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You Can Learn A Lot By Watching – Aug. 14, 2011: Blue Jays vs Angels

August 15, 2011

More of a mini-blog today as I attended this afternoon’s rubber-match between the Jays and the Angels. The Jays acquitted themselves very well against the Angels’ big three of Ervin Santana (not so well), Jered Weaver (too well) and Dan Haren (just well enough).

For a pitcher as good as he is, Dan Haren slips under the radar fairly easily. It could be due to the team he has played on. He played with the Cardinals for the first two seasons of his career. After his second season (2004) in which the Cardinals fell to the Red Six in the World Series, Haren was sent along with Daric Barton to the Oakland Athletics for Mark Mulder. Despite Barton’s recent struggles, I would say that that trade worked out rather well for Oakland. In three subsequent seasons with Oakland, Haren established himself as a workhorse averaging 34 starts and 221 innings throughout. Not just an innings eater, Haren was also effective, striking out 7.2/9, with a K/BB of 3.47. It is possible that the only thing keeping him from stardom was a tendency to surrender the home run, averaging 1.1/9 over that stretch. That’s a damned valuable pitcher. So valuable, that after 2007 season, Billy Beane and boys turned around and packaged him with a nondescript relief pitcher to the Arizona Diamondbacks for 6 players, including Brett Anderson (who was looking excellent before hurting his elbow this year) and Carlos Gonzalez (who blossomed after being moved on to Colorado fr Matt Holliday). Haren pitched two full seasons in Arizona and part of a third, compiling 13 WARP and proving to be a good hitter for a pitcher as well. Although signed to a team-friendly contract (an escalating contract paying him $44.75M over 4 years), last year the Diamondbacks found themselves in need to cut costs for new ownership. Haren found himself on the move again, this time in a much derided move to the Angels in exchange for Joe Saunders (a homeless man’s Dan Haren) and three prospects (one of which is a bluechipper).

So this leaves us with a pitcher who has not been able to stick with a team for more than three years over almost a decade. While the Cardinals are a lower-first tier glamour spot, as are (as might be) the Angels, the Diamondbacks and the Athletics play in more neglected markets. He’s only pitched in the playoffs once (2006, with Oakland) since coming out of the bullpen in the 2004 World Series. In today’s game, Haren was largely hitting his spots with a 2-seam fastball (91-92 mph), a cutter around 85,  a changeup around the same speed and a curve in the high 70’s. I wasn’t counting, but I believe that he relied mostly on his cutter. Haren went 7 innings without allowing a walk, and was very effective outside of two cutters thrown in the 4th that did not cut, leading to back-to-back home runs by Eric Thames (a nicely arcing shot to right-centre) and Jose Bautista (a linedrive to left-centre). One thing that stuck out for me about Haren was his calm, focused delivery. Most pitchers seem in constant motion from separation to landing. Dan Haren rises perched on his right leg and pauses with his left knee high and bent, seems to remind himselrf of what he plans to do, and then fires a strike at will. He didn’t see enough baserunners against him to compare that delivery with his throws from the stretch, but I was impressed. Haren must be one of the 20 best starting pitchers in baseball.

Although he “blew the save”, Angels RHP Jordan Walden also bears mention. Basically, he throws fast. Very, very fast. He sat around 97-98. Watching him I have to wonder how much of his velocity he gains from his hop at the end of his pitch. Many pitching gurus discuss the need to almost step over something as the last extension of a pitch. It’s as if your forward momentum will only take you so far, then, as you’re about to put your forward foot down, there happens to be an object in the way and so you step over it. This is believed to provide a little it of giddy-up to a pitch. I’m sure that many pitchers use this technique, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it so pronounced as I did with Walden. A recently converted starter, the rookie closer actually jumps with his back foot well forward and off of the pitching rubber. To little avail in this game as Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie touched him for a pair of doubles and the game-tying run in the bottom of the 9th, but it has owkred for much of his scant MLB career.

On final Angels note, not on former Blue Jays albatross Vernon Wells, or shaggy reliever Scott Downs, but on current CF Peter Bourgos, likely the fastest man playing baseball today. The only thing that precedes his legs is his reputation for them. After tripling on a ball hit to the gap in centre-right in the 3rd inning, on his next trip to the plate, he grounded a ball between Escobar and Lawrie to Eric Thames in left field. For nearly any other hitter, a ball hit on the ground with that kind of force right at an outfielder would be a rounded single, if only to force the fielder to be quick about things. Not for Bourgos. He never hesitated and was halfway between first and second by the time Thames looked up. The man is just that fast.

Those who know me know that I also love hockey. One thing I would love for baseball telecasts to bring over from hockey is the concept of the Three Stars. For most games, especially closely fought ones, two of the three stars come from the winning team. That would be reasonable for this game as well. One of those stars would have to be RF Jose Bautista. I think it speaks to the lack of faith generally had for Bautista in that any slump of more than a week will bring about his doubters on whether he is for real. What many forget, or never knew, is that Bautista had always had power, but had been unable to capitalize on it in the past. One of the things that changed with his fixed swing mechanics was that he gave himself more time to recognize pitches. He became more selective, drawing walks at a phenomenal pace, learning how to turn 0-2 into 3-2 and making better decisions about when and how to swing. Since the All Star, Bautista had been hitting a rather poor .193 with an OPS under .750 (which is still showing good secondary skills – power and on-base ability –  by the way). Even before receiving a breather on Saturday afternoon, Bautista was still seeing pitches well. His K% was up a fair bit (over a short period), but so was his isolated patience (OBP-AVG). In the first inning, Bautista struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch, a pitch that he visibly displayed disgust with home plate Umpire, David Rackley, about. For his next at-bat, following an Eric Thames home run that represented the first blemish of any kind on Dan Haren’s pitching line, Bautista took a 2-1 offering over the inner half of the plate and belted a low line drive that went over the wall in left-centre field to cut the Angels early lead to 3-2. After hitting his first home run in 10 days, Bautista kept up the hot hand by singling in his next two trips to the plate and finally by drawing a walk in the 10th that moved Yunel Escobar into scoring position.

The game’s first star would have to be the man-child known in some circles as Gordie Dougie, recent callup 3B Brett Lawrie. His batting line of 1-4 with an RBI double and a stolen base belies his contributions to this game. So we’ll start with his defense, a much derided aspect of his game that has left many prognosticators speculating on a move further to the right of the defensive spectrum likely ending in a spot in an outfield corner. In the top of the second, Vernon Wells hit a ground ball at him. He fielded the ball cleanly, but seemed to struggle to get his feet into position to make the throw. He recorded the out, but in such a way as to remind everyone of his recent conversion to the position – he was drafted as a catcher and has also spent considerable time at 2B. Two batters later, Erick Aybar tried to bunt his way on base. Unfortunately (for Aybar and the Angels) the ball was popped up along the third base side. Lawrie, seeing Aybar square, raced in and caught the ball on the fly, showing impressive speed as the ball was much closer to home plate than to Lawrie’s normal fielding position. In the top of the 4th, Torii Hunter led off smashing a low line drive to Lawrie’s left. No problem. He sprawled to his left and made the play for the out. In the next four innings, Lawrie fielded three more ground balls and showed more sure footwork each time in making a clean play. All of the above wsa just a preamble, corroborating evidence, for the play of the day, which took place in the top of the 9th inning, with the Angels leading 4-3. Bobby Abreu had singled to lead off the inning, and subsequently stole both second and third on a sleepy Frank Francisco (who slowed down a game that had been moving at a brisk pace). With one out and Abreu on third, rookie 1B Mark Trumbo hit a hard ground ball at Lawrie. Abreu took off for home. Lawrie paused and fired the ball to the plate, creating a rundown of Abreu between himself and catcher J.P. Arencibia. Abreu turned back to third base, Arencibia returned the ball to Lawrie and Abreu was tagged out. Meanwhile, seeing the rundown, Trumbo had thought to snag an extra base and had rounded well past first. Sensing this, LAwrie, upon tagging Abreu shifted his sights to Trumbo and threw the ball across the diamond towards Jays’ first baseman, Adam Lind. Trumbo had the fear and turned around. He was caught. Now with the ball behind him, Trumbo desperately tried to make it to second base, but to no avail. Lind flipped the ball to John McDonald, subbing again for Aaron Hill and the 5-2-5-3-4 double play was complete.

In the bottom of the same inning, Brett Lawrie reminded the 23,000 plus in attendance that the Jays actually coveted him as a hitter first. Still down by a run, but with the tying run on 2B, Lawrie ran up a full count on heat throwing Jordan Walden (20/21 pitches were fastballs).  He took the 6th pitch to deep CF, too hard for even Peter Bourgos to run down, a double that brought home Colby Rasmus. With only one out, Lawrie tried to create a winning run on any contact from the next batter and so he stole 3B during J.P. Arencibia’s at bat. Arencibia struck out, but the point was made and thousands were on their feet, cheering on the Blue Jays Real Canadian Hero.

Oh, and by the way, it was Edwin Encarnacion who drove home Yunel Escobar from 2B with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to bring the Jays to a 10-3 record in extra inning games. To get back to hockey parlance for one more moment, maybe the Jays just need to use the mentality of getting to overtime and the shootout. After all, aren’t extra innings kind of like the shoot out? In hockey, each team needs to burn through skaters one by one, before seeing which team can score more in the breakaway competition. In baseball, extra innings are left for the relief (read: weaker) pitchers. And in most cases, the top top relievers have already been burned by the time free baseball rolls around. Whichever team’s weakest link can hold the line the best will win. Jon Rauch > Fernando Rodney.

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