Archive for the ‘Santana’ Category

A Tale of Two Aces

June 26, 2009

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and all that crap.

Sometimes, the final score of a game not only doesn’t tell the whole story, it totally misses the whole point of that story. And sometimes, when the danged score totally drops the ball like that, GameDay’s got its back.

Chris Carpenter was, as he’s been whenever healthy since first setting foot in St. Louis in 2004, outstanding yesterday. After hitting Alex Cora to start the game, Carpenter retired the next nine hitters, and made it look easy. If you flip through the GameDay link, you’ll see nothing but 92-MPH sinking fastballs at the knees; sharp sliders exactly hitting the low-outside corner against RH hitters or riding in on the hands of LH hitters; and two-strike curveballs suddenly diving into the dirt. For those first three innings, it was like a video game; every pitch he threw (except that first time to Cora) went exactly where you would assume he would’ve wanted it in that situation. He turned human after that, but only a little, still hitting his spots with all his pitches with alarming regularity.

On the other hand, Carp’s opponent yesterday was none other than probably the best pitcher of the ‘aughts (I figure it’s got to be him or Randy Johnson, right?), Johan Santana. And what is wrong with that guy? Through the first two innings, Santana threw 17 strikes and 16 balls. He wasn’t striking out anybody. His GameDay log shows fastballs left over the middle of the plate, and his usually-awesome changeup (which should generally be down in the zone) left well up and away to most hitters. He was all over the place, especially early. He loaded the bases in the second with Albert Pujols coming up, and gave him a 93-MPH fastball right in Albert’s wheelhouse that Pujols came just a few feet short of converting into four runs.

The story is also told by how the pitchers fared against each other: in his first two at-bats, Carpenter singled on the first pitch and then drew a walk. Santana struck out on three pitches and then popped out to very shallow right.

For the day, Carpenter pitched 7 innings; threw only 82 pitches (he was pulled for a pinch hitter; just another persuasive argument in favor of the DH rule), but 64 of them (78%) for strikes; allowed four hits, three singles and a double; and walked none while striking out five. He did hit the one batter.

Santana also threw 7 innings, but required 110 pitches, 74 of them strikes (67%, a huge improvement given his 50/50 start). He allowed 7 hits, one of them a double. He walked three and struck out only three.

But here’s the catch: all four of the hits Carpenter allowed came in the fourth inning. They led to three runs. Ignore that little HBP to lead off the game, and Carpenter authored six perfect innings and one clunker (though it’s not as though he was hit terribly hard even in that inning). Meanwhile, what with the Pujols near-grand slam and all, Santana stranded eight runners on base, permitting only two runs. The Mets bullpen held on (barely, with some nerve-racking wildness by K-Rod), giving Santana the “win” and Carpenter the “loss.”

And today, you’ll probably read about how Santana might be back on track after picking up the win in St. Louis. But that just doesn’t tell the story of this game at all. These are two guys who are going in opposite directions.

In Santana’s last 7 starts before yesterday, he had gone 43 innings, given up 10 HR and posted a 5.82 ERA, striking out 37 and walking 14; that’s 3 fewer innings, 1 more walk, 23 fewer strikeouts and 8 more HR than he put up over his first seven starts. This one will make his ERA over that stretch look a lot better, and it’s nice that he managed not to allow a HR for the first time in eight appearances…but there’s not a lot to feel hopeful about here. This isn’t the Santana of those first seven starts, and you have to start wondering if something is a little wrong with the guy.

Meanwhile, in his entire nine-start, injury-shortened season, Carpenter has been consistently fantastic, with a 1.53 ERA, 43 strikeouts against just 9 walks, and just 3 HR in 58 2/3 innings. Yesterday, he took his second “loss” in his last three starts, and allowed exactly three earned runs for the third time in his last four. But make no mistake: Carpenter has shown conclusively that, injuries and all, he’s still a truly great pitcher. And the “L” by his name in the boxscore and the one unlucky inning don’t change the fact that, in this particular matchup of former Cy Young Award winners on this particular day, he was the better pitcher, and it wasn’t even remotely close.

Gameblog #2: Braves at Mets

May 12, 2009

You might think that a guy with a family and a very full-time job whose blog just got linked to by the great Rob Neyer might realize that he’d already pretty much peaked as a baseball blogger and hang it up right there. Mais non! Not us! Like Pete Rose, we’ll keep selfishly pencilling ourselves into the lineup long after we’ve become pathetic, fleshy mockeries of our old selves. And like Queen Victoria, we’ll refer to ourselves as “we,” if only for purposes of this paragraph.

Warmups
Broadcast: Atlanta; Chip Caray and Joe Simpson.
Pitchers: Atlanta’s Derek Lowe (4-1, 3.98 ERA, 3.60 FIP) vs. New York’s Johan Santana. (4-1, 0.91, 2.02).

With only four games on the night’s entire schedule, how do you pass up this matchup? Atlanta radio broadcaster Don Sutton is a Hall of Famer, and just edges out Lowe for the title of “Second-Greatest Pitcher Involved in Tonight’s Game.”
PeachTree TV isn’t showing commercials to we Extra Innings folk; we just see a silent long view of the field for two or three minutes. I haven’t watched any Braves broadcasts yet; is this normal for them?
Sadly, each team is down one big, aging piece for tonight’s tussle: both Chipper Jones and Carlos Delgado are on the shelf. I have to say, there’s a whole lot stacked against the visitors coming into this one. Atlanta needs Larry much more than Queens needs Carlos.

First Inning

Kelly Johnson swings at the first pitch and makes the first out, which as a leadoff hitter should probably earn him a fine or something. But that’s as good as it gets for Santana, as three of the next four guys come up with singles, the last of which leads to an unearned run on a bad throw by Wright that substitute first baseman Fernando Tatis can’t handle. Probably most important is that, first-pitch out and all, Santana needs 27 pitches to get through the inning.

The graphic says “Derek Lowe – Last Start — Defeated Marlins,” and then gives his line: 5 innings, 7 hits, 6 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. Sorry, no: the Marlins hitters defeated Lowe. That he happened to leave with a lead his team didn’t relinquish doesn’t make his performance one in which he “defeated” anybody. To his credit, Lowe himself is very aware of that. He takes 1/3 as many pitches as Santana to get through his inning, following up a walk with an easy double play. It’s good to be probably the most extreme ground ball pitcher in the bigs.

Second Inning

Hey, guess what? Jeff Francouer swung at the first pitch! And the second! And the third! And the fourth! He struck out, but Santana just isn’t sharp so far. Quite a few more pitches, but no damage done.

After the costly first-inning error and a strikeout here, the Mets fans (some of them) are booing David Wright. And yeah, he’s a little down so far (and has been especially horrible in the field, costing his team 1.6 runs already according to UZR), but he’s still your best player and one of the best in the game. Chill out, folks. A good, long AB by Tatis keeps it from being another insanly quick inning for Lowe, but it’s 1-2-3 nonetheless.

Third Inning

Chip and Joe are talking about how hard it is to hit homers here in the Mets’ new park (it is quite big, but ESPN’s park factors, which actually don’t mean anything at all yet, have it at .973 for homers, making it just a tick shy of the average). They both seem to believe that the answer to what they perceive as a pitching shortage is for everybody to build bigger ballparks…but that’s insanely stupid. Santana looks much better now, though he’s still not JOHAN SANTANA tonight.
Derek Lowe facing off against Jeremy Reed, Omir Santos and the pitcher: how do you suppose that went? Faced the minimum through three.

Fourth Inning

Casey Kotchman does his best Kelly Johnson/Jeff Francouer impression, popping out to the catcher on the first pitch. The real Francouer actually takes a pitch, then swings wildly at the next two and flies out harmlessly. He’s a terrible, terrible player, folks. Now Santana is rolling.

The answer to the Toyota Tacoma Trivia Question: the only 3 pitchers in Braves history to have 4 strikeouts in 1 inning are Phil Niekro, Paul Assenmacher, and Mark Wohlers. A question I can’t tell you the answer to: if you’re Jose Reyes, and you walk, and you’ve got an extreme GB pitcher on the mound, how are you not taking second base on the first pitch? He doesn’t run, and Castillo predictably erases him on a DP. If Reyes takes second there, he scores easily on the Mets’ first hit of the night, a sharp single into right by Beltran. Lowe got hit hard this inning, though, and I’m starting to think Santana has the edge again.

Fifth Inning

You can tell by the way Lowe swings the bat that he was born to pitch (preferably in the AL, or as a closer). To be fair, Kelly Johnson doesn’t look much better. Santana loses focus a bit after that, though, walking Escobar on four pitches and throwing a whole bunch of pitches to Martin Prado. Still one-zip halfway through the game.

This is pretty much how an ace pitcher has to get in trouble on a night like this: one sharp single to right, and a bouncer that would’ve been a third double play if it didn’t happen to bounce too high for Kotchman and into right. First and third, one out, and Omir Santos hits a sac fly to Francouer. 1-1 now.

Sixth Inning

Santana throws three straight absolutely unhittable strikes to Brian McCann, the best hitter in Atlanta’s lineup tonight. Caray says “91 pitches for Santana, but that’s not an issue — he’s pitching great tonight.” Um, Chip? You’re dumb. To Simpson’s credit, he immediately points that out (though not in so many words). Diaz singles and Kotchman gets absolutely drilled on the hand because he started to swing, and I hope he’s all right, but that really shouldn’t get you a free base. Guess what, though? Francouer swung at the first pitch! He’s now seen eight pitches and swung at seven of them. Also, he’s dumb. Santana gets out of trouble, but at around a hundred pitches, despite what Chip says, he might be done for the night.

Bottom 6 — nothing at all happens. Lowe is good.

Seventh Inning

Santana does actually come out for the seventh, and immediately goes to 3-0 on Lowe before pumping three BP fastballs down the middle to claim the automatic out that’s rightfully his. Then he gives up a broken-bat single to Kelly Johnson, and then Manuel makes the very curious decision to take him out. Why the hell would you do that then? Parnell is in to face just two batters, and then Manuel goes back to a lefty reliever, so he’s used three pitchers where he probably could’ve used just one. Anyway, it should work, but then Reyes bobbles a ball on about the seventieth bounce, and the bases are loaded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shortstop boot a chance that easy. Then the wheels kind of predictably come off, with four more unearned runs coming in on a pair of singles. This is looking like yet another tough-luck loss for Santana. Even Francouer manages a hit, off the fourth Mets pitcher of the inning, before they finally limp out of it. Manuel is gonna get skewered in the papers tomorrow for taking Johan out.

Wright leads off with a double off the base of the wall in deepest center that was just destroyed; no doubt the Mets fans and press will get on him for hitting a “meaningless” double…unless of course it ignites a Met rally to help surmount this very surmountable four-run deficit. It doesn’t; Wright scores, and Lowe comes out, but that’s it, and it’s 5-2, and thus Wright is so not clutch.


Eighth Inning

Greg Norton pinch hits and singles, and then Kelly Johnson celebrates not having to face Johan anymore by hitting a grounder to the shortstop position on a first-pitch hit-and-run; that’s what they call “perfectly executed” (but how much control does he have over it, really? How much can Johnson control hitting it to the vacated shortstop position rather than, say, right over the bag, where Reyes has vacated to, for a rally-killing double play?). The few Mets fans remaining are booing rather lustily at no one in particular, but then cheer a sharp Wright-Castillo-Tatis double play, and it’s now 6-2 Atlanta.

Rafael Soriano comes in for the eighth, and this feels like a lot more than a four-run lead. Alex Cora has 0.0 chin, but a lovely .320 or so batting average after that single. There’s some sort of issue with some fans in the outfield, who waved a flag they weren’t supposed to and then flipped off Jeff Francouer. That’s pretty much the highlight of the Mets’ eighth.

Ninth Inning

Ken Takahashi, who I don’t believe is exactly 6’0″ and exactly 200 pounds (but who I do believe is very hittable tonight), is on the mound now. McCann doubles; you’d have to have figured that if this was going to be a fairly big win for the Braves minus Chipper, McCann would be something other than one-for-five with a low-leverage last-inning double. Francouer takes his second and third pitches of the night, then hits a sac fly. 7-2. Takahashi is both hittable and crazy wild, chucking up a wild pitch that bounced most of the way back to him. Jordan Schafer walks to remain the only Atlanta starter without a hit. Another single makes it 8-2, and it looks (because of course the camera only shows the corporate seats) like there are about ten people left in Citi Field.

The excellently-named Buddy Carlyle comes in with a six-run lead to protect and three outs to get. Wright reaches on an infield hit, the throw bounces off him and way up along the wall, and Wright probably could’ve ended up on third, but stays put; Chip says “Wright…thought about moving up ninety feet but he’s gotta play it safe.” Well, nobody’s gotta play it that safe. His playing it safe immediately costs the Mets, as Murphy bounces into an easy DP. Tatis doubles, so Wright would’ve been an easy run if he’d moved up. Smarter fans would boo him for that, not the other stuff. The way this inning is working out, his run could’ve been pretty important; it’s 8-3 with two on and two out, and 8-4 with two on and one out would make this a pretty different feel. Regardless, it ends 8-3, and what was a great game for the first six innings has felt like it’s taken about seven hours to end.

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Lowe gets credited with the win, which is well-deserved; Johan goes 6 1/3 and gives up 0 ER to drop his ERA 13 points to 0.78, and gets stuck with the “loss,” which is pretty much the story of Johan’s life. Fans of both teams ought to be feeling really good about their aces, and really uneasy about their bullpens.

The All-Dome Team: The Starting Pitchers

May 10, 2009

We’ve got the starting nine set. Today I had planned to cover all the pitchers and the manager, but it turns out I had a lot to say about the starting pitchers. So I’ll stop there, and pick up with yet a fourth part in a day or two.

The ballot, for whatever reason, has room for three starting pitchers and two relievers. So that’s what we’ll be doing, too.

#1 Starter: Johan Santana (1308.2 IP, 93-44, 3.22 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1381 K)
Well, that’s not hard. Johan wasted away in the bullpen for what felt to many of us like a very long time, at least a year after everyone had figured out that he was the best pitcher on the team, but then stepped into the rotation in 2004 and immediately became the best pitcher in all of baseball. He won the Cy Young Award in 2004 and 2006, and if you don’t think he also deserved it in 2005…well, I probably don’t want to hear it. Check out this comparison (FIP explained here, ERA+ here):

Name IP K ERA FIP ERA+
Colon 222.2 157 3.48 3.77 122
Santana 231.2 238 2.87 2.80 155

Just ridiculous. Every single thing that a pitcher even arguably has control over, Santana wins. No, Santana dominates. K/BB ratio? 5.29 to 3.65. HR allowed? 22 to 26. And so on. Santana was the best pitcher in the league by a very wide margin, and Colon didn’t have a particularly strong claim to being in the top five.

Yet Colon won the Cy Young, and for one reason: he pitched for a team with a better offense. Colon’s run support was an amazing 7.28, while the Twins managed a middling 5.71 for Johan. So Colon ends up with 21 “wins” against 8 losses, Santana with 16 and 7.

Now, I know I’ve cited pitcher wins a few times on here, because, well, they’re kind of fun to talk about, and easy to understand. But if you’re comparing two pretty good pitchers, wins and losses are of absolutely no use. None at all. I can’t stress that enough. Santana was your deserving Cy Young in 2005 (which would’ve made it back-to-back-to-back come ’06, and been pretty freaking cool), just as Nolan Ryan and his amazingly unlucky 8-16 record probably was in 1987. The award shouldn’t go to the pitcher whose offense outscores the other guys the most often when he’s on the mound–it should go to the best pitcher. (The killer is, Santana didn’t even come in second; Mo Rivera also impressed the voters more by appearing in roughly one-third as many innings as Santana did. I won’t even get into how ridiculous that idea is.)

I’m still a little mad about this.

Fun fact: in all his starts spanning his entire career with the Twins, the offense scored a total of exactly zero runs for him (just going by memory on that one–might be off by a couple). And yet he managed to win 67.8% of his decisions in those games. Johan is a special, special player.

#2 Starter: Brad Radke (2451 IP, 148-139, 4.22 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1467 K)
The dependable old pickup truck to Santana’s Aston Martin, Radke is another of my favorite Twins and was one of the most underrated pitchers in the game during his career. I think (without thinking about it too hard) that he’d have been #1 on many other teams’ lists from the last 20 years or so, considering especially his longevity with the team. Unfortunately for him, Johan is Johan.

I remember a very young Radke in a commercial for a baseball video game (I’m shocked that it’s not on YouTube like everything else that has ever been created, but I swear I’m not making it up). But anyway, the commercial mentioned that he’d given up a league-leading number of homers that year (which means it could’ve been after either of his first two seasons in the league, ’95 or ’96), and basically consisted of him snapping his neck around to watch the imaginary balls sail over the fence, while a literal parade of batters did kind of a conga line around the bases.

So he was a good sport, too…or else he was 22 or 23 and really needed the money.

#3 Starter: Frank Viola (1772.2 IP, 112-93, 3.88 ERA, 110 ERA+, 1214 K)
Here’s a lesson for all you aspiring little league pitchers at home about run-scoring environments: Viola’s ERA with the Twins was 34 points lower than Radke’s, but when you adjust them for the era and park and compare to league average, which is what ERA+ tries to do, they end up being almost exactly the same pitcher, with Radke just a tiny bit ahead (112 to 110).

Both Bradke and Sweet Music were changeup artists, and both were called up too early for very bad teams, putting up 5-plus ERAs at age 22 (though, again, 5-plus was a lot worse in 1982 than it was in 1995). Viola, unlike Radke, actually took a tiny step backward in season 2, but he broke out in a big way in season 3 (1984), going 18-12 with a 131 ERA+ and finishing in the top ten in wins, ERA, WHIP, IP, strikeouts, starts, complete games, shutouts, and the Cy Young voting.

His years to remember, though, were 1987 and 1988. In the first, he won 17 games with a 159 ERA+, finished 6th in the Cy Young voting (should probably have finished third, but it’s those pesky “win” totals again) and was named World Series MVP. In the second, he had almost the exact same year (four more innings, 12 fewer hits, six fewer walks, four fewer Ks, 153 ERA+), but:

(a) his ERA artificially looked better, because the league had had a sudden offensive spike in 1987 and came back to earth in ’88; and, more importantly,

(b) he won 24 games instead of 17, mostly because the 1988 Twins, who won 91 and missed the playoffs, were actually a much better team than the 1987 squad that somehow won 85 and the Series.

Viola ran away with the Cy Young Award in ’88, of course, with 27 of the 28 first-place votes (24 wins!!!!11!1!), and probably did deserve it — but that’s because the field was weaker, not because the 24-win pitcher was any better than the 17-win one from the year before. But they were both unquestionably great seasons. His ’82 and ’83 drag his numbers down (and he was roughly average in ’85 and ’86, which doesn’t help either), but he was one of the best pitchers in the league for four of the eight seasons that he wore the uniform, and that’s certainly something. So the similarities to Radke are actually pretty superficial. Radke’s great contribution was being consistently good, but he was never great, whereas Viola was never good, not once; awful and average and (especially) great, sure, but never “good.”

Even better: Viola’s midseason trade to the Mets in 1989 brought four young pitchers back, three of whom played vitally important roles in the 1991 Series championship: Kevin Tapani, David West, and someone who I’m very sure will make an appearance next time.

Runners-up: You know, no one else is even all that close. Consider: Allan Anderson, Eric Milton, and Jack Morris[‘ single season with the team] all make the ballot. And there are only eleven names on it! Tapani had his lights-out ’91 and four other average seasons, and two of Bert Blyleven’s three were pretty good (he had many more great years with the Twins, of course, but all in his first tour of duty, back at the old Met), and Scott Erickson’s first three were excellent.

In all, though, it’s a very good thing that the Dome-era Twins have had three really good pitchers, because there’s nobody else who (considering only Bert and Jack’s Dome years)) you’d want to see on an all-time anything anywhere. Absolutely nothing wrong with the top three, though.