News, Notes and Quotes (April 12, 2004)

So I’m back up in the game
Running things to keep my swing
Letting all the people know
That I’m back to run the show

In addition to all of the other amazing things he can do, Pedro Martinez has the unique ability to perform extremely well right when a lot of people are ready to either write him off or start worrying an incredible amount about him.

Back in 2002, Pedro got lit up by the Blue Jays in his first start of the season, had a good second start, and then got knocked around by the Yankees in his third start. Right around the time the “Is Pedro done?” talk started, he quickly stopped it with his next two starts — combining to pitch 15 innings while allowing a total of two hits and no runs, with 16 strikeouts and one walk.

In fact, his pitching lines from those two starts are so beautiful that we might as well look at them…

           IP     H     R     ER     HR     BB     SO     PIT
@KAN      8.0     1     0      0      0      0      6      94
@BAL      7.0     1     0      0      0      1     10     103

Vintage Pedro.

Then last year, Pedro gave up 10 runs in 4.1 innings against the Orioles in his second start of the season. It was perhaps his worst game in 12 years as a major-league pitcher. Over his next four starts, Pedro went 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA in 30 innings, striking out 33 batters while allowing just 16 hits.

This season’s early-start-that-had-people-worrying wasn’t nearly as bad as the ones from the past two years. Pedro gave up three runs (two earned) in six innings against Baltimore on “Opening Night,” which is certainly a decent performance for most pitchers. Pedro Martinez isn’t most pitchers though, and his velocity (or lack of) was a subject of a lot of talk.

So what does he do? Well, Pedro came back in his second start of the season on Saturday and dominated one of the best lineups in baseball. Pedro held the Blue Jays (second in the AL in runs scored last year) to just one run in 7.2 innings, allowing just four hits and two walks, while striking out seven. Orlando Hudson touched him up with a solo homer in the seventh inning, but other than that, he was damn near perfect. He was Pedro.

I’ve always been a huge Pedro Martinez fan and some of my favorite memories as a baseball fan have come while watching him pitch. Though I am not one myself, I suspect I am like a lot of Red Sox fans, in that I am resigned to the fact that we most likely will never see the Pedro from 1999-2000 again (at least not for more than a game or two at a time). I also suspect I am like most Red Sox fans in that I am still hoping to see this current version of Pedro, the one capable of worrying one start and dominating the next, for a while longer.

True greatness doesn’t come around very often, and it can be gone before you realize it.

Tale of Two Joshes

I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated for the first time in a little while over the weekend. In it (the one with Emeka Okafor on the cover) there was an extremely well-written, interesting piece on the stories of Josh Beckett and Josh Hamilton.

For those of you unfamiliar, those two were the #1 (Hamilton) and #2 (Beckett) picks in the 1999 draft. As the SI story explains, they were both thought of as extraordinary players coming out of high school, the types of players that only come around a few times every decade. The article touches on Tampa Bay‘s decision to draft Hamilton over Beckett, but mostly deals with the vastly different paths the two players have taken since being drafted.

Beckett, as you surely know, was the MVP of the World Series last year. Hamilton, as you may not know, has had a number of problems, both with injuries and personal stuff, and was suspended for this season after violating baseball’s drug policy. When/if he returns, he will not have played for over two years.

It is obviously an intriguing story and the SI writer, Jeff Perlman, did a fantastic job with it. The story is, if nothing else, a reminder that baseball players are so much more than what we see of them on television or at the ballpark, and so much more than what their stats say about them. I know I am personally guilty of getting caught up in numbers or what someone has or hasn’t done on the field. What happens off the field is often just as important and, in this case, far more interesting.

Props to both Perlman and Sports Illustrated. We are fortunate in this day and age to have more options when it comes to sports news and information than at any other time in history. This includes websites and print publications and all sorts of other stuff. SI has sort of fallen off of my personal radar for various reasons of late, but it was nice to pick it up again and remember that they are always capable of excellent writing.

That Boy Ain’t Right

The good news for Twins fans is that, as far as I know, Johan Santana made it through yesterday’s start without any arm problems. He completed five innings, threw 94 pitches, and appeared as though he could have gone another inning or so, had this been the middle of the year.

The bad news is that he didn’t look much like Johan Santana. Santana’s bread and butter, the thing that makes him a special pitcher, is his changeup. It is, in my opinion, one of the best in baseball. He throws it extremely well, with the same arm angle as his fastball, and it just drops off the table. When he’s got the changeup working, in addition to the very good fastball, it is a deadly combination that leads to tons of hitters looking foolish and a lot of strikeouts.

Yesterday, however, Santana was throwing almost entirely fastballs. He threw some changeups and some sliders, but he was going with the heater in situations when he definitely would have thrown something off-speed last year. I don’t know if this has to do with the forearm problems he had in his first start, with the elbow surgery he had during the off-season, or if he simply doesn’t have a feel for the off-speed stuff yet. Whatever it is, it has me worried.

Santana talked all spring about not having a feel for his changeup, and then he had a couple good outings right before the season started, and he seemed to have found a comfort zone for his best pitch. He clearly didn’t have that feel during his first start and he didn’t have it yesterday either.

Santana was able to get to two strikes on a hitter 11 times yesterday, but he simply couldn’t put anyone away.

TWO STRIKES ON        INN       RESULT
Carlos Guillen        1st       Ground Out
Rondell White         2nd       Fly Out
Craig Monroe          2nd       Walk
Greg Norton           2nd       Ground Out
Brandon Inge          3rd       Strike Out
Fernando Vina         3rd       Ground Out
Carlos Guillen        3rd       Infield Single
Rondell White         4th       Infield Single
Craig Monroe          4th       Strike Out
Greg Norton           4th       Strike Out
Fernando Vina         5th       Ground Out

Getting 11 batters to two-strike counts in five innings seems like a pretty damn good number to me. He was only able to get that all-important third strike on three of them though, which is concerning.

In some cases, not only was Santana not able to put the batter away after he got two strikes on them, he threw a ton of pitches trying. Check out the number of pitches Santana threw after he got two strikes on the batter in each of those 11 instances:

TWO STRIKES ON        INN        #
Carlos Guillen        1st        3
Rondell White         2nd        1
Craig Monroe          2nd        2
Greg Norton           2nd        4
Brandon Inge          3rd        5
Fernando Vina         3rd        4
Carlos Guillen        3rd        1
Rondell White         4th        5
Craig Monroe          4th        1
Greg Norton           4th        5
Fernando Vina         5th        1

In all, Santana threw 32 pitches after getting two strikes on a batter, which seems to me like a tremendous amount. In other words, 34% of the total pitches he threw yesterday came after he already had two strikes on the batter. Yet, he was able to get a strikeout on just three of those 32 pitches.

Here’s another concerning thing…

Over the last two years, Santana has been one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in all of baseball. In 2002 and 2003 combined, Santana induced 329 fly balls compared to just 206 ground balls, for a GB/FB ratio of 0.62. To put that GB/FB ratio in some context, none of the 92 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last year had a ratio that fly ball dominant.

Yet, despite getting more fly balls than anyone, Santana has been exactly the opposite so far this season. Santana recorded 15 outs yesterday. Three of them were on strikeouts, two of them were on fly balls, and 10 of them were on ground balls. Santana was very similar in his first start of the year, getting eight ground ball outs and just three fly ball outs.

That means, for the year, Santana has a GB/FB ratio of 18/5, or 3.60/1. To put that in some context, only one of the 92 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title had a higher GB/FB ratio. Derek Lowe, with his heavy sinker, had 3.92 ground balls for every fly ball.

Essentially, Santana has gone from being perhaps the most extreme fly ball pitcher in baseball over the past two years to being one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball in two starts this year. Now, two starts are just two starts, and it’s somewhat silly to get worked up about what someone does in nine innings in April, but I think it is clear that Santana is not quite right.

Santana got tons of outs on pop ups and weak fly balls last year, thanks to that changeup and his ability to keep batters off balance. It would make sense then that, in not throwing as many changeups and not throwing them effectively, Santana would not be able to induce as many of those weak balls in the air. Instead, he’s throwing his fastball without keeping people off balance with the changeup, which leads to a lot more hard hit balls and a lot more grounders and line drives.

How The Mighty Have Fallen

Prior to the Giants/Padres game last night on ESPN, I was treated to an episode of Baseball Tonight, featuring the threesome of Chris Berman, John Kruk and Harold Reynolds.

I’m going to avoid commenting on them too much, because my mom always tells me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. That said, if you have a chance to watch that group on the show in the future, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it will change your life.

And I recommend watching it with your full concentration on what is being said. Don’t do it while you’re on the computer or eating dinner or anything like that. Just sit down, turn on Baseball Tonight, watch it, and pay close attention to what is actually being said. It is honestly amazing.

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