Catch up on some of what you might have missed in baseball while watching the Belmont, Entourage, and the NBA/NHL finals this weekend: a switch-pitcher, the season’s longest homer, and continued signs of life from a written-off team.
The first half of this season has seen the arrival of several top-20 prospects with future-superstar skills: Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Noah Syndergaard, Archie Bradley, Blake Swihart, Joey Gallo, and, as of today, Carlos Correa. With the possible exception of Bryant, though, none of those players generated the accumulated anticipation of one of the year’s most marginally talented rookies, Oakland Athletics reliever Pat Venditte, who debuted on Friday as the first true switch-pitcher to make the majors since the 19th century.1 Venditte pitched the seventh and eighth innings in Oakland’s 4-2 loss to Boston on Friday, allowing a single to Hanley Ramirez, striking out Swihart, and getting grounders on four of five balls in play. He threw 16 pitches from the right side and 12 from the left. He also came in with two outs in the eighth on Sunday and got a groundout from the first batter he faced, Dustin Pedroia, ending an inning in which five A’s pitchers allowed seven Boston runs.
Expos pitcher Greg Harris, a career righty, threw from both sides in 1995, but only for one awkward inning in the penultimate outing of his career.
[mlbvideo id=”146366183″ width=”510″ height=”286″ /]
Venditte, the 620th overall pick of the 2008 amateur draft, spent seven seasons in the Yankees’ system, causing a sensation (and a rule change) the first time he faced a switch-hitter, but otherwise laboring in only slightly less obscurity than the typical Triple-A twentysomething. Last year, he posted a 2.64 ERA with solid peripherals across almost 80 Double- and Triple-A innings, but the Yankees bypassed him again, cobbling together the back end of their bullpen out of other fringy relievers who probably should have been sharing a bus with Venditte: Alfredo Aceves, Matt Daley, Jim Miller, Chris Leroux. If Venditte, who turns 30 this month, couldn’t crack the roster in a good year for him and an off year for the Yankees, that door was probably barred. He needed a new organization.
Mercifully, New York granted Venditte’s release last November, and Oakland picked him up two weeks later. If any team was going to give him a shot, it was the A’s, the team famous for not ruling out players based on unconventional appearance, for prioritizing the platoon advantage, and for trusting minor league stats enough to make Mark Canha its winter meetings obsession. Even Oakland might not have found room for Venditte if not for the fact that its bullpen, which had the AL’s second-lowest ERA last season, has the league’s highest ERA this year. In the absence of injured relievers Sean Doolittle and Edward Mujica, the A’s needed arms, and Venditte’s pair had produced a 1.36 ERA with a strikeout per inning in Triple-A. So now he’s here, forcing TV producers to practice their split screens, programmers to code special exceptions, and switch-hitters to brush up on the rulebook. He’s the 18th pitcher the 2015 A’s have used out of the pen, which is tied with Tampa Bay for the most in the majors.
Venditte’s minor league platoon splits from 2014-15 show that he’s been most effective against left-handed batters — maybe because his balls have more spin from that side — though he’s held his own against righties. However, switch-hitters, the only players who have the platoon advantage against him, have been roughly half as likely to whiff as hitters who face the switch-pitcher from the same side. In the majors, they could crush him, so Bob Melvin will have to deploy Venditte judiciously to avoid unfavorable matchups.
So how well will that performance translate to the AL? No one looks like the whole Venditte, which makes him tough to project. With his early PITCHf/x data, though, we can come up with comps for each half of him. Only four righty relievers have thrown at least 500 four-seamers in the PITCHf/x era at a lower average velocity than Venditte’s 87.9 mph on Friday, including two former A’s: Chad Bradford, Brad Ziegler, Trevor Hoffman, and Darren O’Day. Venditte, however, doesn’t have the impossible-to-elevate sinkers that Bradford and Ziegler throw, and he doesn’t have Hoffman’s unhittable changeup. And the right side is his hard-throwing arm: As a lefty, he averaged only 85.8 mph, slower than any southpaw on record except Jay Marshall.
Using Venditte’s velocity and horizontal and vertical movement, and following a method pioneered in 2007 by current Blue Jays analyst Joe P. Sheehan, we can determine which pitchers’ stuff most resembles Venditte’s from each side. Here are the closest comps for each pitch (as tagged by Pitch Info2 and displayed at Brooks Baseball) among relievers of the same handedness:
Venditte sometimes calls his curve a slider, but it’s the same pitch.
Fastball: Clayton Mortensen
Curveball: Yoshinori Tateyama
Fastball: Darren Oliver
Curveball: Glendon Rusch
Changeup: Michael Roth
Womp womp. That’s not a distinguished group. But before we write off Venditte, here are the relievers with the most similar release points:
Righty Venditte Release Point: Pat Neshek, Cory Gearrin, Cla Meredith, Greg Burke, Joe Smith
Lefty Venditte Release Point: Joe Thatcher, Pedro Feliciano, Clay Rapada, Javier Lopez
On a pitch-by-pitch basis, Venditte probably doesn’t belong in the big leagues: Most of his offerings resemble those of players who were at the tail ends of their careers or had ugly, brief big league looks. But Venditte throws like a platoon specialist from both sides, which means his fringy stuff always plays up against non-switch-hitters. His ambidextrousness gives him all the perks of throwing sidearm, without the biggest drawback (vulnerability to opposite-handed hitters). Couple that with the fact that he has a relatively fresh arm more often than the typical pitcher, and he probably belongs in the big leagues, entertainment value aside.
Venditte is at once run-of-the-mill and one-of-a-kind, ultra-talented and barely talented enough. And his story is the same as Michael Lewis’s A’s: He’s compensating for an innate disadvantage by making the most of an edge no one else has.
Stanton Storms Coors
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
On Friday, Giancarlo Stanton hit the longest home run of the season, a 484-foot blast off Eddie Butler that sailed deep into the left-center-field stands at Coors Field.
[mlbvideo id=”146365383″ width=”510″ height=”286″ /]
The home run, which extended the Marlins’ lead to three runs in a game they’d eventually win, was the second-longest of Stanton’s career, 10 feet shorter than the one he hit off Josh Roenicke at close to the same speed and trajectory in August 2012 — also at Coors Field.
[mlbvideo id=”23980563″ width=”510″ height=”286″ /]
Stanton, who trails Bryce Harper by one in the MLB home run race, has now hit three of the five longest homers this season, although Joc Pederson — who took Scott Oberg deep at Coors last Wednesday — has a higher average home run distance. On a dispassionate, analytical level, Stanton going (very) deep in Denver seems like a nonstory: player who hits long homers hits longer homers because balls fly farther in thin air. On a more visceral level, though, holy crap he hits them so far.
According to ESPN Home Run Tracker’s Standard Distance measurement, which adjusts for altitude, Stanton’s most recent shot was only the third-longest homer he’s hit this year, behind two mid-May moon shots to center in Marlins Park. But home runs aren’t hit that much farther in Colorado: The average altitude-unadjusted True Distance of Stanton’s eight career home runs at Coors (in only 17 games) is only 14 feet farther than the average altitude-adjusted Standard Distance.3 Even accounting for environmental conditions, Stanton has absolutely launched his homers in Denver. It’s almost as fun to listen to the calls of Stanton’s Coors homers as it is to watch them. You’ll recognize the Rockies’ announcers — they’re the ones who say, “Uh-oh.”[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/209323665" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true&show_comments=true&color=false&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]
The average difference for all regular-season homers at Coors since 2009 is plus-12.4 feet.
It helps that the Rockies have a hard time attracting top pitching talent, and it doesn’t hurt that some pitches actually break less at a high altitude. Of course, every batter enjoys those conditions at Coors, but few of them tee off like Stanton. His two home runs above, plus this one from 2011, are three of the five longest home runs hit at Coors by anyone — Rockies included — since 2009. Here are the highest average True Distances of Stanton’s homers, by ballpark:
|Ballpark||HR||True Distance (Feet)|
And here are his highest average Standard Distances, showing a lower, but still substantial, lead for Coors:
|Ballpark||HR||Standard Distance (Feet)|
No visiting player has hit more homers in Coors than Stanton since 2011, when he first played there, although there are NL West hitters who’ve made twice as many plate appearances on the road against the Rockies over the same span. Even after he went 1-for-9 with a double in the last two games of the weekend series, Stanton’s OPS at Coors is one of the highest career OPS marks (minimum 60 plate appearances) in a given park by any active player, although park adjustments would reduce that rank considerably.
|Paul Goldschmidt||Miller Park||57||1.659|
|Brandon Moss||Comerica Park||56||1.462|
|Albert Pujols||Nationals Park||60||1.447|
|David Ortiz||Target Field||76||1.385|
|Dan Johnson||Kauffman Stadium||64||1.372|
|Troy Tulowitzki||Citi Field||54||1.368|
|Ryan Braun||Citizens Bank Park||99||1.290|
|Josh Reddick||Rogers Centre||50||1.289|
|Jason Heyward||AT&T Park||53||1.272|
|Edwin Encarnacion||Chase Field||61||1.240|
|Giancarlo Stanton||Coors Field||79||1.221|
Not only does Coors Field accentuate Stanton’s signature skill, but he also seems to have been at his best there, independent of altitude. It’s a special confluence of park, player, and fortuitous timing with few analogues in sports, akin to putting Andrelton Simmons in a park where everyone fields ground balls better, or Billy Hamilton in a park where the basepaths are especially conducive to speed, or Corey Kluber on a mound that makes baseballs look even more like wiffle balls. Even if you’re partial to Stanton’s screaming liners that barely clear the wall, you have to appreciate his more majestic big flies, and they’ve been at their biggest at Coors. I liked last offseason’s Stanton extension for Miami, and it’s hard to tell a guy to turn down $325 million, regardless of Jeffrey Loria’s presence. But man, we’re missing out as long as Stanton is stuck at sea level.
The Rangers’ Revival Continues
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Rangers, who took two out of three from the slumping Royals over the weekend, have now won six consecutive series for the first time since 2012, when their future seemed unassailable. At 30-27, they’re second in the AL West, 3.5 games behind the Astros, and half a game behind Tampa Bay in the AL wild-card race.
Relative to what the stats said the standings would look like two months ago, the AL is completely upside down. Of the six American League teams with the best records today, only the Yankees were projected — barely — to finish over .500. In one sense, the Rangers’ results are the most predictable of any of the AL’s Strange Six. In another sense, they might be the most surprising.
Over the winter, no one would have doubted that the Rangers could play above-.500 ball. Last year, Texas was built to contend but suffered a historic stack of injuries, plunging to 67-95. Severe as that setback was, it was reasonable to expect it to be temporary. In 2015, the thinking went, most of the talent would return, and most of the wins with them. This spring, though, the Rangers’ health problems recurred or gave way to new ones that were just as serious. Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar suffered season-ending injuries (Profar for the second season in a row); Derek Holland’s bad shoulder took the place of his bad knee; Matt Harrison and Martin Perez continued their slow comebacks from surgery. On May 1, the Rangers’ record stood at 7-15; only the Brewers’ was worse. Deprived of their ace and 8.5 games out early, the Rangers seemed sunk.
Since then, they’ve gone 23-12, the second-best record in baseball behind Minnesota’s 22-11. The Rangers are 10-6 in one-run games, and they’ve topped their third-order record by two wins, but they aren’t having the same fluky, high-leverage luck that the Twins are. The Rangers’ post-April improvement owes something to last season’s DL and day-to-day brigade: Shin-Soo Choo, who played hurt for much of last season, has bounced back a bit, though not to the extent that his contract seems acceptable. And Prince Fielder, who missed most of last season, has produced as well as he did in Detroit, although his offensive approach has shifted in some disquieting ways: Fielder has been uncharacteristically aggressive both inside and outside the strike zone, which has eaten into his walk rate, and his fly balls aren’t leaving the park as often as they did in his twenties. Instead, he’s relying on a BABIP that won’t be sustainable for a player with his skill set. Rule 5 find Delino DeShields, who’s started in the leadoff slot for most of the Rangers’ recent 14-4 run, has also been a high-BABIP hero, although he at least has the speed to keep recording infield hits. Meanwhile, Mitch Moreland is hitting .307/.370/.511, which makes little sense given his history as a league-average offensive player.
The Rangers have gotten good results from two oft-injured starters, Wandy Rodriguez and Colby Lewis, but they’ve also added other players to the triage list. Neftali Feliz went on the DL last month with an axillary abscess (do not Google); Adrian Beltre (who was off to a slow start) sprained his thumb last week; and no sooner did Josh Hamilton rejoin the team on a tear than he went down with a strained hamstring. But the Rangers have been aggressive in pulling from their farm system to plug holes. They called up top prospect Joey Gallo to fill in for Beltre despite Gallo’s 34 percent strikeout rate in Double-A, and he has already displayed his power, but he’s also struck out in more than half of his plate appearances that haven’t ended in homers, which might portend a Javier Baez–like line if he remains in the majors. Chi Chi Gonzalez, who entered the year as the Rangers’ second-ranked prospect, has made a splash by beginning his career with two scoreless starts, including a shutout in Kansas City on Friday. But he’s also walked seven and struck out four, which doesn’t bode well for further scoreless outings. Similarly, Nick Martinez, who’s been the best Texas starter by ERA, has the peripherals of a pitcher with many more runs allowed.
Although the Rangers have somewhat unexpectedly surfaced from the depths of April and 2014, they haven’t excelled in any area. They’ve been pretty good on the bases and pretty bad in the field, and with park adjustments applied, their lineup and pitching staff have been almost exactly league-average. That’s the profile of a .500 team, which is roughly what the Rangers have been. Barring big upgrades and a full return to health, they’ll be fortunate if that’s still what they are in September.