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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Foul, Foul, Foul, Oops: Blue Jays 10, Angels 4

The most annoying thing about Jered Weaver, bar none, when he is off is watching his opponents foul dozens of balls away. It's usually the biggest single indicator that's something's wrong, and even though his fastball velocity from the stadium gun was at 90 MPH, the bottom end of his effectiveness range, he just wasn't fooling the Jays' batters. Alex Rios in particular got into 11- and 9-pitch extravaganzas in the first and third innings, the former ending in a strikeout, but the latter ending in a single that would eventually score. That is, Weaver just wasn't able to put anybody away economically, the following three-pitch-or-fewer exceptions duly noted: In all other cases, Weaver either delivered up a hit or else he got into a protracted battle for the out. Some of me wonders whether this is just psychology; I imagine the Weav still fancies himself a strikeout pitcher from his college days, which is fine, except that shtick isn't going to work in the majors when his fastball isn't quite as fast as it needs to be. It elevates his pitch count. He really ought to have a chat with Hokie Joe about pitching to contact without getting hung up on those strikeouts.

Not that the rest of the bullpen was really any better. In the fifth, Scioscia brought in Darren Oliver, who just seemed rushed to the mound and didn't pitch well in relief of Weaver. Oh, he got the first batter he faced in Matt Stairs on a three-pitch strikeout, but then he got to a 3-1 count to Lyle Overbay — who had already homered — and promptly gave up an RBI single. He followed that with a wild pitch in Rod Barajas' at-bat that moved Overbay and Scott Rolen to second and third. Perhaps out of some sense that he was being given an easy RBI, or perhaps from sheer spite, Barajas rolled one to second, especially since the Angels didn't immediately move the infield in to cut off a run at the plate.

At that point, though, Mike was probably already throwing in the towel. Even if they had held the line, expecting this offense to overcome a two-run deficit when they had already taxed themselves to score three (it was 5-3 before Barajas' groundout) and put up enough runs to win the game while calculating enough margin for a leaky bullpen... well, best to think about tomorrow.

The other pitchers gave up runs; everyone did, Justin Speier on a solo homer, and Chris Bootcheck in a weak showing (as they all have been) in the eighth, and an even drearier ninth that just dragged on endlessly as he walked and singled the bases loaded while getting a pair of strikeouts for his first two outs, and mercifully ending the torture with a 4-3 groundout of utilityman Joe Inglett, substituting for Shannon Stewart. Stewart (1-for-5), Rod Barajas (1-for-4), and returning David Eckstein (0-for-4) were the only Jays starters with less than two hits all night, and even Eckstein got a walk, off Bootcheck.

It probably won't come as any surprise to anyone that Vlad Guerrero really doesn't strike out that much when he's going well. For that reason, you may be interested to know that he's struck out three times in one game only 19 times in his career. Most of those were in his 1998 season as a 22-year-old in his first full season in the majors, something you can excuse. But what kind of pops out at me are the three times he pulled the hat trick in July, 2002. It was before his anomalous injury year of 2003, in which he only manufactured two games with three or more whiffs, probably due to a lack of practice, since he played in 112 games instead of his usual 155-160. Joe Sheehan said in a BPro chat
He'll perk up a bit, especially in the BA department, but this is the other side of the mountain for Guerrero. He's physically breaking down, which will limit his performance. It will be interesting to see what the market is for him next year.
His banged-up body got that much worse when he fouled a pitch off either his ankle or his knee (the radio booth didn't say definitively, but they leaned toward the knee at the end) in the bottom of the sixth, but Scioscia kept him in until his final at-bat in the eighth, lifting him for another semi-functional player, Juan Rivera. If Vlad keeps assembling nights like this one, even finding a pinch-hitting role as a free agent might be a stretch.

Not that Vlad was particularly horrible, because there were a lot of 0-fers on this lineup; the 1-4 batters collectively hit 1-for-15 with a walk, which is just not getting it done. Maicer Izturis is an interesting utility player, and at times he can fool you into thinking he's a regular, but as with his half-brother Cesar, they both seem to share a physical fragility that limits their playing time. Unfortunately for Maicer, and unlike the early 2000's Dodgers, the Angels will ultimately have a better player at that position available soon (we hope).

The good news, of course, came from the five and six place hitters, namely Hunter and Kotchman, with Kotchman driving in two of the Angels' four runs. Howie Kendrick, appearing in an Angels uniform for the first time since his injury, was 0-for-3 with a scoring sacrifice fly, so at least he was productive, unlike Brandon Wood or Mike Napoli, both 0-fers. I'm beginning to reconsider my Mickey Tettleton comparison for Napoli; he may not make enough consistent contact for that to work. I expect Jeff Mathis will get another call shortly.

Gary Matthews, Jr., whose offense seems to be limited to one positive outcome per game no matter what else happens, extended his nearly emptiest-possible hitting streak to six games with an infield hit that he ultimately used to manufacture a run on what was admittedly a very exciting play in the third. With Izturis reaching on a walk, Matthews bunted the ball left of the mound. Rolen and the Jays pitcher, Dustin McGowan, both charged the ball. McGowan fielded it but threw it up the first base line, allowing Izturis to easily get to third. With both runners barreling halfway to home and third, that presented a challenge to the Jays' right fielder, Brad Wilkerson, as to who to throw out. Wilkerson went with Matthews, and while he did record the out, the run scored.

Later on in the game, Reggie Willits was called upon for a late-innings pinch-hitting role, and once again he succeeded, reaching base by means of a leadoff walk in the seventh, and subsequently stealing second. There he was stranded, through no fault of his own. Given the inconsistent playing time, it's amazing he keeps his OBP as high as he does. In this game, the kids get no love, and the overpaid salarymen kill the lineup. How long can this go on?

Finally, some miscellany to leaven things:

ESPN BoxRecap

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Napoli vs. Tettleton, through their age 26 years:

MT: .221/.327/.360, 78/81 R/RBI, 22HRs & 108 BBs in 709 ABs
MN: .233/.347/.460, 101/99 R/RBI, 36 HRs & 96 BBs in 596 ABs

Tettleton's OPS+s his first four years ranged from 68 to 103. Nap's have stayed between 107 and 120.

Will Napoli's K rate prevent him from making the leap forward Tettleton made from ages 28-34? I dunno, the Mick's lifetime K rate was 27.8%; Napoli's is 31.2%.
Napoli is one of the streakiest hitters I've ever seen. His final numbers in any given season will usually depend on whether he ends on a hot or a cold note. When cold, he usually dips to .225-.230, but when he's hot, it will run up into the .250s. I expect to see him up around there again this season, and back down, and back up again.
Napoli came up a year later than the Mick; both seem to have steadily declining OBPs in their early seasons (Nap's in particular is heading south, .307). Tettleton got traded to Baltimore, and he almost immediately improved, learning how to hit for average (or maybe just getting some luck on balls in play, not looking), but whatever it was, he was rescued from his sub-Mendoza 1987. '89 was his first really prolific year with the longball. Looking at Tettleton's whiff rate in the first four years of his career (just to get a fix on things at approximately the same age as Napoli and with a decent sample size) he whiffed at 27.6%, in line with his career mark.
I'm just really not worried. This (rare) breed of Three True Outcomes catcher is inherently frustrating, especially during slump times, but at the end of the day the production continues to be there (and, in Napoli's case, continues to improve).

It looks to me like he's consciously traded some walks for XBHs by taking vicious cuts on 2-0 & 3-0 counts, instead of working it to two strikes like he did his rookie year. And while striking out 28-30% of the time (as he has the past two years) isn't very pretty, it does also prevent GIDPs (something this team sorely needs), and ultimately if the dude's gonna hit 36 homers for every 600 ABs out of the catcher position, I'm just not going to complain much.
Vlad hurt? He is playing the best defense of his career, catching balls on the run like never before. He is not "breaking down" he is in a slump that is as likely psychological as it is anything else.
I think it's entirely possible that Vlad's hurt, but I suspect upper body issues (which don't prevent him from getting around on defense). More likely, his bat has slowed down just enough to make him a merely average hitter, at least until he figures out how to compensate. It may be that he finally has to learn to be more selective because he can't drive as many different pitches as he used to.
Upper-body issues, or dat ol' debbil' oblique strain.

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