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The 30: Armed and Dangerous

The Phillies and Jays are pitching surprisingly well, the Yankees are getting their money’s worth from their offseason prize, and the A’s are cruising behind an out-of-nowhere ace

Got the post-Easter blues? Dreading a week full of TPS reports? Just remember: Things could be worse.

 

Way worse.

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It’s Week 3 of The 30.

Started From the Bottom … 

… and never left.

30. Houston Astros (5-14 record, -41 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Chicago Cubs (5-12, -18, LW: 28)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (5-16, -51, LW: 25)
27. Philadelphia Phillies (8-10, -21, LW: 23)
26. Miami Marlins (9-10, +13, LW: 27)
25. Minnesota Twins (9-9, +7, LW: 29)
24. New York Mets (9-9, -7, LW: 26)

Am I allowed a bit of optimism in the bottom tier of the rankings? Eh, screw it; I’m going for it. Check out this stretch of pitching lines by Phillies starters:

April 13: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
April 14: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 6 BB, 3 K
April 16: 9 IP, 11 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K
April 17: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
April 18: 4 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
April 19: 7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K

That’s five quality starts in six outings, including three games against a talented Braves lineup and two more games at Coors Field, baseball’s toughest park for pitchers.

Now, I’m admittedly cheating by creating arbitrary starting and end points: April 12 brought a half-decent start, but it lasted only five innings, while April 20 saw the Rockies score six runs in four innings against Roberto Hernandez. Still, that stretch of successful starting pitching is a little hint of something for a team that could legitimately finish last in its division. The rotation is about to get a big boost, too: Jonathan Pettibone, who allowed those eight runs on April 18, is back in the minors, and Cole Hamels is slated to return Wednesday against the Dodgers.

But the offense, Marty. Something’s got to be done about the offense.

Even after dropping a 10-spot on the Rockies on a summerlike Sunday afternoon at Coors, the Phils still rank 10th in the National League in runs scored. Ben Revere, one of the worst-hitting everyday outfielders in baseball, is hurting his team more than he should be because manager Ryne Sandberg is batting him leadoff. Marlon Byrd, who’s now 36, has made the buy-high two-year contract he got over the winter look bad by getting off to a .254/.293/.380 start. Carlos Ruiz, who’s 35 and keeping the team’s AARP spirit alive, has gotten off to a .204/.328/.286 start after signing a three-year extension this offseason. Cody Asche, who struggled in his debut season last year, still doesn’t look like a major league hitter, batting .196/.275/.304 through 17 games. Maikel Franco, one of the best third-base prospects in baseball and the guy in line to replace Asche, is batting just .153/.231/.186 at Triple-A this year following a monstrous 2013 campaign.

It’s only April, but it’s not too early to see that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will be facing the same dilemma this year he has the past couple of seasons: whether to cash in veteran talent for future help.

Once again, it’ll be an interesting call. On the one hand, the Phillies have players who would net a huge return. Cliff Lee, for instance, would be a great addition for a handful of big-revenue clubs, even with a $25 million salary this year and next and a $12.5 million buyout (or $27.5 million salary) in 2016.

The Red Sox, for one, have more than enough money and more than enough prospects to pull off a blockbuster deal that would help Boston this year and help Philadelphia for years to come. On the other hand, the Phillies are trying to hold down their status as an attendance juggernaut.1 The massive TV deal the Phillies had been chasing is now money in the bank, thus somewhat limiting the damage the team can do to its brand by unloading an elite player like Lee. Still, these are the factors in play when mulling a deal of this magnitude in 2014, especially with one of the most present-day-focused GMs in the game calling the shots. Stay tuned.

Erratic Eddies

Their kingdoms for some consistency.

23. Chicago White Sox (9-10, 0, LW: 21)
22. Seattle Mariners (7-11, -1, LW: 17)
21. San Diego Padres (9-10, -7, LW: 24)
20. Cincinnati Reds (8-10, +12, LW: 20)
19. Colorado Rockies (10-10, +13, LW: 22)
18. Toronto Blue Jays (10-9, +4, LW: 19)
17. Los Angeles Angels (8-10, +13, LW: 16)

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On the season premiere of my podcast last week, the first question I asked Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos was simple: How have the Jays gone from being a last-place team in 2013 to near the top of the division in 2014? His answer was even simpler: Toronto’s pitchers no longer stink.

Well, most of the time, anyway. In the eighth inning of Thursday night’s game against the Twins, Jays relievers capped an ugly doubleheader by surrendering six runs on eight walks and three wild pitches, making Toronto the first team to walk eight batters in an inning since the Orioles did so against the Rangers on April 19, 1996. Bullpens can be volatile, particularly on a night like Thursday, when near-freezing temperatures made gripping the ball an enormous challenge. Plus, despite a recent setback, underrated right-handed closer Casey Janssen is due to come off the DL sometime in May, which should help solidify Toronto’s pen.

The starting rotation is the Jays’ true wild card, and their true key to success: On a game-by-game or even a batter-to-batter basis, this is one of the game’s toughest starting fives to predict.

Take Brandon Morrow’s Sunday start against the Indians. The 29-year-old right-hander began his day with a long battle against leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, ending the at-bat by whiffing Bourn on a wicked split-changeup in the dirt. As both this Brooks Baseball pitch chart and this insightful Jays Journal post point out, Morrow had some experience throwing a changeup with a split-fingered grip before this season, but it wasn’t a reliable out pitch, with Morrow often forced to rely on other offerings, especially his slider, in two-strike counts. That slider popped up in the next at-bat Sunday, as Morrow continued Nick Swisher’s 2014 woes by fanning him on a pitch down and away. The split-change was the star of Morrow’s afternoon, though: In each of his two matchups with Indians slugger Carlos Santana, Morrow threw his new hammer pitch in two-strike counts, both times seeing the pitch dive way out of the strike zone, and both times making Santana look terrible as he chased it for strike three. Per Brooks, Morrow threw the split-change 26 times Sunday, registering 18 strikes, including five swinging.

Unfortunately, Morrow also showed shaky fastball command. Immediately after striking out Santana for the first time, Morrow got locked in a long battle with Michael Brantley, which ended with a fastball up and down the middle that got smashed to Columbus. Brantley stung Morrow again in the fourth after the next Santana strikeout, this time smashing a double. Morrow’s final line on the day wasn’t too bad, as he allowed two runs on three hits, with six strikeouts and two walks. Still, Jays fans had to be shaking their heads after watching Morrow leave following five innings and 95 pitches despite being so dominant at times. It was the same old tantalizing Morrow: enough promise to get excited, and enough inconsistency to leave the team wanting more.

Mark Buehrle (0.64 ERA) and R.A. Dickey (6.26 ERA) will probably wind up meeting in the middle of their current stat lines while eating 400-plus decent innings between them. How the other guys fare — the promising Drew Hutchison, the back-from-the-dead Dustin McGowan2, and, yes, the maddening Mr. Morrow — will likely be what swings the Blue Jays’ season, one way or another.

B-Students 

The talented teams off to slow starts, the decent teams we’re not quite ready to call top contenders, and … the Brewers.

16. Cleveland Indians (8-10, -7, LW: 14)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (9-10, +1, LW: 9)
14. Baltimore Orioles (8-9, 0, LW: 18)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (8-11, +1, LW: 11)
12. Kansas City Royals (9-8, -5, LW: 15)
11. Boston Red Sox (9-10, -5, LW: 7)
10. New York Yankees (11-8, -9, LW: 13)
9. Texas Rangers (11-8, -6, LW: 12)
8. Milwaukee Brewers (14-5, +18, LW: 10)
7. San Francisco Giants (11-8, +9, LW: 8)

It’s happened only once in the past 23 seasons, but it sure feels like the AL East champion might fail to win 90 games this year.3 There are two reasons for my hunch (however unlikely it is to come to fruition). First, the division doesn’t appear to have any true weak links this year. The Jays will be a .500 or better team if they have even slightly better luck than last year, plus better starting pitching. And while the Orioles’ pitching isn’t very good, they should continue to hit. Second, injuries are decimating some of the leading contenders. I picked the Rays to win the division at the start of the season, but I have much less faith in that happening now that Matt Moore is out for the year, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson are out at least another month each, and a thin bullpen is already getting taxed. The Red Sox don’t have it as bad with only Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks on the DL, but these Sox are less talented than last year’s edition, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew gone.

The latest significant casualty is Ivan Nova. The Yankees’ no. 4 starter got hammered for eight runs in four innings against the Rays on Saturday, with four blasts leaving the yard. The snarkfest over Nova’s outing (which upped his season ERA to 8.27) lasted a few hours, until we learned he has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Recent history tells us that partial UCL tears don’t tend to heal quickly, or without surgery, so Nova’s season might be over.

The good news is that the Yankees have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with or without Nova. For starters, Masahiro Tanaka has been even better than advertised, which is saying a lot. ESPN contributor Jason Collette passed along this wild Tanaka nugget: This year, Tanaka has thrown 130 fewer pitches than Justin Verlander and 125 fewer pitches than James Shields … yet the Yankees’ new ace has induced more swings and misses than either (51 for Tanaka, 50 for Verlander, 47 for Shields). Tanaka’s splitter might be the best pitch in baseball at the moment; per Brooks Baseball, batters have whiffed 60 percent of the time on that pitch.

There’s more goodness throughout the staff. Michael Pineda has looked terrific through his first three starts, throwing tons of strikes; and no, I’m not buying GooGate as the secret to his success, though the hysteria around it was pretty funny. Hiroki Kuroda is keeping his team in games as usual, while CC Sabathia is pitching better than his surface stats would indicate, striking out more than a batter an inning (despite a big drop in fastball velocity) but getting victimized by a 31.6 percent home run–per–fly ball rate that’s simply not going to last.

Don’t sleep on the Yankees’ bullpen, either. While the surface stats look lousy due in large part to a couple of random blowups by Cesar Cabral and other secondary guys, Shawn Kelley is mowing down hitters (he generated eight whiffs on 27 pitches against the Rays on Sunday), Dellin Betances is gunning 96 mph fastballs by everyone, and Adam Warren is looking sharp in high-leverage work. This Sandman-less pen might not be so bad, especially when closer David Robertson returns from the DL.

The bad news is that the Yanks probably need their pitching to excel all year long, given the roster weaknesses on which we’ve already harped many times. Derek Jeter looks ancient diving in vain at grounders to either side; Brian Roberts is no longer anything close to a playoff-caliber second baseman; Mark Teixeira’s return from the disabled list only reminds us he’s not Mark Teixeira anymore; and we can count on one hand the number of non-prospects who suddenly become impact players at age 26, which bodes ill for Yangervis Solarte’s staying power.

None of which is a death sentence. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Yankees have used more defensive shifts than any team except the Astros this year, as they try to compensate for Jeter’s and Roberts’s diminished range and also respond to baseball’s fastest-moving trend. They added multiple boppers over the winter, and their offense could get a boost once Brian McCann and Brett Gardner start hitting. The Yankees are banking wins early in a suddenly winnable AL East, and they won’t be shy about making deals if they’re in the race come July.

Running out a stars-and-scrubs lineup isn’t always pretty. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, though. Especially this year, and especially in this division.

Separating From the Pack

More games played means more flaws exposed, and fewer teams looking elite.

6. Detroit Tigers (9-6, +1, LW: 2)
5. Washington Nationals (11-8, +5, LW: 6)
4. Atlanta Braves (12-6, +23, LW: 5)
3. Oakland A’s (13-5, +32, LW: 4)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (11-8, +11, LW: 3)
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (12-7, +15, LW: 1)

What the hell is going on with Jesse Chavez, who’s come out of nowhere to post a 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and top-10 AL K/BB rate in four starts?

Coming into this season, the 30-year-old right-hander had earned a reputation as a journeyman after playing for five teams.4 He worked as a reliever for most of his career, totaling just two starts before this season. Chavez’s performance improved in 2013, as he fanned nearly a batter an inning and gave up just three homers in 57⅓ innings out of the Oakland bullpen. Like most relievers, he operated with a narrow repertoire, in his case throwing fastballs and cutters about three-quarters of the time.

Last season, Chavez showed subtle signs he could be capable of something more than what he delivered out of the pen. The A’s saw flashes of his sometimes excellent curve and changeup during five Triple-A starts, and on June 13, Chavez offered a glimpse of what he could do at the big league level if given an opportunity to start.

“We’re playing the Yankees, and the game goes to extra innings,” recalled A’s pitching coach Curt Young. “And he really starts showing what he can do. He goes through multiple times in the order, and he’s got just great command of all four pitches.”

Chavez demolished Yankees hitters that day, firing 5⅔ shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out seven. It was only one game, sure. But for Young and the A’s, it was a glimpse into the future, a sneak peek at what the best-case scenario could look like if they ever needed Chavez to step into the starting rotation.

That day arrived this spring, when Jarrod Parker suffered an elbow injury that knocked him out for the season and A.J. Griffin also hit the DL. Chavez immediately flourished. In his season debut against the Mariners, he allowed one earned run over six innings en route to a 3-2 A’s win. He was masterful against the Twins six days later, fanning nine, walking none, and surrendering a single run while pacing a 7-4 victory. Five days after that, he pitched seven innings against the Angels, allowing one earned run in another nine-strikeout, no-walk performance.5 No less an authority than Mike Trout raved about Chavez’s stuff that night, and no wonder: You’ll rarely see Trout look as overwhelmed on a pitch as he was on this 2-2 Chavez curveball in Trout’s first at-bat of the game.

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Chavez continued his excellent work Sunday against the Astros, allowing one run in six innings while striking out six. While he walked a season-high three batters, which more than doubled his 2014 total, Chavez also made his way into the A’s record books:

A few days before Chavez took the mound for his fourth start, I asked him what’s driving his early-season success.

“Getting ahead, throwing strikes is the key thing for any pitcher’s success,” Chavez said. “Curt [Young] preaches that: Throw strikes, stay down in the zone, trust your stuff.”

That advice from Young, while sound, seems extraordinarily simple, almost facile. As you might expect from one of the league leaders in strikeout-to-walk rate, Chavez also ranks in the top 10 among AL pitchers in percentage of strikes thrown. But if every pitcher simply needed to try harder to throw strikes in order to actually throw strikes, they’d presumably all have managed it by now. Of course, it’s not actually that straightforward, and Chavez acknowledged that his head wasn’t always in the right place in the past, which messed with his approach.

“I used to try to do too much,” Chavez said. “That’s why I was up and down for the past four years. I just have to instill all of this in my head, just simplify things, make everything a little tighter and crisper.”

While Chavez is the A’s most unlikely success story this year, he’s on a team full of unlikely success stories. Despite their injuries, the A’s sport the lowest ERA among all American League teams, with the second-lowest walk rate. Credit the system: Though Young, manager Bob Melvin, and others preach pounding the strike zone to all A’s pitchers, the process starts earlier.

“We try to get as many strike-throwers as we can in the minors,” Young said. “The guys we acquire usually have that history. If you don’t put guys on via walks, it just makes things so much easier.”

A quick peek at the numbers shows this is nothing new, with A’s pitchers posting the lowest walk rate in the AL last year. If the A’s can again stay near the top of the league in that department, a third consecutive AL West title could be nigh.

Chavez will be the most interesting test case. It’s easier for a pitcher to trust his stuff and fill up the strike zone when he throws a nightmare-inducing curveball, like Sonny Gray does, or has spent years building up elite fastball command, like Bartolo Colon had dating back to last year.

If Chavez is still hanging with the likes of Lee and Felix Hernandez five months from now, this “throw it over the plate” thing might really start catching on. 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Brandon Morrow, Masahiro Tanaka, Jesse Chavez, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri