The 30: Pitching Is No Panacea

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“Pitching is 75 percent of baseball.”

Those are the words of legendary manager and owner Connie Mack. Others have stretched Mack’s idea to suggest that pitching is actually something like 90 percent of baseball. But whatever the number, the idea remains the same: Good pitching always beats good hitting.

Now, the evidence for this theory is lacking: We’ve seen all kinds of successful teams — with great defense, deft baserunning, or just a lineup full of mashers — post big win totals and have playoff success. And in 2015, baseball’s top pitching teams range from division leaders to cellar dwellers.

This week’s four featured clubs have all delivered strong starting pitching results in particular. Yet questions loom over all four, including the Yankees’ slumping veterans, the Pirates’ hobbling superstar, the Diamondbacks’ leaky bullpen, and the Athletics’ miserable results in close games. Each club’s ability to catch up to its starting rotation’s success will go a long way toward determining how the rest of the season shakes out.

It’s Week 5 of The 30.

Best Miming Shortstop

If the whole baseball thing doesn’t work out, Starlin Castro might want to slap on a beret and get trapped in an invisible box.

With one out in the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday night, Cardinals first baseman Mark Reynolds chopped a ground ball toward third. With three infielders on the left side of second base and Castro crowding third baseman Kris Bryant, the Cubs were in a pronounced shift. As Castro shuffled in his rookie teammate’s direction, Bryant fielded the ball cleanly, gathered his feet for a split second, double clutched, then fired a strike to first baseman Anthony Rizzo for the out.

But this was no routine 5-3 out. Eager to practice his form, Castro copied every move of Bryant’s to the letter. He fielded an imaginary grounder a few feet behind his third baseman, executed the same little double-clutch perfectly, and his pretend throw to first was, presumably, right on target.

Of all the things to love about this video, Rizzo’s wide-eyed “What the hell just happened?!” look wins.

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Misery Loves Company

The free-falling Rockies and A’s crash this sad bottom-tier party.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (11-21 record, minus-60 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Milwaukee Brewers (11-21, minus-45, LW: 30)
28. Colorado Rockies (11-17, minus-47, LW: 22)
27. Texas Rangers (13-18, minus-22, LW: 28)
26. Chicago White Sox (12-16, minus-36, LW: 27)
25. Cleveland Indians (11-19, minus-19, LW: 25)
24. Oakland A’s (12-21, minus-3, LW: 18)

For the Oakland A’s, 2012 was a magical season. It started with low expectations and ended with an unlikely AL West title. But what stands out most about that memorable campaign are Oakland’s 15 walk-off wins during the regular season and playoffs.

Three years later, we’re seeing a bizarro version of the 2012 A’s. This season, they’re 1-10 in one-run games (worst among all teams with at least five) and 0-5 in extra-inning games (worst among all teams, period).

So, three questions: (1) Were the A’s lucky in 2012? Somewhat, but they were also pretty good. (2) Are they unlucky in 2015? Yes, but they have real problems, too. And (3) Should we expect their luck to turn soon? Maybe — although the baseball gods don’t always answer prayers quickly.

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Oakland’s close-game issues begin with a bullpen that has struggled mightily: There’s no sugarcoating a group that ranks 28th in the majors with a 5.16 ERA, 29th in park-adjusted ERA, and 27th in park-adjusted FIP.

Much of the pen’s problems can be chalked up to attrition. The A’s had hoped the offseason acquisition of Tyler Clippard would ease the blow of lefty bullpen ace Sean Doolittle starting the year on the disabled list, but few teams can seamlessly replace a pitcher who just posted an 89-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When oft-injured southpaw Eric O’Flaherty joined Doolittle on the DL on May 2, the bullpen’s depth was stretched too far. Those two injuries, combined with ineffectiveness by several would-be replacements and Billy Beane’s itchy trigger finger, have shuttled 14 pitchers into big league relief work this year, the second-highest total in baseball.

Beyond injuries, bad timing has played a role, too. When Oakland dropped an 8-7 extra-inning game to Seattle on April 12, it came a day after an 11-inning loss to the M’s had already taxed the bullpen. Something similar happened last Friday, when the A’s, playing their 11th game in 11 days, lost 4-3 to the Mariners in 11 innings, right on the heels of bullpen-sapping 13-0 and 6-5 losses.

Still, the A’s need relief-pitching reinforcements, and they’re crossing their fingers that a bunch of ’em arrive soon. First up will be Edward Mujica, the right-hander acquired from Boston on Saturday for a player to be named later. Mujica is a fastball-splitter-slider guy who tops out in the low 90s, started this season by allowing three homers in 13.2 innings, and will be playing for his sixth team in six years. He also flashes excellent control when he’s on, walking just five batters in 64.2 innings two years ago in St. Louis, in addition to recording 37 saves. For Mujica, the hope is that the cavernous Coliseum will keep future fly balls from clearing the wall and smooth out some of his early rough patches. With Doolittle and O’Flaherty potentially returning by month’s end, the A’s could have three new bullpen arms in the near future.

Now the question is whether that will be enough to resuscitate a team that has other weaknesses. Advanced defensive stats tell us more than fielding percentage does,1 but leading the majors with 33 errors will cost you some games, too. The A’s pride themselves on their 1-through-25 roster depth, but that depth took a big blow when jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist went on the DL.2

Yes, Oakland does boast a top-10 rotation by advanced metrics, but falling nine games below .500 this early in the season puts the team in a bad spot: FanGraphs now gives them a 14.9 percent chance of making the postseason. And we know Beane never hesitates when he has a chance to cash in veterans for younger talent, so someone like Scott Kazmir could easily be wearing another uniform a few weeks from now.

In short, look for the A’s to get better as they get healthier. Just don’t count on them making it all the way back to contender status in 2015.

Walking Wounded

Injuries have hurt several of these teams, including the pitching-decimated Rays.

23. Atlanta Braves (14-17, minus-9, LW: 23)
22. Arizona Diamondbacks (14-16, plus-18, LW: 26)
21. Seattle Mariners (14-17, minus-20, LW: 24)
20. Cincinnati Reds (15-16, minus-5, LW: 19)
19. Miami Marlins (15-17, plus-13, LW: 17)
18. Tampa Bay Rays (17-15, plus-10, LW: 12)
17. San Francisco Giants (16-16, minus-23, LW: 21)
16. Minnesota Twins (18-14, plus-16, LW: 20)

On Sunday, Daniel Hudson made his first start since June 26, 2012. In the nearly three years that elapsed between those two appearances, Hudson underwent not one but two Tommy John surgeries, missing most of the 2012 major league season, all of 2013, and all but 2.2 innings in 2014. Considering those hardships, yesterday’s performance was impressive.

Limited by a strict pitch count after throwing nothing but relief innings this year, Hudson tossed 3.1 scoreless frames and struck out five batters in spot-start duty. Despite all of the time lost, Hudson’s changeup looked like the sparkling offering of old that made him one of the league’s best pitchers — and a 222-inning guy — back in 2011.

What’s likely to be Hudson’s reward for that great effort? A quick return to the bullpen. And though that might seem cruel, it’s really just a sign of the strength of Arizona’s rotation.

Even if it’s not reflected in wins and losses, this year’s Diamondbacks have put 2014 in the rearview. Last year, the Diamondbacks, at 64-98, had the worst record in baseball, and the biggest reason for the lost season was an awful and unhealthy starting rotation. The carnage began when Patrick Corbin, a 2013 All-Star, was lost for the year with a torn ulnar collateral ligament last spring. That set the stage for a yearlong run of attrition in which only one pitcher topped 30 starts and only three made more than 20. The fourth- and fifth-most-used starters, Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill, combined to post a 5.58 ERA. All told, Arizona starters finished the year 28th in park-adjusted ERA.

Since the 2014 debacle, the starting five has improved dramatically. Diamondbacks starters are seventh in park-adjusted ERA this year, and the team’s two most valuable starters (by Wins Above Replacement) are also the only rotation holdovers from 2014. Chase Anderson might own a dull 0-1 record, but he has quietly been one of the best starters in the National League, posting a 2.97 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.2-to-1. Josh Collmenter’s success has been far more unconventional, as he’s struck out just 21 batters3 and surrendered 44 hits in 39.2 innings, while keeping opponents in check by walking just three batters.4

After Anderson and Collmenter, Arizona’s third-most productive pitcher has been Rubby De La Rosa. The early-career comparisons to Pedro Martinez were never fair for De La Rosa, even if some of those sky-high expectations came from Pedro himself. Despite showing flashes of electric stuff in the minors and early in his major league career, De La Rosa was considered a disappointment by the time the Red Sox flipped him to the D-backs as part of a four-player trade for Wade Miley in December. However, the 26-year-old looks like he might finally be developing into a quality big league starter: De La Rosa now owns the ninth-best strikeout rate in the NL, and with fielding-independent numbers nearly a full run lower than his 4.38 ERA, better results could be imminent.

Reinforcements should be on the way to help the rotation, too. Twenty-two-year-old righty Archie Bradley, who posted an amazing 60 percent ground ball rate in his first four major league starts, could be back in the rotation by this weekend after taking a line drive off the face last month. Robbie Ray’s Diamondbacks debut on Wednesday was a six-inning, one-run, five-strikeout, no-walk beauty against the Rockies, and after the need for relief help pushed him back to Triple-A Reno, he’s a phone call away from returning. By this time next month, Corbin could be back on the mound for the Snakes. If veteran Bronson Arroyo’s recovery from Tommy John surgery progresses as hoped, he could also be a candidate to pitch later this summer. And, of course, Hudson could get another crack at the rotation.

The bigger takeaway here is that after a nightmarish 2014, the D-backs are actually a respectable ballclub this year. A replacement-level bullpen has cost them multiple games, but if all of these starters return healthy, the pen could get an infusion of excess talent. Better still, MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt is back and raking, and Arizona ranks second in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved. The Diamondbacks own the NL’s fourth-best run differential at plus-18, which works out to an expected win-loss record of 17-13 — a lot prettier than the 14-16 mark they’re carrying around instead.

Pushing this team into playoff contention is still a long shot, given the talent that other clubs possess and the impact deals that several well-heeled NL rivals will likely make. Still, the D-backs are no longer a cakewalk opponent, and the ingredients are here for some exciting baseball this summer.

Capital Gains

This week’s biggest risers, the Nationals, top our second tier.

15. Baltimore Orioles (13-16, plus-5, LW: 11)
14. Boston Red Sox (14-17, minus-26, LW: 13)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (15-16, plus-11, LW: 9)
12. Chicago Cubs (15-15, minus-9, LW: 8)
11. Los Angeles Angels (15-17, minus-3, LW: 15)
10. San Diego Padres (17-16, plus-3, LW: 10)
9. Toronto Blue Jays (16-16, plus-19, LW: 14)
8. Washington Nationals (17-15, plus-7, LW: 16)

No team has a trio of starting pitchers who’ve been stingier than Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, and Francisco Liriano. Pittsburgh’s top three starters have combined to produce a 2.24 ERA that is well supported by a 3.15 FIP. Even the biggest Burnett boosters have to be at least a bit surprised.

Cole’s strong early-season performance is the one we would have most expected coming into the year. The first overall pick in the 2011 draft, Cole struck out nearly four times as many batters as he walked in his 2013 rookie season. He then struck out a batter an inning in 2014, only for two separate DL trips to derail what could have been a big year. Through six starts in 2015, it looks like that big year might come now, as Cole ranks eighth in the NL in ERA and fourth in FIP. He’s hiked his K rate yet again this year, but with an added twist: a ground ball rate that has surged to a career-high 59.6 percent (the fourth-highest mark among qualified NL starters) thanks to a worm-burning sinker.

Liriano’s success isn’t necessarily a big surprise, either. A strikeout-an-inning pitcher who gave the Pirates 55 starts and a 3.20 ERA the past two years, Liriano has chopped that ERA to 2.79, his lowest mark in nine years. He’s whiffing batters more often than ever (44 in 38.2 innings), and he has benefited from enormous batted-ball luck (a .186 batting average on balls in play that’s 112 points below his career average), but the fielding-independent numbers are virtually identical from 2014 (3.59 FIP) to 2015 (3.54). Liriano has topped 30 starts only once, and the Pirates would surely love to see it happen again. But if the end result is a DL stint, 25-plus starts, and similar performance to his first six starts, that’ll be well worth the three-year, $39 million extension the Buccos handed out in December.

It’s Burnett who’s been the shocker. Two years ago, the Pirates’ aggressive shifting helped the veteran right-hander turn in one of the best seasons of his career. However, he hated playing in front of an adjusted infield anyway — F-bombing shifts to anyone who’d listen — so he left to sign a one-year deal with the decrepit Phillies rather than remain in the Steel City. Burnett’s performance cratered, as his walk rate spiked to levels not seen since his wild Yankees days, his home runs allowed nearly doubled, and the weaker Philadelphia defense cost him runs. Back in Pittsburgh for another go-round this year, Burnett’s dominating again, ranking second in the senior circuit with a 1.66 ERA. There’s an element of good fortune here — an unsustainably high 90.3 percent strand rate, compared to Burnett’s career strand rate of 71.6 percent — but, like Cole, the 38-year-old has also used ground balls to his advantage.5

Combine two heavy sinkerball pitchers with a defense that — Burnett’s past protests notwithstanding — turns ground balls into outs via shifts more frequently than any other NL team and leads the league in Defensive Runs Saved, and you have a recipe for success. Well, you would if your best player wasn’t playing like a shadow of his usual self.

Andrew McCutchen’s 2015 downturn isn’t the only reason last year’s fourth-best offensive team is this season’s third-worst, but it is definitely the biggest. More than one-fifth of the way through this season, McCutchen is on pace to set career lows in nearly every offensive category. He’s batting just .223/.310/.348, hitting for less power than ever before, walking less, rapping fewer line drives, and hitting the ball hard less often. There’ve been small signs of improvement lately, with McCutchen carrying a modest five-game hitting streak that has seen him go eight for his last 20 with four doubles, but the broader numbers are still a bit distressing. Are his early struggles the result of a correctable flaw in his swing? Are they a reminder that 30-plus games still isn’t a big enough sample size upon which to draw conclusions? Or is there a deeper problem in play, such as a gimpy left knee that’s been painfully noticeable when McCutchen has to do things like lunge after balls hit in the gap?

When it comes to the Pirates’ inability to turn starting pitching prowess into wins, you can delve into numerous causes. Like the A’s, the Pirates, with an 0-4 record in extra innings, have struggled in close games. You could also point to macro trends, such as opponents identifying Pirates hitters’ preference for fastballs, thus taking the Buccos from a top-10 club in most fastballs seen three years ago to a bottom-10 club this year.6 You could point to Clint Hurdle’s reluctance to give South Korean import Jung-Ho Kang regular playing time, even though he’s starting to earn it both by merit and by style.

But nothing would do more to help the Pirates’ fortunes than to have their All-World center fielder start playing like an MVP again. Until we know whether McCutchen’s slow start is merely a slump or due to a more serious knee injury that might linger, it’s tough to be too bullish about how far the Bucs’ excellent starting pitching can take them.

Changing of the Guard

A big series win propels the Royals into our top spot.

7. Houston Astros (20-12, plus-20, LW: 5)
6. New York Mets (20-11, plus-25, LW: 7)
5. New York Yankees (20-12, plus-30, LW: 6)
4. St. Louis Cardinals (22-9, plus-47, LW: 3)
3. Detroit Tigers (19-13, plus-5, LW: 1)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (20-10, plus-51, LW: 4)
1. Kansas City Royals (20-11, plus-47, LW: 2)

Remember the Yankees-Mariners blockbuster trade of 2012? The one that sent a catching phenom to Seattle and a pitching phenom to New York? The swap of two elite young talents we’d be debating for years to come? Yeah, that hypothetical debate ended a while ago. All that’s left is to decide if the Yanks nabbing Michael Pineda for the now rock-bottom price of Jesus Montero will go down as merely a steal or as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.

Pineda’s whitewashing of the Orioles on Sunday wasn’t just the best start of his career. By going seven innings, allowing just one run, and striking out 16 batters against no walks, the big right-hander became the first pitcher to whiff 16 or more and walk none in a game since the great Johan Santana pulled it off in August 2007. With yesterday’s performance, Pineda has now struck out 54 batters and walked just three in 46.1 innings. Forget Kershaw, Felix, Scherzer, and the rest. With a mark of 1.93, Pineda is your major league FIP leader.

Pineda’s always had swing-and-miss stuff, and he’s producing about as many whiffs this year as he did in his two previous major league seasons — even after that 16-strikeout masterpiece. That microscopic walk rate isn’t too far out of character, either; Pineda only threw 76.1 innings last year, but he walked just seven batters. So why the sudden dominance? First, he’s throwing more cutters than ever before.7 And the move toward the cutter has helped Pineda generate a career-high 53.2 percent ground ball rate.

Most importantly, though, he’s finally healthy. When Pineda failed to throw a single pitch in the majors in 2012 and 2013, it wasn’t at all clear that the Yankees had won the trade, even though Montero looked like he’d adopted an all–Sour Patch Kids diet, couldn’t field any position, and couldn’t even do the one thing people were sure he would: hit. We still can’t be sure Pineda will stay upright over 30-plus starts — not after injuries wiped out more than half of his 2014 campaign, too. But in terms of velocity and ability to mow down hitters deeper into games, he looks every bit like the star the Yankees hoped he’d become.8

This is all welcome news given what the Yankees are right now: a team with a mediocre rotation two through five and a bunch of struggling veterans. They’re somehow still leading the AL East thanks mostly to Pineda and a loaded bullpen. We covered the pen’s exploits earlier this month, but here’s a refresher: Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances have combined to throw 35 innings, striking out 56 batters while allowing zero earned runs, and New York has plenty of other talented wingmen who make up one of baseball’s best, and most affordable, collections of relievers.

The bigger question is whether there’s enough talent on the rest of the roster for this hot start to last and for the Yanks to be wire-to-wire contenders.

We’ve seen some good tidings, starting with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod has been streaky in 2015, but he’s still showing the same kind of power he displayed in 2013, when he hit seven home runs in the final month and a half of the season after missing the first 118 games while recovering from hip surgery. If anything, he’s hitting the ball harder and farther now.9

Like Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira also seems to have found the fountain of youth. The 35-year-old first baseman is batting just .212, but he has more than made up for that by cranking 10 home runs and walking more often than ever before. Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner posting a combined OBP above .400 in the top two spots in the order reminds you what getting on base can do for an offense.10

After that, it gets ugly. Stephen Drew is hitting .189. Didi Gregorius has been a big defensive upgrade over Derek Jeter at short, but he has somehow hit worse (.225/.286/.258) than meager expectations would’ve suggested. Chase Headley’s .224/.280/.353 line doesn’t justify his new four-year, $52 million deal. CC Sabathia has been reduced to throwing high-80s fastballs, but without the positive results seen by Roy Oswalt and other later-career former fireballers.11 Carlos Beltran was a replacement-level player last year, and he’s been much worse than that this season, batting .210/.259/.350, with the speed and defensive value of his youth both distant memories.

We could see some positive regression toward the mean for one or more of those early slumpers, but the Yanks will likely still need to find a few upgrades if they want to secure their perch atop the division. Still, with a three-game lead on the second-place Rays in a division that doesn’t have anything close to a dominant team, an extended run atop the AL East can’t be ruled out. For that, the Yankees can thank some really good, really tall pitchers — especially the one they call Big Mike.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, MLB Stats, Arizona Diamondbacks, Rubby De La Rosa, Chase Anderson, Chicago Cubs, Starlin Castro, Mimes, Oakland A's, Sean Doolittle, Edward Mujica, Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees, Michael Pineda, Alex Rodriguez

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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