, but they seem much more in line.  What we do know is that he only walked 1 hitter, he still hasn't given up any home runs (which has always been cited as his achilles heel) and that in three of the nearly five innings he pitched today, he retired the side without allowing a baserunner.  And of the nine hits he surrendered, seven were singles.  So this sounds much more like a correction than the start of a trend.   His next start is against Boston so we should know more in a week.

Atlanta vs Philadelphia - With the exceptions of Brett Myers (who looks like a different pitcher this year than last) and Jon Lieber, the Phillies look desperate for starting pitching.  Vicente Padilla again got torched, Gavin Floyd hasn't shown much and Randy Wolf has an ERA of 6.38.  Wolf has yet to pitch a game in which he's allowed fewer hits than innings pitched.  Cory Lidle isn't looking so great either, although he has a history of slow starts - 5.16 ERA pre-All Star Break, 3.76 after.  But having a walk/strikeout ratio of 4/5 in 16 innings while allowing 21 hits won't cut it.  On the plus side, he hasn't allowed any homers, so while his line looks really ugly right now, he's someone worth holding onto.  As for the other guys who are struggling, prayer might be the only help.

Florida vs Cincinnati - Is "surgence" a word?  I know "resurgence" is, but in order to experience a resurgence, you have to have been good at some point.  Brian Moehler never really has been good.  OK, I take that back; he had one good year in Detroit in 1998 when he won 14 games, and posted an ERA of 3.90 and a WHIP of 1.246.  But for the rest of his career, he's been a team killer fantasy-wise.  And even in his one good year he gave up 30 homers in 220 innings, so it wasn't all good.  But it's all good this year so far, as he tossed another solid outing today despite being the hard-luck loser against the Reds.  Given that his only competition for the 5th start spot is Ismael Valdes, there's at least a decent chance that he stays in the rotation all year even when Valdes (or is it now Valdez?) gets off the DL.  Pitching coach Mark Wiley has had some decent success with veteran pitchers so Moehler is just the kind of guy who would benefit.  He won't maintain a 1.83 ERA and 1.169 WHIP all year obviously, but in deep NL-only leagues he looks like a pretty decent option.

Toronto vs Baltimore - Sammy Sosa had another two-homer game, the 67th of his career, tying Mark McGwire for 3rd most two-homer games in a career.  Babe Ruth holds the major league record with 72 two-homer games.  Barry Bonds has 68.  Playing half his games in Camden Yards, which has historically played favorably to right-handed home run hitting, should assure that Sosa will move into second this season.  Even given the significant drop-off in home run rate that he's experienced since 2001, he's almost guaranteed to finish his career at the top.  Anyway, why this is notable is that for his career, April has been Sammy's worst month for home runs.  Since 1987, his home run rate in April is one every 19 ABs (which is pretty much where he is for this year), while his career rate is once every 14 ABs.  All that to say as long as Sosa doesn't have any more violent sneezing fits, it looks like he's back to his 40-homer form.

New York vs Washington - Who has been the Mets' best hitter so far this season?  Carlos Beltran?  Good guess, he's hitting .309 and slugging .485, but no.  Cliff Floyd?  Yeah, he's on a tear, hitting .360 so far and slugging .600... but no, it's not him either.  Nor is it David Wright or Mike Piazza.  If you knew it was Victor Diaz, then give yourself a star.  Before the start of today's game, Diaz was hitting .362 and slugging .702 (!), but just as impressively walking nearly as much as he's struck out (12/13).  The big knock against his prospecthood (or is it prospectship?... or am I making up too many words here?) is his inability to pick balls from strikes.  Last year in AAA, despite hitting .292 with 24 homers and 94 RBI, he only walked 31 times while striking out 133 times.  Only once in his career - in Rookie ball in 2001 - has he shown anything close to the kind of pitch awareness he's showing this season, so we're probably just seeing a well-timed hot streak.  His numbers this spring (4 walks vs 15 Ks in 57 ABs) seem to support that theory.  But he's only 23 so it's possible we are seeing his learning curve in motion.  If he continues to demonstrate this kind of skill, he'll be one of the biggest bargains of the year.

Detroit vs Minnesota - Two snow outs jumbled the Twins starting rotation, but that may be a good thing.  Kyle Lohse, who was scheduled to be the starter on Wednesday in Kansas City, wasn't doing himself any favors as a starter and will likely be moved to the bullpen.  In his last outing he allowed 3 home runs and for the season he's allowed 6 in just 17.1 innings.  At that rate, he would break Bert Blyleven's major league record of 56 in a season by August.  In each of his starts, he's looked very good for the first three innings, but then got lit up the second and third time through the order.  Lefties are hitting .333 of him, but right-handers are hitting .295 and have 4 of the 6 homers he's allowed.  With Carlos Silva back and Joe Mays pitching well, Lohse should be the odd man out.  However, that doesn't mean he won't have value.  In fact, a move to long relief might help because for the first three innings he's in the game, batters are hitting a collective .188 against him with an OPS of .625.  This is not a new development for Lohse: since 2002, batters have hit .251 (.712 OPS) against him during his first three innings of work, .309 (.858 OPS) after.

Tampa Bay vs Boston - Call me crazy but I believe it's possible that the Red Sox offense will be even better this season than it was last year.  One reason why is the addition of Jay Payton.  He's always had good tools, but staying healthy as a regular has been a problem for him.  Now that he can play part-time and sub for Ramirez, Damon and Nixon, as well as start against left-handers, he should get anywhere from 300-350 ABs.  Payton is an upgrade both offensively and defensively, considering that last year those at bats were going to the likes of Gabe Kapler and Dave McCarty.  His presence should help the counting numbers of the other Red Sox hitters.

St. Louis vs Houston -  I asked Brian Walton, who is about as close to the Cardinals as one can get without actually being in their front office, about Matt Morris.  We both talked favorably of his talent, but when it came to his struggles in the last year or so, I really had no answers.  Brian suggested that in addition to a shoulder that required offseason surgery, Morris had been personally devastated by the death of his good friend Darryl Kile.  When I went back and checked the numbers, there did seem to be a significant decline in effectiveness from that date.  While his ERA improved over the second half of 2002, his strikeout rate tumbled by more than a K per 9 innings.  And for the next two years it continued to drop; the other pitching measures followed.  I don't know what happened in Matt Morris' life this winter other than his surgery, but he appears to have renewed his focus on baseball and is again posting the kind of numbers he put up in 2001. 

Chicago vs Pittsburgh - There's a new closer in Wrigleyville and his name is Chad Fox... maybe.  Latroy Hawkins still has time to secure the role, but he admitted once that he feels more comfortable in a set-up role and his numbers bear that out.  Joe Borowski is still a few weeks away from full speed and Scott Williamson is still months away from his first pitches, yet the Cubs need someone to step forward and seize the role.  Fox has always tempted managers and fantasy owners alike with his strikeout rates, but has been unable to stay healthy for more than a few months at a time.  He picked up his first save today against  the Pirates and didn't look too bad, walking one while striking out two.  Unless Dusty Baker is willing to turn to Mike Weurtz, Fox is the guy whose numbers look the most closer-like.  If he can stay healthy for once in his career - stranger things have happened - this might be the year he finally pays off.

Seattle vs Cleveland - For five innings today, Scott Elarton didn't look like a bad pitcher.  In fact, he was looking pretty studly: 5 innings pitched, 2 hits, 1 walk, 1 earned run and 5 strikeouts.  But then the wheels fell off in the sixth inning and he ended up with a pretty unsightly pitching line.  He was betrayed a little by his defense (Ryan Ludwick committed an error that allowed runners to advance) and by his bullpen who allowed both inherited runners to score.  It wasn't too long ago that Elarton was considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and after his 1999 season, it was thought he was well on his way to an All-Star career.  Of course, getting traded to Colorado will change that for a pitcher.  Getting the Colorado out of him - reducing his home run rate - has been the major stumbling block for him to recover his lost luster.  Even when he pitched so well last August - 3.69 ERA, 1.153 WHIP, 31 Ks in 39 innings - the home runs (7) were still a problem.  But look at his numbers this year.  Yes, they are pretty ugly overall, but in the home runs allowed column it only says "1" while in the innings pitched column it says "19".  That's a huge improvement.  Granted, his starts have come against Seattle, Kansas City and Detroit (in Detroit) and Chicago, so there's not enough here to say he's turned the corner.  But as painful as it may be to watch, he bears watching over his next few starts (KC, Texas, Anaheim).  Guys like Elarton who seem to come out of nowhere only to put up good numbers are often what decide fantasy championships.

Arizona vs San Diego - So far, the Troy Glaus experiment in Arizona seems to be paying off.   And actually, his numbers would be even better had he not played three games in Washington.  In each game against the Nationals, he crushed a pitch that in just about any other park would have been a homer.  But because he hit the ball above the stadium, the wind that whips around above RFK slowed the ball down just enough to drop it short of the wall.  Had those games been in Arizona, he'd be leading the majors with 9 homers now.  Tom Boswell of the Washington Post remarked that if Glaus was two inches taller and about 15 pounds heavier, he'd be Frank Howard, which from him is about the ultimate compliment for a power hitter.  Defensively, Glaus has looked smooth and easy so there's nothing to indicate that the shoulder will be a problem this year.  Pencil him in for 45 homers.

Colorado vs Los Angeles - Milton Bradley is motivated.  After the controversy that ended his season last year, and all the hubbub this spring about who would play center for the Dodgers, he's putting up the best numbers of his career at an age when it's common for a hitter to do so.  It wouldn't surprise me if he finished the season with 30 homers this year.  But know that April has historically been a very productive month for him.  In fact, July is the only month in which he's put up better numbers over the course of his career (.867 OPS vs .861) and even then it's not by much.  Ride Bradley for all he's worth but know going in that it will probably slow down significantly over the next month.

San Francisco vs Milwaukee - the Giants look like they are in the NL West race, don't they?  But look at who've they've played so far.  Other than a home and home against LA and 2 games against the Padres, they've played only the Rockies, D-backs and Brewers, the three worst teams in the NL from last year.  If Bonds doesn't come back before June 1, it's quite likely they could be 10 or more games out after the first two months of play.  Not even Bonds in his peak form can get them back from that deficit, especially if the team continues to have the type of injury problems that old teams like the Giants, who will be the oldest in history when Bonds gets back in the line-up, have.  Their average age is 36.1.

Los Angeles vs Oakland - A couple of things about this game... it was pretty much the same story as last year with Kelvim Escobar - he pitched well, but his teammates gave him no run support.  Jon Miller brought up an interesting stat during the broadcast: only two AL pitchers posted an ERA under 4.00 last year and had a losing record: Escobar and Zack Greinke.  Greinke's inclusion on this brief list is understandable given how woeful the Royals were.  But Escobar pitched for a team that won more than 90 games, so for him to be among the bottom five in run support is borderline criminal.  It's the ultimate baseball irony that Kirk Rueter wins because he gets oodles of run support year after year yet has no measurable pitching skill while Escobar is one of the better strikeout artists in the majors yet never gets any support and ends up with a losing record. 

After watching both Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos, I understand how they win: both guys pitch down in the zone and get batters to beat the ball into the ground.  Neither one has what I would call an exceptional pitch, or even what looks like an out pitch.  They just mix their offerings reasonably well, Blanton moreso than Saarloos so far.  What I don't get is how they accumulated so many strikeouts in the minors.  Until last year, Blanton averaged a strikeout per inning in the minors, and Saarloos averaged nearly as many in his first two years as a professional and that included an 85 inning stint in Houston.  After tonight's game, Blanton has 7 strikeouts in 25.2 innings work this season and Saarloos has 5 in 20.2 innings.  What were those minor league hitters swinging at?