Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of June 3, 2014

The Blue Jays have repeatedly refused to include 23 year-old starter Drew Hutchison in any deal for Cubs’ ace Jeff Samardzija.  Last night, Hutchinson showed the baseball world exactly why he is so coveted.

Drew Hutchison made his major league debut on August 21, 2012 (four months before his 22nd birthday) despite never pitching at the Triple-A level.  After starting 10 games (58 innings pitched) and netting a 4.66 ERA, Hutchison was scheduled to make his 11th start against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 15.  After inducing a ground ball to second base from Jimmy Rollins and striking out Juan Pierre, Hutchison was pitching to Hunter Pence when he felt a pop in his elbow.

After initially being diagnosed with just a sprained ulner collateral ligament (an injury that doesn’t require surgery), Hutchison underwent Tommy John surgery in August and didn’t see any major league action upon his initial return.  Though he came back in August 2013, Hutchison spent the remainder of the season playing for the Triple A Buffalo Bisons.

This year, Hutchison has been determined to make the most of his second stint in the Majors.

After throwing 5.1 shutout innings in his first start of the year, Hutchison allowed six runs in just 3.1 innings against the Yankees in his next outing.  Hutchison has had his share of ups-and-downs since then.  He has allowed four or more runs in a game thrice since his April 6 start against the Yankees, but threw his first career shutout against the Texas Rangers on May 16.  Last night, though it wasn’t a shutout, Hutchison looked like the ace Blue Jays hope he can be.

Although he didn’t get credit for the win, Drew Hutchison helped the Blue Jays to their twelfth victory in their last fourteen games.  He allowed just three hits and no walks in seven scoreless innings of work against the reigning American League champion Detroit Tigers. He struck out seven, including Miguel Cabrera–twice.  

Thanks to an equally impressive start by Anibal Sanchez (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R), Hutchison was denied his fifth win of the year, though he did lower his ERA to 3.50.  Hutchison’s ability to match Sanchez in putting up zeros proved beneficial when the Blue Jays scored five times in the top of 9th inning.  Though Steve Delabar nearly gave the game away in the bottom half of the frame (allowing three runs in 0.2 innings), Casey Jannsen was able to come on and shut the door on the rallying Tigers.  

Along with Mark Buehrle, the best pitcher in the AL through the first two months of the season, and R.A. Dickey, a former Cy Young Award winner, Hutchison has a chance to make 2014 a very special year for the Toronto Blue Jays.  At just 23 years of age, Drew Hutchison has shown all season long that he has what it takes to be a dominant starter on a winning ball club, a fact that was apparent to anyone watching him pitch last night. 

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Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of June 2, 2014

With their 3rd consecutive win last night in a make-up game against the Yankees, the Seattle Mariners are back to one game over .500 and are just six games behind the Athletics in the AL West.  Though Felix Hernandez pitched brilliantly to earn his 8th win of the year, it was the offense that came alive in the late going that won the game for the Mariners.  Led by Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager, Seattle scored four runs in both the seventh and ninth innings to put the game out of reach.

Although he’s only started 34 of the Mariner’s 57 games, Michael Saunders has shown that he can be a very productive player for the Mariners.  In last night’s start, Saunders went 2 for 5, with a two-run single in the seventh inning and a solo home run, his fourth of the year, in the ninth to lead his team to 10-2 victory over the Yankees.

Saunders was able to provide a spark for the Mariners out of the two-hole yet again this year.  In 35 at-bats this season hitting second in the lineup, Saunders is hitting an incredible .429 (15 for 35).  On the year, Saunders is having arguably the best season of his career.    He is on pace to have the highest batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage of his career.  While his stolen bases are down, he is projected to have the most RBIs, runs, and triples of his career while striking out at the lowest rate since he came into the league.

After becoming a household name during the 2013 World Baseball Classic when he played for Team Canada (going 8 for 11 with a home run, three doubles, and seven RBIs in 3 games), Saunders looks like he is finally becoming a reliable player on the offensive side of the ball.  He has five multi-hit games in his last 14 starts (over 18 games for the Mariners), raising his batting average from .226 to .279.  He has 3 of his 4 home runs in that span, as well as 18 of his 25 RBIs on the season.  Saunders has collected at least one hit or one RBI in each of those 14 games.

With $240 million invested in Robinson Cano and $175 million invested in Felix Hernandez, the Seattle Mariners must rely on cheap players to produce alongside their two stars.  Michael Saunders been one of those players this season.  While making just $2.3 million and playing in a limited role, Saunders has been able to perform as well as the everyday starters on this team, like Cano, Seager, Justin Smoak, and Dustin Ackley.

With all of the money that the Mariners have spent to be a consistently-winning ball club, they must continue to rely on players like Michael Saunders if they hope to achieve that goal.  While it’s great to have superstars, it’s the cheap players who fly under-the-radar that can make-or-break a season.  That is exactly the type of player that Michael Saunders is.

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Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of June 1, 2014

Now the we’re two months into the 2014 season, it’s clear that the Boston Red Sox haven’t lived up to the expectations they earned last October.  The reigning World Champions are just 27-29 and sit in 4th place in the AL East, six games back from the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays.

After relying mainly on their offense to win games last year, the Red Sox’ bats have been noticeably silent all year long.  On their unlikely road to lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy last season, the Red Sox led the American League in runs, doubles, and on-base percentage, and were second in the league in batting average.

The first third of the 2014 season has been a completely different story for the The Olde Town Team.  The Red Sox currently rank 9th in the American League in runs, and, while they have the 3rd highest on-base percentage in the AL, have just the 11th-best batting average.  

Yesterday afternoon, Brock Holt attempted to revitalize the Red Sox’ offense with the best game of his young career.

The Boston Red Sox won their seventh game in a row yesterday thanks to the arm of Jon Lester and the bat of Brock Holt.  While Lester was spectacular in his own right (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 K), it was the 25 year-old Holt that stole the show for the Boston faithful at Fenway and gave the Nation a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.  

Holt managed to reach base in all five of his plate appearances, which included four doubles and a walk.  He drove in two runs in the Red Sox’ three-run fourth inning and scored a run in the seventh to increase the Red Sox lead to four.  Holt also stole his 3rd base of the year in that seventh inning.

Brock Holt became the first Red Sox player to hit four doubles in a game since Victor Martinez four years ago.  With his performance, he increased his batting average to .337, the highest on the team for anybody with more than two at-bats.  Although his 86 at-bats don’t qualify him for the lead-league in batting average, if he can continue this impressive pace, his .337 mark would rank 1st in the American League and 3rd in all of baseball.

Even more encouraging for Holt, his incredible four-hit performance comes just the day after he collected his first Major League home run.  During the Red Sox improbable run of seven consecutive wins (after losing nine in a row), Holt has 12 hits in 32 at-bats (.375) with six runs scored and five RBIs.

And what exactly is Brock Holt’s reward for getting the Red Sox back to two games below .500?  Less playing time.

With the Red Sox calling up Stephen Drew to play shortstop on a regular basis, Xander Bogaerts will be moving over to 3rd base, where Holt has made 21 of his 22 starts this season.  His lone start away from the hot corner this year was at first base yesterday afternoon against the Rays.  The Red Sox plan to play Holt at 1st base until Mike Napoli comes off the disabled list, which will most likely be June 8, the first day he is eligible.

The Red Sox also called up prospect Garin Cecchini, who registered his first Major League hit in Sunday afternoon’s contest, a seventh-inning double that drove in Holt.  Cecchini has played 48 games at 3rd base for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox in 2014.  Unfortunately for Holt, his prize for playing extremely well is getting challenged for playing time.

It will be interesting to see how Brock Holt responds once his playing time is diminished.  After playing in fifteen consecutive games dating back to May 17, Holt will likely come off the bench more often than not after Napoli returns.  If he doesn’t have the right disposition, it may be difficult to produce in that role.

Like Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

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What has happened to the Tampa Bay Rays?

In lieu of an Under-The-Radar Highlight this morning, I’d like to discuss one of the most peculiar and unexpected happenings in all of baseball:  the inadequacy of the Tampa Bay Rays.

On May 31, 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting at 30-25 and, though fourth in the AL East, just three games behind the division-leading Red Sox.  The Rays would go on to finish the year 21 games over .500 at 92-71 (the extra game coming against the Rangers for the right to play in the postseason) and would defeat the Cleveland Indians in the first ever American League Wild Card game before losing in the ALDS to the Red Sox.  

On May 31, 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit in the basement in the AL East at 23-33, 9.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Including last blowout loss to the now-hated Red Sox, the Rays have lost five consecutive games and are a season-worst 10 games below .500.  They were tied with the Kansas City Royals for the worst record in the American League in May at 12-17 and don’t appear ready to make any sort of push towards the postseason.

What has happened to the Tampa Bay Rays?

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rays weren’t a huge threat last year and haven’t improved their hitting this year.  In 2013, the Rays were 7th in the AL in batting average, 9th in home runs, and 9th in runs scored–an extremely average American League team.  This season, the Rays have gotten worse.  They are 11th in AVG, 12th in home runs, and 13th in runs.

Interestingly enough, the Rays have almost the same lineup this season than they did a year ago.  Across the infield, in terms of most games started, the Rays have gone with a defensive lineup of James Loney at 1st, Ben Zobrist at 2nd, Evan Longoria at 3rd, and Yunel Escobar at SS.  Each of these players has the most games started at their respective positions for the Rays in both 2013 and 2014.

Across the outfield, we see a nearly identical circumstance.  In 2013, after Wil Myers was called up and pushed Matt Joyce to the bench, he started the most games in right, while Desmond Jennings manned center and Kelly Johnson was out in left.  This season, while Myers and Jennings are still locked into their respective positions, Kelly Johnson is currently a New York Yankee.  As a result, Joe Maddon decided to start Joyce in left field.

The only major difference in the lineup for the Rays this season has been at catcher and designated hitter.  After Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton each worked a good portion of games behind the plate for the Rays last season, Ryan Hanigan was brought in to do the majority of the catching this year with Molina coming off the bench.  Luke Scott was the most frequent designated hitter last season, but, after management chose not to resign Scott, David Dejesus has gotten the call this year.

With not much turnover offensively between last season and this season, it’s hard to fathom why the Rays have gone from middle-of-the-pack to bottom-of-the-league team in terms of hitting.  This can be attributed to the Rays’ star players not performing like they did only a season ago.  While Evan Longoria’s batting average has dipped only slightly, his power numbers are completely gone.  After hitting 32 home runs last season, he has just 5 through the first two months of 2014.  Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers hit .293 with 13 homers in just 335 at-bats after his promotion in 2013.  This season, he’s hitting a dismal .227 with only 5 dingers.  In one of the most interesting stats I’ve seen all year, as of today, each of the six returning starters from last year’s team (not including Matt Joyce) has a lower batting average right now than they did last season.  

While the Rays have been one of the worst hitting teams in baseball this year, the blame for their poor play in 2014 can’t be entirely attributed to the offense.  In my opinion, it’s the inefficiency of the pitching staff that should get the bulk of the blame for the Rays’ 23-33 start.

Last year, both the Rays’ starting rotation and bullpen were in the top half of the American League in terms of ERA.  The starters on the Rays last season had an ERA of 3.81, good for 3rd in the American League.  The cumulative ERA for the Rays in 2013, 3.74, ranked 5th in the AL.  The Ray’s pitching staff had the 3rd most strikeouts in the AL, the most shutouts, and the best batting average against.

This year, the Rays’ pitching staff has been a shell of how they performed last season.  They are 9th in the American League in ERA at 4.12 and have a starters’ ERA of 4.26.  While they are still striking out batters, nothing else has gone right for this staff.  They are tied with the Rangers for the fewest quality starts in all of baseball and have allowed the 3rd most home runs in the AL.

Individually, much like the starting lineup, each player has failed to meet the expectations placed on them after their performances last season.  Former Cy Young Award winner and 3x All-Star David Price has a 4.27 ERA and, although he’s struck out 90 hitters and walked just 9, has allowed the most hits and the fourth-most runs in all of baseball.  Matt Moore went 17-4 last season and was one of the budding stars in the American League.  Unfortunately, he went down with an elbow injury after making just two starts and has recently undergone Tommy John surgery.  Two other 20+ game starters from last year’s team have returned this season, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer.  After going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA last year, Cobb missed more than a month earlier this year with a strained oblique and has made just 5 starts.  Chris Archer, after throwing well enough for a 3.22 ERA last year (which helped him place 3rd in the AL Rookie of the Year voting), enters June with an ERA of 4.00, which is actually the best of any starter on the Rays.  24 year-old Jake Odorizzi has made 11 starts this year after making just 4 last year.  While he a 10.77 K/9 IP ratio, he is 2-5 with a 5.13 ERA.  With Jeremy Hellickson injured and Roberto Hernandez on the Phillies after pitching for the Rays’ last season, Joe Maddon has turned to Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos to start some games, though this decision has been met with limited success.

In the bullpen, only three of the Rays’ most frequent relief pitchers last season returned to play in Tampa Bay this season.  Last season, the Ray’s bullpen had a 3.59 ERA and the second-best batting average against in the American League.

This season, thanks to the inefficiency of the starting rotation, the Rays’ bullpen has thrown the most innings of any American League team and have a 4.05 ERA to show for it, nearly a half a run more per game than last year.  

Clearly, the Tampa Bay Rays are not getting it done in any facet of the game.  After a terrific regular season last year and not much turnover on the roster, one can’t help but wonder what happened.  Why does each player seemed to be playing worse this year than last?  Is there a chemistry problem?  Have the players grown too complacent with Joe Maddon?  We may never know why the Rays’ have played so poorly through the first third of 2014, but, if they don’t turn it around quickly, owner Stuart Sternberg will show us all the consequences of their performance awfully soon.

 

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Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of May 30, 2014

The success of every ball club is directly related to how each General Manager runs his team.  The Padres’ 4-1 victory over the White Sox proves that this fact is not an understatement.

When Josh Byrnes was hired to be the General Manager of the Padres on October 6, 2011 (after joining the team as V.P. of Baseball Operations the previous year), he was expected to shake up the roster following a disappointing season for the club, a year in which they finished last in the NL West with 71 wins and 91 losses.  Within his first two months as GM, Byrnes made four separate trades for five different players who are playing an important role on this year’s team:  closer Huston Street, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal, outfielder Carlos Quentin, and starter Andrew Cashner.

Before the 2014 season, to help out his All-Star closer, Byrnes decided to add more ammunition to his bullpen, trading for the Rays’ 26 year-old phenom Alex Torres and signing 36 year-old Juaquin Benoit away from the Tigers.  Thanks to Byrnes, the Padres’ bullpen currently has the 3rd best ERA in the Majors while throwing the 6th most innings.  In last night’s ballgame, Benoit threw a scoreless 8th inning to earn his 8th hold of the season while Street earned his 16th save of the year with a shutout 9th.  

In addition to contributing to the success of one of the best bullpens in baseball, Josh Byrnes has done his part to help the Padres pitiful offense.  Unfortunately for Byrnes, although he has brought in a multitude of young talent to go along with hit-savvy veterans, the Padres rank last in the Majors in runs, batting average, and on-base percentage.  With key players like Alonso, Grandal, Chase Headley, Evereth Cabrera, and Jedd Gyorko not hitting (Grandal, Headley, and Gyorko are all below the Mendoza line), it’s no surprise the Padres have the most putrid offense in the big leagues.  As a result of the poor hitting his team displayed last year, Byrnes attempted to right the ship by trading Luke Gregerson to the Athletics for outfielder Seth Smith.  Though the trade hasn’t helped the team as a whole hit better, the talent that Byrnes brought in has certainly made a contribution.  While the young players that Byrnes has counted on have not produced through the first two months of the season, the same cannot be said about the 31 year-old Smith.  Smith, making an extremely modest $4.5 million, is hitting .309 for the Padres this year with 6 home runs, 20 RBIs, and a .966 OPS, 6th best in the National League. 

Though Smith didn’t play in the game last night, Byrnes was able to get production from some player who haven’t delivered all season long.  Yonder Alonso went 3 for 4 with his 4th home run of the season.  Cameron Maybin, who received a 5 year/$25 million contract from Byrnes two years ago, hit his first home run of the year after missing time with a biceps injury.  The aforementioned Carlos Quentin added two hits in just his eleventh game of the season.  Quentin, who has been remarkably injury prone in his career, has had problems with his knee and his groin this year.

Many of the players that Byrnes has brought in to see significant action for the Padres have either been young players who have failed to play at the level expected of them or veterans who seem to get hurt far too often.  While Byrnes’ acquisitions haven’t had a whole lot of success in the hitting department this season, the players he has brought in to pitch for his team have responded well.

Ian Kennedy, the former top prospect in the Yankees organization, threw 6 innings of one run ball while striking out 9 hitters to earn his 4th win last night.  Now 29 years-old, Kennedy is far from the days when he was supposed to lead the Yankees next dynasty.  While his days in Arizona were marred following his stellar 2011 campaign, Kennedy has pitched much better for the Padres since his mid-season trade last year.  This season, Kennedy has a 3.42 ERA with 81 strikeouts (4th in the NL) and a 1.14 WHIP (15th in the NL).  Kennedy, like Seth Smith, has been a bargain for Josh Byrnes this year, making just $6.1 million.

With the way that Josh Byrnes has run the Padres since becoming the GM two and a half years ago, the credit for the win last night must go to him.  The offensive players that he brought in to hit the ball finally did just that and the bullpen he fashioned was its usual, brilliant self.  If the Padres have any chance at making the playoffs for the first time since 2010, they better hope that Josh Byrnes makes a few more moves before the season’s end.

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Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of May 29, 2014

When the Mets traded Marlon Byrd and John Buck to Pirates on August 27, 2013, General Manager Sandy Alderson was praised for the return he was able to secure.  Byrd and Buck were both scheduled to be free agents at the season’s end and Alderson was able to acquire a young second-base prospect in Dilson Herrera as well as a player to be named later.  That player turned out to be Vic Black, a then-25 year old reliever who, only a month earlier, had just made his Major League debut for the Pirates.

A first-round pick of the Pirates in 2009 (and, three years earlier, a 41st-round pick of the Mets), Black became a full-time reliever in 2011 and earned his claim to fame with his high strikeout totals.  Unfortunately, those strikeouts came with plenty of walks.  The favorite for the Mets’ 8th inning job going into the season, Black walked 10 batters and posted a 5.79 ERA in 9.1 during spring training.  As a result, he was not included on the opening day roster, instead being sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas to play with the 51’s.  While he walked 17 batters in just 18.2 innings, Black pitched to the tune of a 1.45 ERA and earned 7 saves for the 51’s.  His performance must have impressed the front office because, when Jose Valverde was released after his implosion on Memorial Day, Black was called up to the big league roster.

In his 2014 debut, Black didn’t look particularly sharp, walking two batters against his former Pirates team despite earning the win in the process.  In Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Black showed that he absolutely belongs at the back end of the Mets bullpen.

The Mets held a 4-0 lead going into the 7th inning, but that lead was quickly diminished to three after Marlon Byrd crushed Zack Wheeler’s only mistake of the night over the right field fence with one out in the inning.  After Terry Collins brought Scott Rice in to face his mandatory one-batter-a-game (whom he retired), Vic Black was brought in to get the final out of the seventh.  Black struck out Carlos Ruiz on three pitches and was brought back on to face the 8-9-1 hitters in the bottom of the 8th.  Black struck out Cesar Hernandez and pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn Jr. before getting Ben Revere to ground out to second.  Black needed just 13 pitches, 11 of which were strikes, to retire the four batters he faced.  Jenrry Mejia would come on to strike out the side in the 9th, and the bullpen was able to reward Zack Wheeler for his brilliant performance with his second win of the year.

If Vic Black can minimize the walk-per-inning rate he had in the minors this season, he will be an extremely effective big league reliever.  Black doesn’t allow very many hits and strikes out a ton of batters, but his achilles heal has always been his inability to keep down his free-pass rate.  If he can continue to pitch like he did tonight, he will be an important piece of the Mets bullpen for many years to come.  Along with Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, and a healthy Bobby Parnell, Vic Black can be a huge part of the inevitable future success in Flushing.

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Under-The-Radar Baseball Highlight of May 28, 2014

Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Khris Davis made his major league debut at age 25 last season on April 1.  Though he made only 32 starts all season long, Davis made the most of his 136 at-bats, belting 11 home runs and 10 doubles, which helped him to a .353 on-base percentage and .596 slugging percentage.  Had he managed to maintain that slugging percentage throughout an entire season’s worth of at-bats, Davis’ tally would have been good for third in the Majors last season, behind only Miguel Cabrera and, coincidentally, Chris Davis.

This season, Khris Davis has been the Brewers everyday left fielder, already owning nearly 50 more at-bats this season than last.  Though his numbers are down from his incredible year off the bench in 2013, Davis has been extremely effective for his NL Central-leading team.  With 9 home runs, 14 doubles, 30 runs, and a .486 SLG, Davis is in the top 20 in the National League in each category.

With most of his plate appearances coming out of the six hole in the lineup, Davis doesn’t get many RBI opportunities, having just 21 on the year despite an impressive home run total.  With just 8 walks and a .292 on-base percentage two months into the season, it’s easy to see why Davis is hitting in the bottom half of Ron Roenicke’s lineup.  If he can increase his ability to reach base safely to contest his ability to hit for power, Davis could become a real offensive threat around the Major Leagues.

Last night, Davis reached base safely in three of his four plate appearances in Milwaukee’s 8-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles.  With some help from Davis, the Brewers were able to take two of the three games against the Orioles for their second consecutive series win.  Davis went 2 for 3, which included a walk in the 2nd inning, a single in the 6th, and a 3-run homer down the left field line in the 8th to extend the Brewers lead to five.

The home run was Davis’ third in as many games, but his first that wasn’t a solo shot.  Davis’ multi-hit performance was his third in the past four games, a feat that has increased his batting average from .227 to .251.  The Brewers will look for Davis to stay hot this weekend, as the thought of a sweep against the last-place Cubs is surely embedded in the mind of each player.  After Chicago comes into town, Milwaukee has a great chance to increase their division lead even further as they play four games (two at home) against the sub-.500 Minnesota Twins.  

Khris Davis has provided a surplus of power to the Brewers lineup all season long.  If he can continue make contact and reach base on a more regular basis, the first-place Brewers will likely continue to look down upon their division rivals in the NL Central.

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