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August 1, 2014

What You Need to Know

August 1, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
There’s nothing like a replay controversy to stir up a day that needed no further stirring.

Setting the stage: The Marlins were up by one—on a first-inning bomb by Giancarlo Stanton—when the Reds loaded the bases with one away in the top of the eighth. Todd Frazier hit a fly ball to right. Stanton caught it and threw home. He appeared to have the runner, Zack Cozart, dead to rights at the plate for an inning-ending double play.

Home-plate umpire Mike Winters made the “out” call, then initiated the crew chief review at the behest of Reds skipper Bryan Price. It took six minutes and 10 seconds for the replay crew in New York to reach a verdict. The result: Catcher Jeff Mathis violated rule 7.13, making Cozart safe and the game tied.

Beat writer Juan C. Rodriguez of the Miami Sun-Sentinel did us the favor of compiling all the postgame quotes related to the controversy. Now, let’s see what the uproar was all about:

The screengrab shows Mathis awaiting the throw from Stanton. He’s in a legal position, the one prescribed by rule 7.13, with the catcher in front of the plate rather than blocking it before the ball comes into his possession.

Now the ball is a few feet away from the dirt, and it’s evident in this frame that the throw is slightly off-line. Mathis has two options: 1) He can move forward a couple of feet to cut if off, in which case he’d likely not have time to return and tag the runner, or 2) he can reposition himself, as he has here, to field the throw but risk blocking the runner’s lane to the plate.

Finally, Mathis has the ball in his possession, so he can legally block Cozart’s path to the plate without incurring the consequences of violating rule 7.13. So the violation apparently occurs between frames two and three.

Redmond said after the game that Cozart “was out by 15 feet,” rendering the application of the rule absurd. Indeed, before rule 7.13 was implemented, it would have been up to the runner to barrel into the catcher under these circumstances, with the throw having beaten him to the plate by a country mile. Either collide or concede the out, as Cozart effectively did here by not attempting to slide.

An intriguing aspect of the controversy is that Winters, the umpire who both made the call and initiated the ensuing review, told Redmond and reliever Bryan Morris that he believed the replay crew incorrectly overturned the call. Winters’ viewpoint may have been biased, but he was on the phone with New York for the duration of the review, and what he heard from the other end of the line must not have persuaded him that Mathis violated rule 7.13.

Redmond went on to say that his team lost the game on a “technicality,” which technically isn’t true. Cozart’s run merely leveled the score at 1-1. But the seven-minute break in play may have contributed to Morris making a location mistake that Ryan Ludwick turned into a game-winning two-run single. Whether or not you agree with the outcome of the review, its duration is another source of consternation that ought to be addressed.

That the Marlins and Reds were even in the standings, at 53-54, heading into the opener of the four-game series, still in range of the second wild card spot, is beside the point. But if the 3-1 decision proves relevant at the end of the regular season, it’s sure to rekindle memories of the most controversial catcher-blocking rule enforcement yet.

Quick Hits from Thursday
The clock was nearing 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The Tigers were playing the White Sox at Comerica Park, with the game in the top of the seventh inning. A tense moment in the top of the seventh inning, no less. And then:

Austin being Austin Jackson, of course, who’d been shipped to the Mariners in the agreed-upon but not yet official trade that would bring David Price to Detroit. But if general manager Dave Dombrowski was “right there in the dugout,” as Scherzer says, then he was witnessing something that might have tempered the excitement of the moment just a teeny bit.

Here’s Jackson coming off the field to a rousing ovation from the home fans:

You’ll notice the bases are loaded, the White Sox are ahead, 5-4, and his departure comes right after a 1-2 pitch that misses the strike zone. Manager Brad Ausmus tells the umpire what’s going on, and off Jackson goes.

Let's rewind a couple of minutes to the start of the inning.

Joakim Soria—who brought a brutal 2/3 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2 HR line in two appearances since his acquisition from the Rangers into the game—struck out Adam Eaton, but he did so on a wild pitch that allowed Eaton to reach. The next batter, Alexei Ramirez, singled; he moved up to second on the throw to third, which Eaton beat. Soria intentionally walked Jose Abreu, then got Conor Gillaspie to pop out.

Bases loaded, one out, Paul Konerko in the box, and the 1-1 pitch ...

... sailed high and tight, plunking Konerko and bringing home the go-ahead run. The White Sox would score twice more against Joba Chamberlain in the last of the eighth to win 7-4, bringing a light drizzle down on the parade over the Price addition that represented the Tigers' counter to the A’s in the brewing American League arms race.

Despite Dombrowski’s first major July trade, the one that imported Soria from Texas for pitchers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson, the Tigers' bullpen remains a question mark. Soria might change that down the stretch and in October, but he hasn’t yet. An understated aspect of inserting Price into the rotation is that his efficiency will limit the opportunities his teammates in the ‘pen have to cough up wins.

The Tigers have played 105 games; their starter has gone eight or more innings in nine of them. David Price has made 23 starts; he’s recorded 24 or more outs in 12 of them. And Price is supplanting Drew Smyly, who didn’t work into the eighth in any of his assignments this year.

Price’s small-sample postseason track record is decidedly worse than his regular-season log, but the more effective innings Ausmus is able to milk out of his starter, the more comfortable the late stages of every Tigers game will be. Price, who leads the majors with 170 2/3 innings under his belt, is not only the best pitcher who was available last month, but also the best pitcher Dombrowski could have acquired to try to hide the most glaring flaw in his club.

***

Hours before the trade deadline, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made his second move for a starting pitcher, reeling in John Lackey from the Red Sox for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. The trade upgraded manager Mike Matheny’s rotation with a workhorse righty whose 2014 résumé is far superior to that of fellow newcomer Justin Masterson. It also removed the scuffling Craig from his lineup.

Typically, when a veteran’s July 31st departure opens up an everyday job for a rookie, the veteran is going to a contender and the rookie is stepping in for a club that’s playing for the future. But that wasn’t the case here. As Jason Parks noted in his write-up of the Lackey deal, Mozeliak “removed one obstacle that might’ve been blocking [an Oscar Taveras] flourish.”

Before Thursday, the 22-year-old Taveras hadn’t done much to justify faith from upstairs. He was the no. 3 prospect on Parks’ preseason top 101 list, but through 101 big-league plate appearances, he’d amassed a .208/.238/.271 line. Taveras had as many double-play balls (four) as extra-base hits. He hadn’t homered since May 31st, the day his major league debut.

Batting seventh and playing right field at Petco Park on Thursday, Taveras changed all of that with one swing:

The second-inning long ball off Odrisamer Despaigne broke a scoreless tie. Jedd Gyorko and Will Venable knotted the score at 2-2 with solo shots in the bottom half of the frame. But the Cardinals outfield was just getting started.

In the top of the third, Matt Carpenter reached on a one-out infield single and Kolten Wong doubled to put two men in scoring position for Matt Holliday. The left fielder put both biscuits in the basket with a single.

Those would be the game-winning runs. But just to be sure, Peter Bourjos tacked on one more with a base hit in the sixth, and Carpenter drew a bases-loaded walk in that inning to bring the final score to 6-2.

The victory was the Cardinals’ first in the three-game series and their third in the last nine games. They went 2-4 on what should have been a cakewalk road trip to Wrigley Field and Petco, and will need to sharpen up with the first-place Brewers coming to town this evening.

***

In the ever-tightening American League West race, the A’s—who were off on Thursday—made their biggest move upstairs while most West Coasters were still asleep. At the end of the day, the Angels—who were quiet at the trade deadline—countered with a victory that brought them back within two games of the division lead.

The series finale at Camden Yards featured plenty of great pitching, and some of the best was done by Angels starter Tyler Skaggs. He retired 14 Orioles, half of them via strikeout, without permitting a hit. But then Skaggs felt pain in his left forearm, called for the trainer, and left the game.

Fortunately for the Halos, the ailment appears to merely be tightness, with no associated structural damage. Unfortunately, reliever Mike Morin allowed a single to Caleb Joseph, the first batter he faced, to end the no-hitter. Morin stranded Joseph by coaxing a harmless fly ball from Jonathan Schoop to preserve the scoreless tie.

Meanwhile, Bud Norris was both healthy and cruising. He kept the visitors off the board for seven innings, scattering eight hits—seven singles and an Albert Pujols double—while walking one and fanning four. The fine effort lowered Norris’ ERA to 3.69, and it was fallowed by two dominant frames from Brad Brach, who made up for the O’s failure to score against the Angels bullpen in regulation play.

Trouble is, the home nine couldn't crack the Halos even with 12 extra outs at its disposal. Cory Rasmus struck out four Orioles over two scoreless innings, and Hector Santiago worked around two hits and two walks to send the game to the 13th.

And that’s when Ryan Webb caved.

The right-hander issued a leadoff walk to Kole Calhoun, and then allowed a single to Mike Trout, which put runners at the corners with nobody out. Pujols singled home Calhoun, Huston Street chipped in a scoreless 13th to earn the save, and that was that.

***

Skaggs wasn’t the only lefty who left with an arm ailment on Thursday. Cliff Lee did, too.

The state of Lee’s arm, and in particular his forearm—where a flexor-pronator strain KO'd him for two months—was already a source of concern to the Phillies and any teams interested in obtaining him to bolster their rotations. Lee’s contract, which pays him $48 million through the end of the 2015 season, was also an unwanted burden, but that’s a separate story that now appears moot.

After pulling himself from the game, Lee sat dejected in the Phillies dugout, aware of the extent of his injury without any further evaluation. He’d re-strained the flexor pronator, which cost him 57 games between May 19th and July 21st. If he misses 57 more, he won’t return in 2014.

Thus, any contenders who were eyeing Lee in waiver deals, not wanting to part with prospect talent to acquire him before the deadline, will now have to look elsewhere to bolster their starting fives. The Phillies pounded Gio Gonzalez and routed the Nationals, 12-4, but that’s little consolation for what might be a season-ending injury to their no. 2 starter.

***

Dominant outings by Clayton Kershaw are the norm these days, leaving little unsaid about the left-hander’s brilliance. His latest show, put on in front of the home crowd at Chavez Ravine, was a complete-game, one-run victory over the Braves in which Kershaw did not allow an extra-base hit.

The 26-year-old struck out nine without walking a batter, and he got 15 of his 17 in-play outs on ground balls. The Braves hit into three double plays, and they didn't score until the ninth.

By then, the Dodgers were already up by two, thanks in part to a third-inning solo homer by Yasiel Puig. The Cuban import also walked and scored on an Adrian Gonzalez double in the first inning, so he was the man who touched the plate on both Los Angeles runs.

That enabled Kershaw to continue his assault on the franchise’s history books

and the Dodgers to win their sixth straight, padding their National League West division lead to a season-high 3 1/2 games.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Kershaw had a little help from his second baseman. Take it away, Dee Gordon:

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Amid the most entertaining deadline day in years (ever?), ESPN’s Jayson Stark sent this tweet:

There was no fire to go with that smoke, of course, so Latos remains at the front of the Reds rotation. Tonight, he’ll take on the Marlins, who have quietly snuck up on the slipping Cincinnati club and, at the start of play on Thursday, had an identical 53-54 ledger, 4 1/2 back of the second wild card spot. The Marlins bought—Jarred Cosart and Enrique Hernandez from the Astros—while the Reds stood pat. Latos figures to see Hernandez in the home lineup in game two of four at Marlins Park (7:10 p.m. ET)

***

The Brewers-Cardinals showdown begins with what should be a fine duel between right-handers Wily Peralta and Adam Wainwright. The 25-year-old Peralta has emerged as Ron Roenicke’s most consistent starter, and he tossed seven innings of one-run (zero earned) ball against the Redbirds on July 13th. Meanwhile, Wainwright remains neck-and-neck with Clayton Kershaw in the National League Cy Young Award race, though he’s stumbled a bit of late, posting only a 7-to-7 K:BB ratio over his last two starts. Wainwright held the Brewers to two runs in seven frames on July 12th (8:15 p.m. ET).

Saturday
Jeff Samardzija’s first A’s impression was a good one: seven innings of one-run ball versus the Blue Jays on July 6th. Jason Hammel’s went less well: five innings of three-run work versus the Giants three days later, a shaky outing that still represents his best work for Oakland. Tomorrow, Jon Lester gets his first try in green and gold after coming west in the first deal struck on a wild deadline day. He blanked Kansas City for eight frames on July 20th, and will try to stifle Ned Yost’s club again with a different uniform on his back (4:05 p.m ET).

***

Saturday’s Cardinals starter was a mystery for a while, with general manager John Mozeliak involved in trade discussions regarding multiple pitchers. On Wednesday, he pulled the trigger on a barter that brought Justin Masterson to St. Louis in exchange for outfield prospect James Ramsey, setting Masterson up to make his debut in the middle match at Busch Stadium. The former Indian will take on rookie Jimmy Nelson on Saturday night (7:15 p.m. ET).

Sunday
Got plans for Sunday afternoon? Now’s the time to break them, because it’s Cole Hamels and Stephen Strasburg in the series finale between the Phillies and Nationals. Hamels remains with the only organization that he’s ever known after trade winds swirled and subsided before Thursday’s deadline. He turned in eight shutout innings to defeat the Mets on Tuesday and has worked at least seven frames while permitting no more than one run in each of his last three starts, racking up a 27-to-1 K:BB during that span. Strasburg hasn’t been quite as sharp of late, taking a loss in three straight trips, although he limited the Marlins to a run in seven innings his last time out (1:35 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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