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August 17, 2017

What You Need to Know

The Thin Line Between Diaz and Rzepczynski

by Ben Diamond


The Wednesday Takeaway

One of the most underrated feats of athleticism in baseball is a pitcher’s ability to repeat his motion with near perfection: generating and accurately placing 95 mph fastballs, whirring sliders, and gravity-defying curveballs means synchronizing long levers with mind-boggling precision. Finding the golden combination that works just once is challenging enough, making a carbon copy and replicating that motion up to a hundred times in a start is why there’s only a handful of humans in the world capable of starting in the big leagues.

When the cacophony of body parts unites into a brilliant and smooth delivery, the results can be electric. But when the leg kick is just slightly off-kilter, the arm slot is a tad different, or the hip-twist isn’t as twisty, things can fall apart shockingly quickly.

Let’s focus in on a gangly, 6-foot-3 reliever by the name of Edwin Diaz. A max-effort arm who slings his arm like a whip across his body to push triple-digit heat through a 165-pound frame, the Mariners’ closer resembles less of a finely-tuned machine and more of a blurry dissonance of intertwined limbs. Most of the time, this planned chaos works like a charm for the fire-balling reliever. However, on Wednesday night, something was off—perhaps by just an inch—and it led to the fastball often missing its target by more than a foot.

Given a cozy 7-4 lead with which to against the Orioles, Diaz entered in the ninth inning to seal the win. He walked the leadoff batter, Caleb Joseph, after feeding him a steady diet of high-90s fastballs that couldn’t consistently find the strike zone. It grew worse on the next batter, as Seth Smith walked on four straight pitches. Tim Beckham followed suit to load the bases, and a Manny Machado sacrifice fly (more on this play later) cut the lead to two. Diaz found his groove for a batter, disposing Jonathan Schoop on a five-pitch strikeout, but quickly lost it again, hitting the next two batters to bring home another run.

With two outs, the bases filled, and a three-run lead cut to one, things weren’t looking good for the Mariners. Enter: Marc Rzepczynski. Cutting through the wildness and confusion of his predecessor, Rzepczynski was cool, calm, and collected on the mound, quietly neutralizing the threat by retiring Chris Davis on a three-pitch strikeout to lock down a terrifying win.

Diaz is sure to recover from his bout of wildness and return to his shutdown ways in due time, but Wednesday’s minor calamity was a valuable reminder of just how thin the line is between greatness and helplessness. The problem may be as simple as the “front side flying out,” per manager Scott Servais, but the results can be complicated and terrifying, especially when the bases are loaded with a slim lead on the line.

Quick Hits

Aaron Judge has been bad in the second half. As in, 2016-cup-of-coffee bad. The kind of performance that crushed his prospect stock and nearly cost him a spot on the 2017 Opening Day roster. Since winning the Home Run Derby and capping off a historic first half of baseball, Judge is hitting .175/.344/.390 with a 37.4 percent strikeout rate. It isn’t all bad luck, and it isn’t just random variance—the 6-foot-7 slugger is simply mired in a brutal slump that has robbed him of timing and pitch recognition.

Despite this 30-game funk, Judge still holds a very valid candidacy for the American League MVP and already has the Rookie of the Year award locked up. That’s because he was good in the first half. As in, the kind of performance where you can compare him to Babe Ruth and nobody’s going to throw your computer out the window. As much as the recent poor performance has sunk his stats, Judge still carries a .290/.421/.609 slash line with 36 home runs.

Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying that, as bad as Judge has been of late, there’s a reason why his full-season totals still look so amazing. The person who set the world on fire for the first half of the year is still in there, so as bad as Judge may look right now, the astonishing talent cannot be ignored. It’s going to shine through at some point, and it may very well blind the doubters. Or, it may just give a poor fan in the nosebleed seats, sitting in the third deck at Citi Field, an unexpected concussion. Watch the talent at display here, and then just try to be bearish on his rest-of-the-season prospects:

***

The Cardinals have been on fire of late, coming into this week with an eight-game winning streak and surging straight into the playoff race. They started off Wednesday’s game against the Red Sox in similar fashion, banging out a barrage of hits in the second inning to score four runs off Eduardo Rodriguez. While Boston got back a pair in the third, that score held for the next five innings and it looked like the Cardinals were going to get one game closer to an NL Central lead. Then, things went south.

Trevor Rosenthal’s second pitch in the bottom of the ninth was turned around by Xander Bogaerts and deposited into the left-center bleachers for a solo shot. The next batter, Mitch Moreland, walked, and Rosenthal was lifted in a hurry.

Zach Duke hit the ground running with a strikeout of Brock Holt, but walked Jackie Bradley Jr. and was promptly removed from the game as well. In walked John Brebbia, a rather anonymous 27-year-old rookie who’s having a standout season for the Cardinals. Unfortunately, he’d be the goat of the night in Boston. Looking for his first career save, Brebbia didn’t have an easy task ahead—going against the top of Boston’s order with a one-run lead, two men on base, and just one out is an unenviable position to be in.

He got off to a nice start, though, getting ahead 0-2 on Eduardo Nunez, before it got a bit weird. There were a few angry people involved in the following sequence, but no one more so than Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. A late timeout call by home plate umpire Chris Segal sparked some words from catcher Yadier Molina, then even more inauspicious phrases from a charging Matheny.

Maybe Matheny had a point, and maybe this was turning into just a bit of an #umpshow, but, hell, it’s hard to imagine a worse time to pick a fight with an umpire. Sure, he was trying to keep his catcher out of trouble initially, but Matheny’s defense quickly devolved into a red-faced, profanity-laced tirade that served as a significant distraction for all parties involved and did a pretty good job of snapping Brebbia out of a groove.

In a low-leverage situation, I wouldn’t be so critical of the manager. But Matheny should, well, read the room in this instance and put his emotions aside for his team’s sake. At the moment, they didn’t need an inspirational ejection, they needed order and for Brebbia to keep doing what he was doing. Instead, Matheny did a solid job of turning an ump show into a manager show, while also swinging the momentum pendulum into the wrong direction.

Brebbia stepped back on the rubber after a few minutes of fireworks, and while he did get Nunez to pop out, the good news stopped there for Cardinals fans:

***

For a starting pitcher in the big leagues, Clayton Richard doesn’t do a lot of things well. He has shaky command, doesn’t strike guys out, can’t stay healthy, and, most damningly of all, is in the Padres' rotation. Unsurprisingly, this had led to a disappointing season: a 5.14 ERA, 6.44 DRA, and -1.5 WARP aren’t so hot, even for a pitcher in San Diego. But Richard is good at one thing, and fortunately for him he’s very good at this one thing. The southpaw’s heavy sinker has enabled him to become elite at inducing ground balls and was a key piece to the puzzle on Wednesday when Richards dominated a helpless Phillies lineup.


Tossing a shutout while striking out six on just three hits and a walk, 25 of Richards’ pitches were put into play and 21 of them were ground balls. That’s good for an absurd 84 percent ground-ball rate on Wednesday, a statistic which explains Richards’ sans-whiffs brilliance (the Phillies are also second-to-last in baseball in runs, but shhh).

***

They say every good story should have its fair share of ups and downs, and the Cubs’ 2017 season sure fits the bill thus far. Coincidentally, so did Wednesday’s thrilling victory against the Reds. While win probability graphs are all the rage right now, here’s a "fan morale" graph that I’ve constructed, unscientifically based off Twitter’s reactions, to represent the rollercoaster ride that was the 7-6 win.

I think that tells most of the story, but I’ll fill in the cracks: an Anthony Rizzo grand slam got the Cubs off to an exciting 4-1 lead in the first inning, and the score only grew more favorable as the game went on, growing to a 6-1 margin by the seventh inning.


Then ... Hector Rondon happened. A Phillip Ervin solo shot, quickly followed by a two-run home run by Zack Cozart, brought the score to 6-4. The following inning, Adam Duvall stepped to the plate against the normally solid Carl Edwards Jr. and did an unkind thing to the baseball for his 28th home run of the season, tying the game at six.

Closer Wade Davis held the score there in the top of the ninth inning, and the Cubs went to work in the bottom half of the frame. Javier Baez led off with a double, Jon Jay walked, and Ben Zobrist advanced Baez to third base (and Jay to second) on a ground ball. Then, two batters later, pitcher Blake Wood spiked a slider, allowing Baez to dash home for a walk-off wild pitch.

***

The Dodgers were down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning and one away, but nobody really expected the Best Team in BaseballTM to lose to the White Sox. Well, at the very least, we know the Dodgers certainly had bigger plans on their mind. I mean, if you didn’t see a walk-off coming when Aaron Bummer headed to the mound, then you need to reevaluate everything.

Anyway, now that I’ve spoiled the ending, let’s get to it. Perhaps the player who most embodies the Dodgers’ spirit this season is Yasiel Puig, so it was only natural that he was the one to deliver the winning blow: on a 3-2 count, Puig drilled a heater from Jake Petricka into center to drive home Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes.

Defensive Play of the Day

I touched upon this briefly earlier, but that “Manny Machado sacrifice fly” wasn’t nearly as ordinary as I made it out to be. It wasn’t the classic can of corn that was just deep enough to bring home a run. Instead, it was very nearly a two-RBI hit, one that would’ve pulled the Orioles to within one run with no outs and a runner in scoring position. But Leonys Martin, displaying excellent range, made a crucial sliding catch, one that was potentially a game-saver.

What to Watch Thursday

Thursday’s action kicks off at 1:10 pm ET with Carlos Carrasco (3.83 ERA) facing off against the Twins. Carrasco’s come close to a no-hitter a couple times this season, and made it into the seventh inning in his last start, so this could be a fun game to watch (if I didn’t just jinx it).

Later in the day, catch Rays’ ace Chris Archer (3.84 ERA) throw in Toronto at 4:07 pm ET. Once that game’s over, flip the channel over to the Subway Series finale, with Luis Severino (3.32 ERA) and the Yankees looking for the sweep against Steven Matz (5.54 ERA) and the Mets.


If you really want some fun, you’ll have to catch the Indians and Twins’ second game of the day, featuring an enticing pitching matchup between Ryan Merritt and Aaron Slegers. If neither name sounds familiar, don’t despair, the duo have combined for five MLB innings in 2017.

Back to non-sarcasm: Reynaldo Lopez’s electric fastball will be on display at 8:05 pm ET against the Rangers, and Aaron Nola (3.02 ERA) will look to continue shrinking his second-half ERA down from 1.85 against the Giants at 10:15 pm ET.

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

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