Midsummer Notes
June 30, 2006

I'm taking a little vacation time next week, but I'll be back with a vengeance in mid-July.  I'll be doing a live chat on TalentedMrRoto.com on Thursday, July 13 and hopefully be making another appearance on ESPNews this summer as well.  In the mean time, I jotted down some notes on several pitching performances over the last week.

A lot of ink has been expended over Matt Cain's last few outings, but I think some of the credit needs to go to the home plate umpires.  In his one-hit effort against the Angels, Charlie Relaford's strikezone was a few inches wider than the rulebook's, particularly inside on batters.  Cain got several of his strike threes on fastballs that were off the plate.  Good pitches, yes, but with just about any other umpire they are called balls.  In his next start, Bruce Froemming was almost as generous but on the outside, away from the hitters.  The difference was that Froemming wasn't giving that call consistently.  If my memory serves fastballs were strikes, breaking pitches were balls.  So while it might seem like Cain is turning the corner, I would caution that he's just as inconsistent as he was earlier in the season but had the benefit of two pitcher friendly umps.

But back to that Giants/Angels game... Kelvim Escobar was the other starter that night and, well, I don't know what to say.  He walked two guys, which shouldn't be unexpected when facing the Giant.  I mean they have Bonds - who gets far more respect from pitchers these days than he should - and several hitters like Omar Vizquel and Randy Winn who have got good feel for balls and strikes.  Walking two of them is no great sin.  Of course, that's not who Escobar walked.  He walked Jose Vizcaino... twice.  A guy who has 8 home runs in the last four years and a guy who has 55 walks over that same span.  That's the guy he walked twice.  He followed that effort up by not only walking four D-backs but getting pounded for 8 earned runs as well, with a lot of the hits due to just bad location and selection. 

Granted, he's been cursed by some bad team support for much of the last two months.  He's pitched OK yet he's 0-7 in his last seven decisions and hasn't won since May 12.  So far this season he's allowed four runs or more just four times.  In 8 of his 15 starts he's allowed 2 runs or less, including four of his last five.  However, in his previous four starts, the Angels offense has been anemic scoring 7 runs total, and their defense dreadful allowing 9 unearned runs.  So defensive miscues alone have allowed more runs than Escobar by himself and have outscored his run support.  Hard to win that way.  Still, it's probably not safe to assume that Escobar will be going on a second half tear.  He still makes just enough mental mistakes, like walking Vizcaino twice or doling out free passes to the D-backs, to put himself in a position each game to lose.  Until he starts pitching smarter, this might be all Escobar is: a great talent who never quite figures it out.

Brad Radke has turned his season around but this isn't unusual.  Every year since 2002 Radke has pitched better in the second half than he did in the first.  In 2003 he came into the All Star Break with an ERA of 5.49 but went 9-1 the rest of the way with 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.  That his numbers have been so terrible this year is a big surprise, but five of his last six starts have been solid so look for another second half surge like 2003.

I've watched Chad Billingsley's first two starts and my impression is that he's having a very hard time getting his nervousness under control.  So much so that I don't know that he's going to be that useful this year.  His velocity has been about as advertised, topping out around 93-94 so far but he hasn't shown any sort of command with any of his pitches.  He looks like he's trying to squeeze milk out of the ball when he's throwing it and it seems like just about any ball in play unnerves him.  Maybe he'll come around but he just hasn't looked like he has the mental toughness to handle starting in the majors so far.  Maybe he needs another year in the minors, but unless he starts to get control of his emotions I suspect his future is in the bullpen.  The lack of a competent change-up will only serve to speed him there.

Trading season opened when the Devil Rays traded Mark Hendrickson and Toby Hall to the Dodgers for Dionner Navarro and Jae Seo.  It'll be interesting to see if either of the pitchers benefit from the change of scenery.  Seo has always been a middling talent and moving to the AL won't help disguise that.  Hendrickson is also a middling talent, but should get a bump in performance at least initially because lefties switching to the NL always seem to pitch well for about two months.  Beyond that, he's just a really tall Glendon Rusch.  Both are rather hittable and both have some issues with the home run ball. 

I'm not sure Hall deserves to be a back up anywhere but the Dodgers are committed to Russell Martin.  A free agent this winter, he'll be playing for a starting job next spring and should get a slight boost from Dodger Stadium which is a little more homer friendly than Tropicana.  The challenge part of the deal is Navarro.  He's very athletic behind the plate and has the tools to be a very good catcher, but sorely lacks the skills to make good use of them.  The D-Rays will give him a chance to mature into the role of starter but there are going to be some ugly defensive miscues along the way.  He will hit, however... just not with a lot of power, at least for the near term.  One of the ironies of this season is that both LA teams came into the season with high expectations for their stud catching prospects, only to see both of them swept aside by the "second best" talents.  Mike Napoli and Martin have cemented their places as the catchers of the present and future while Jeff Mathis will likely have to follow Navarro out of town to find his starting job.

Just like with Escobar, it's quite frustrating to watch Jaret Wright pitch.  The guy has a four seam fastball that tops out around 97 mph, plus a good sinker and a curve yet he pitches like he's throwing 65 mph: nibble, nibble, nibble.  Because he's not aggressive throwing strikes, he needlessly gets himself into hitter's counts which results in surrendering hits and/or walks to guys who have no business getting on base against him.  If I were Yankee pitching coach Ron Guidry, I'd carry a rubber chicken in the dugout and every time Wright started nibbling I'd start yelling at him and waving that chicken.  If Wright starts pitching aggressively early in the counts, he'll start putting up numbers like he did in 2004.  There were some encouraging signs in his last outing.  Lefties had been lighting him up (.301/.375/.434), yet he overpowered Chipper Jones and Adam LaRoche, striking them out swinging a combined three times in their five plate appearances and getting a weak grounder to short from Chipper in another.  A second half sleeper awaits if he'd pitch with more conviction.

I did watch Jon Lester pitch some the other night.  After a rough fourth inning in which he threw 40 pitches, he got into trouble in the 5th inning and ended up facing David Wright with two outs, the bases loaded and already over 100 pitches for the night.  It's never easy to face good hitters with the bases loaded, but Wright is especially tough with a career average of .500 in those situations.  Not just this year... his career average.  Yet Terry Francona left Lester on the mound hoping that he'd get out of the inning and qualify for the win.  And even though he was clearly tired, he made quality pitch after quality pitch to Wright until after a dozen pitches he struck him out on a high curve.  Lester didn't have his best outing, walking five in the game, but he showed that he is definitely someone to watch.  He's not overpowering, and is probably a better pitcher in real life than he is in fantasy, but he's still fun to watch because he knows how to pitch. 

On the other side of the AL East, I don't get why the Yankees are so determined and/or enamored of having Bubba Crosby and Kevin Reese on the roster.  First of all, Crosby isn't cutting it, period.  His defense isn't nearly good enough to offset the .245/.310/.321 line his bat is putting up.  Reese might be able to hit a little, but his defense is not much better than Bernie Williams'.  Speaking of Williams, great guy and certainly a fan favorite but the Yankees can do better than .276/.316/.414 in right field for the next two months.  I think I've pointed this out before but his defensive range and arm are so poor that even the slowest opposing runners are taking extra bases on him.  I can't emphasize this enough: he's bouncing throws to the cut-off man.  And his bat just isn't good enough to justify how much his lack of defense is costing the Yanks.  Sticking with Melky Cabrera while he struggles I can understand because he's very young and that's how good teams develop their talent.  But Crosby, Reese and Williams are all older and pretty much known quantities.  So is Kevin Thompson, who got a glimpse of major league life and then was sent back to Triple-A.  But isn't his .273/.429/.636 line in New York and his .256/.356/.423 line in Columbus worth exploring?  Even if the offense were no better than what they are getting, the defensive upgrade would certainly merit the call-up.  The Yanks will need their trading bullets to fix the back of their rotation and to address some weakness in the bullpen.  They already have the temporary solution in the outfield until Sheffield and Matsui return if they just let Thompson play.