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You Can Learn Alot by Watching – Beware the Ides of March

March 6, 2011

Among the dangers of early March, we can list the wildly vacillating temperatures turning the road from dry, to wet to ice from day-to-day. We can discuss how the sun, now remaining with us for just that much longer will be directly in our faces as we drive West on our way home from work in the early evening. We can discuss statistics from Spring Training as well. How many players put up great numbers teeing off on opponents with no business pitching against major leaguers or even near major leaguers? How many pitchers are getting lit up as they are working on refining their deliveries? Not only do people hype the numbers against questionable opponents and uncertain circumstances, but the tyranny of sample size is also of account.

Today, March 6, 2011, we are only about a week into the rites of Spring. No batter has had more than 24 plate appearances. No pitcher has faced more than 31 batters. As impressive as he has been subbing for a not-yet-ready Aaron Hill, Jonathan Diaz is not a major league player, scrappy though he may be. J.P. Arencibia, an all-or-nothing kind of guy (over 27% of his professional at bats have ended in either strikeouts, or home runs), has been focusing on the nothing end a bit much so far, with 6 strike outs in 15 at bats. Ricky Romero has yet to get a ground ball out. Octavio Dotel has given up more hits to left-handed batters than he has recorded outs (6-4).

Forget all of that (Dotel does suck against lefties, but three hits allowed per out recorded is pushing it). Beyond the contextual dangers already mentioned, the only people who have seen these games have been in attendance. Until today, none of the Spring Training games have been televised. Today, that changes. Today, we watch baseball. And, in watching, as Yogi Berra taught us, we learn.

Welcome to Section 203.

Of course, I won’t be watching this game as I would a game in April, May or June. As a Spring Training game, with starter Ricky Romero only slated to pitch the first four innings, I don’t care about the results as much as I do about the process. Today’s game story will not even contain the final score. You can find that somewhere else. I will try to delve into areas not found on MLB.com or in their Gameday app. If any of you have tried to follow past games on Gameday, you may have noticed that Pitchfx is not really functional, only showing the in-play pitches, or the strikes in a strike out or balls from a walk. So we haven’t been able to tell how the pitchers are working, what the batters are seeing.

The Blue Jays’ bats begin the day showing patience, avoiding pitches out of the zone and only rarely swinging on top of a James McDonald curve, which has nice up-down shape. It is reasonable that there would be some swings-and-misses on his stuff as McDonald has spent his entire career in the NL, mostly with the Dodgers, before being dealt to Pittsburgh last summer for (wait for it) Octavio Dotel. Travis Snider’s mustache definitely looks good, especially as a DH – channeling Matt Stairs. Bautista still has his timing, getting around on an inner-half fastball to push a low-liner through Pedro Alvarez playing 3B for the Pirates. Yes, Corey Patterson led things off with a well-stroked double to the gap in right, but the pitch was letter-high and straight. I’d like to see how well he can handle better located pitches before declaring him the 4th outfielder. Simply by dint of Scott Podsednik’s plantar fasciitis, he has the edge, but not yet the job.

In the bottom of the first, we witness putative ace, Ricky Romero throw some curves. According the Rogers’ play-by-play duo of Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez, he did not throw benders in his first Spring appearance. His control of it is solid, throwing strikes on curves both high and low, although he lost his battle with emerging star Andrew McCutchen in a battle of wills the went beyond a full count. Arencibia missed one wayward curve with the bases empty, but appeared to have a handle on things behind the dish.

Moving to the second, Arencibia swung on the first pitch and popped up to CF, while Mike McCoy popped up on a bunt-for-a-basehit attempt. Not what you want to see from a guy fighting for a middle infield utility role. If McCoy were to make the team, he can be expected to be called upon to bunt more than your average bear. In a no pressure situation, with the Pirates’ defense not expecting a bunt, he should at least be able to put the ball on the ground. Failure to execute will usually be much costlier.

Bottom two, and Romero is pumping heat to the bottom of the strike zone, getting ahead of Steven Pearce before raising his spot and getting Pearce, a prospect in stasis, to chase for the K. Having established the curve in the strike zone, Romero can work more on his fastball location, and gets Josh Fields to ground out to second on two pitches. Then again, this point of the Pirate lineup is not of MLB-quality, so the execution is more important than the result. Witness his location against catcher Dusty Brown. Curve, change, high cheese, keep ’em guessing. If you execute, it’ll work, if not, then not. Two of his four innings down, and only one hard hit ball, that by young slugger Pedro Alvarez. Not to keep harping on my belief of Jose Bautista, but there is a comp between the two third-basemen, although Alvarez is more thickly built (and taller), bats from the left side and should tap into his potential far earlier in his career than did Bautista.

Second time through the order for the Jays, and we get a chance to see Bautista’s two-strike approach. After a foul and a curve taken in the zone, Jose watches two chase pitches to even the count. He bit on the fifth pitch, a curve down and away, but to his credit, connects. The ball went over the head of left fielder Matt Diaz  and Bautista earned himself a stand-up double. Snider’s first two swings of the afternoon were sub-optimal, getting himself into a quick 0-2 hole. He fouled off a third and held back on a curve inside. A ground-ball up the middle should have simply moved Bautista over (if you’re going to hit into an out, make it productive). We can’t credit Snider with the subsequent error on the play. Encarnacion strikes out and the Pirates lift McDonald in favour of Justin Thomas, a 4A lefty without much. Eric Thames (who bats from the left) takes a pitch on the inner half to the opposite field. It drops in for a single. Not to judge Thames based on the competition, but it is heartening to see a young lefty swinger take a good approach against a lefty pitcher with veteran moxie (if only that much) and get a good result. Rajai Davis walks (something the Jays’ hope to see a lot of this year, to better take advantage of his speed). The walk doesn’t say much about his selectivity though, as Thomas is not sharp at all today. That J.P. Arencibia fished on a low slider, and then another – his approach will need to changed, as this is not new for him. His ability to hit and hit hard is not in question, but Jays’ watchers have to question his batting eye. As fun as his debut last year was (homered on his first pitch in the majors and went 4-5 on the day), that early success may have been bad for his development. Hitting in the majors is not as easy as it first appeared.

I imagine that Bucs’ manager Clint Hurdle had hoped that James McDonald would last longer than two and two-thirds, but so it goes – it’s the pitch count that decides things this early. Romero, striking out the pitcher looks to be on pace to make it through his planned four innings. Walking Wimberley doesn’t help (second walk), but Yunel Escobar makes a very athletic play, ranging to the hole to his right to reach a Pedro Ciriaco grounder, spinning and throwing for a quick second out. Andrew McCutchen, after walking in his first plate appearance fails to handle a sharper Romero this time, chasing a 1-2 curve away for a swinging third strike. This early in the season, it is encouraging to see Romero display this much command, locating his fastball, curve and change all around the zone. Three innings, nine outs, five strike-outs.

Joel Hanrahan, a reliever with significant high-leverage MLB experience (as high as it can get pitching for Pittsburgh, and previously, Washington) takes over for Pittsburgh. Mike McCoy fares better against Hanrahan than he did against McDonald, getting into a favourable hitter’s count (3-1), before popping out to 3B. Corey Patterson has long been known as a guy with great tools, but a poor approach, as evidenced by a career OBP of .292 in an MLB career spanning nearly 4000 at bats. forgetting the result (a pop-up), he has a nice at  bat against Hanrahan, with a few loud fouls and holding off on some close pitches. He does have nice bat speed, adjusting mid-swing on one pitch to foul off what would have been a clean strike had he not adjusted.

I haven’t said much about the Jays’ defense yet, as five of the first nine Pirates’ outs did not require anything more than someone squatting behind the plate. But Edwin Encarnacion, slated to be Adam Lind’s backup this year at 1B makes a nice play on a funny-hopping grounder to retire the Buc’s lead-off hitter, catching the ball around shoe-top height and bringing it to the bag himself. I won’t be the first to think that he might be decent at 1B, as most of his errors as a third-baseman were of the throwing variety. Romero gets another K, before testing Jose Bautista at third. Bautista did not look graceful on the play, but nonetheless was effective, and Romero ends his day looking ready for the season to start, if not in terms of durability, at least with his stuff.

* * *

The game is not over (not close), but with the Pirates spinning through marginal pitchers and the Jays looking at their bullpen (Frank Francisco is slated to make his spring debut among other anticipated sightings), I will update this column with notes of interest from here on out. But interest, I don’t much mean back-to-back by Bautista and Snider off journeyman Chris Resop. That’s nice, but not especially interesting.

* In the sixth inning now, and Frank Francisco is bigger than I expected. I never noticed that his listed weight is 250lbs. He is around the zone from the start, a good sign, even through he surrenders a double to young Pedro Ciriaco on a sharply hit grounder that gets by a diving Encarnacion. Brett Lawrie is at 3B for Bautista and Anthony “Gose-Fast” takes over for Patterson in CF. It hasn’t been mentioned yet, but with the Raj in RF and either Patterson or Gose in Centre, the Jays have good wheels in the outfield. Francisco, giving Andrew McCutchen another walk, makes my earlier comment about his command look dumb. Brett Lawrie shows his inexperience at 3B as he loses to the wind in a battle for a pop-up. Lawrie ate up a lot of ground chasing it, but the wind outran him, making his route to the ball look bad. While the 3B ump called an ‘infield-fly’ early, Lawrie’s struggles, backed up by the backtracking of Arencibia, led to a meeting of blue and an overturned call, giving Francisco the chance to work out of a bases-loaded, one out jam. Now that’s interesting. Getting ahead of the next batter (Diaz), he works upstairs, to get to 2-2 and then lowers his sights eliciting a double play grounder to get out of trouble and the inning.

* Brett Lawrie has crazy bat-speed. Like Bautista earlier, he ripped a first pitch fastball on the inner half (Daniel McCutchen – no relation to Andrew, pitching for the Pirates) through the third baseman (now Garret Atkins, hoping to strain another year out of a fading career) for an infield single.

* First chance for me now to view three Jays’ tyros in the top of the eighth. First up is Darin Mastroianni. A marginal prospect, he has few tools, but what he has, he has in spades – speed. He works the count against Justin Wilson, making it to a fifth pitch before whiffing up high. Travis d’Arnaud is next, seen by many to be the true catcher of the future for the Jays, with a ceiling eclipsing Arencibia’s. d’Arnaud hasn’t had much work yet this spring, and seems anxious, like Arencibia expanding his zone, and striking out. Finally Adeiny Hechavarria, last year’s high-profile, high-price signing out of Cuba.  Not much to see there, but a good eye. Hech walks on four pitches against the former NCAA champ, Wilson. so, not finally, then. We get a glimpse of Anthony Gose at the plate. Like the speedy Mastroianni, the speedy Gose works to a fifth pitch and goes down swinging.

* Zach Stewart. The real prize from the trade that sent Scott Rolen to Cincinnati, there is still some real debate over whether his future is as a starter or in the bullpen. He is slated to pitch the eighth and ninth today, a little more stretched out than what the relievers usually see. No radar gun readings here, but we can at least what he has in his arsenal. Interesting curl on the back of his windup, hard to see from the outfield camera how that affects pitch visibility for the batter. He walks the first batter then gets in front to Travis’ brother, Chase d’Arnaud, before getting him to chase up and out for the K on a 1-2 pitch. Stewart is working up in the zone. Up and above, really. Can he change the hitter’s line of vision by dropping down? A low, two-strike heater to the stupendously named Gorkys Hernandez shows that he can. He wasn’t facing ML caliber hitters, but his location in the 8th was impressive. He faced both lefty and righty swinging batters and he worked away to both, showing control to both sides of the plate. That speaks to his potential to remain a starter, as he can plan differently to different types of hitters. The question of whether or not he can do it to hitters of a higher caliber, or multiple times through an order will have to be asked on another day.

* David Cooper. How disappointed was I when the Jays’ drafted Cooper in the 1st round in 2008? Quite. I was hoping one of Brett Wallace, Brett Lawrie or Ethan Martin would last. Well, the Jays’ later picked up both Brett’s Wallace and Lawrie, so that was OK. And Ethan Martin is seemingly lost in the Low minors, unable to find the strike zone that will be his ticket to bigger and better things. David Cooper made it up to AA in his first full season, and hasn’t shown the Jays that he should be any higher since. In retrospect, the Jays would have been better off selecting Ike Davis (went to the Mets immediately following Cooper’s selection), but c’est la baseball. He takes a called strike on the inner edge with the first pitch, and falls to 0-2 with another fastball, this one on the outer edge. Still no swing from Cooper. He swings on the 3rd pitch and tops it along the 1st base line, rolling foul a few feet from the bag. Another foul results from the 4th pitch, this one higher in the zone than its predecessors. Cooper finally whiffs on a pitch down and out of the zone. Not a good adjustment as the last two pitches were out of the zone and not particularly close. Small sample, but not encouraging, confirming my biases about his potential.

As the games get more serious, my thoughts will (hopefully) coalesce into something more cogent, and results will be of more importance. Nevertheless, is there anything that I wrote here that you agree with? Disagree? Let me know – keep the conversation going.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 9:40 pm

    Excellent summary. Stewart was a much different pitcher once he settled and kept the ball down in the zone.

    • March 6, 2011 9:47 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Callum. Keeping the ball down is definitely important to prevent him from throwing cookies. According to BA, he got around 1.8 ground-outs per every air-out over the past two season,s a pretty good ratio indicative of a pitcher who keeps the ball down. Still, it’s the ability to work both sides of the plate which will dictate whether he can pitch to batters on both sides of the plate and will be necessary if he is to remain a starter.

  2. March 7, 2011 9:18 pm

    Some nice insights into the Jays, but your writing could use some work…perhaps you should consider approaching us with charts or lists? A literal summary doesn’t interest me much – I could get the play-by-play off of Gameday if I cared – but some of the stats you’ve cited and player evaluations are useful reference points.

    • March 7, 2011 11:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I am a writer by trade, and this piece was experimental in nature, but I plan on doing more literal writing, as the “About” post should make clear. This gameblog was about creating an on-the-fly, instant reaction to watching a game, using my own skill set and approach to baseball. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll see that I do use charts/lists when appropriate, but for a piece like this, I’m not sure what they could illustrate. As far as Gameday is concerned – it’s an awesome reference, but not for spring training – they only post outcomes there – a few paragraphs in, I wrote the following: “Today’s game story will not even contain the final score. You can find that somewhere else. I will try to delve into areas not found on MLB.com or in their Gameday app. If any of you have tried to follow past games on Gameday, you may have noticed that Pitchfx is not really functional, only showing the in-play pitches, or the strikes in a strike out or balls from a walk. So we haven’t been able to tell how the pitchers are working, what the batters are seeing.” In that sense, this post was for what you can’t get from Gameday – not until April 1, at any rate.
      I hope you’ll continue to read, and continue the conversation. Cheers.

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