Takes a No. 1 to know a No. 1
May, 10, 2011
By Buster Olney | ESPN Insider
A lot of folks will watch the best pitching matchup of 2011 (so far) tonight, when Josh Johnson pitches against Roy Halladay, and Johnson can understand. Because he likes to watch Halladay, too.
One day last summer, Johnson threw his standard bullpen session between starts, and as he finished his work, he noticed that in the home bullpen in Philadelphia, Halladay was about to start a bullpen session of his own. Johnson asked Rich Dubee, the Phillies' pitching coach, if Halladay would mind if he watched -- and after checking with the Philadelphia ace, Dubee said that would be fine.
Getty ImagesJohnson marvels at how well Halladay repeats his delivery.
So like a kid in the stands, Johnson took a seat and watched Halladay go through his work, and he was struck by how consistent Halladay's delivery is, regardless of what pitch he was throwing. "Exactly the same with every single pitch," Johnson recalled, in a phone conversation on Monday evening.
Both pitchers were named to the National League All-Star team, and Johnson naturally gravitated toward Halladay -- feeling that he shouldn't pass up an opportunity to be around someone so good at his craft -- and took a seat next to him during one of the All-Stars' bus rides.
Coming into this season, what Johnson thought most about was trying to give himself a chance to pitch deeper into games, by getting more groundballs with a curveball and changeup, by being more efficient in his pitch count.
"The guy who I'm facing tomorrow," Johnson said, "is the ultimate in doing that."
Around the league
• Brett Anderson, who starts for Oakland today, has one of the best breaking balls in the majors -- three, in fact.
Anderson explained the other day that he actually uses the same grip to throw three different breaking balls, at three distinct speeds. Anderson has small hands, and he just spreads his fingers differently over the ball to alter the speeds, off the same spiked-finger grip. "I think I'm the only guy who throws a spike slider," said Anderson, who grew up as something of a baseball field rat, as the son of Oklahoma State baseball coach Frank Anderson.
The slowest of Anderson's three breaking balls is a curveball, which spins in the 78-81 mph range; the next is what Anderson referred to as a slurve, with a little more velocity. And the hardest breaking ball that Anderson throws is what he calls his slider, at about 83-85 mph. He changes speeds with the different breaking balls constantly.
It must be working for him, because Anderson will take a 2.77 ERA into his start tonight. Here's more on Anderson's breaking pitches, from Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information:
"Any way you slice it, Anderson is throwing his breaking balls more often this year. If we combine sliders and curveballs, his 65 breaking balls last night would still rank as the second-most by any starter this season and the 10th-most in the last three seasons. Here's a few different looks at how he's adjusted this season: He throws it 48.9 percent of the time in 2011, after throwing it 39.8 percent of the time in the previous two seasons. That has decreased both his fastball rate -- 45.5 percent vs. 52.7 percent in 2009-10 -- and his changeup rate. He throws the change just 5.5 percent of the time now.
"Over the last three seasons, Anderson's sliders (per Inside Edge classification) have averaged 83.6 MPH, including just 80.7 MPH this season. Anderson's curveball, on the other hand, has averaged 79.3, with the velocity remaining very consistent each season. If we combine the breaking balls and look at velocity, we can get a better idea how often he's throwing each one. After throwing curves with a velocity of 82 mph and up 66.7 percent of the time in 2009-10, that number has fallen to just 13 percent in 2011. Instead, he's throwing more at 78-81.9 mph, a whopping 64.8 percent of his offerings. He's actually slowed down."
By the way: Anderson felt he didn't have his usual velocity at the outset of this season, but in his last start, he touched 95 mph, so there are signs he is rebuilding his usual fastball.
• The Mariners cut Milton Bradley -- as well as Ryan Langerhans -- as they try to find a way to jump-start their offense, which ranks 25th in runs and 29th in homers. Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik explained over the phone on Monday that Mike Wilson and Carlos Peguero, the two players who will be given more opportunity now that Bradley and Langerhans are out, are both power hitters. You get the sense that if Wilson and/or Peguero hit, then they'll continue to play, and if they don't hit, then the Mariners will keep searching.
But Zduriencik says that within the organization, there is a strong sense that the team is getting closer to getting where it needs to get to. Justin Smoak is off to a good start, Dustin Ackley continues to develop in the minors, and Seattle has the second pick in this year's draft. And, of course, the Mariners have Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda anchoring the rotation, probably for years to come.
There are a lot of good things happening for the Mariners, Zduriencik said, "and it all starts with those two young pitchers."
• In the aftermath of the Mariners' decision to cut Bradley, I got a bunch of tweets from folks asking if another team would give the veteran an opportunity. Look, any club that considers signing Bradley will certainly weigh his past blow-ups as a factor, but of much greater concern will be his production, which has been in decline awhile.
Jerry Brewer thinks Bradley's career is over. Cutting Bradley was the right move, writes Larry Stone.
• Trevor Cahill had an excellent 2010 season, posting a 2.97 ERA and an 18-8 record. But because he allowed an unusually low batting average on balls put in play -- .224, the lowest the majors last year -- there was some debate over whether his performance was sustainable, and whether he was really as good as his basic numbers indicated.
He is going a long way toward putting that conversation to rest this year. In stifling the Rangers on Monday night, Cahill lowered his ERA to 1.72 and improved his record to 6-0, and he has surrendered just 16 walks in 52.1 innings. His batting average on balls put in play ranks among the lowest third in the majors, at .258, but it's probably worth considering the possibility that Cahill will always fare well in this statistic because of the imperfect contact he tends to generate with his Brandon Webb-like sinker. "For the hitters," one scout said, "there's really nothing to swing at other than the top of the ball."
Webb ranked 23rd in BABIP in 2006, among 83 pitchers; in 2007, he ranked 27th among 80. And in 2008, when Webb went 22-10, he ranked 35th among 88 pitchers. For pitchers with great sinkers -- like Webb, and like Cahill -- then perhaps the BABIP numbers don't necessarily apply. Because not all contact is created equal.
• I wrote yesterday about how Chipper Jones feels like more pitchers are using cut fastballs. Daniel Braunstein of ESPN Stats & Information has this on the best cut fastballs in the majors:
Jon Lester: Opponents are hitting .173 in at-bats ending with a Lester cutter over the last two seasons. That's lowest among the 42 pitchers who have thrown 250 cutters since 2010, lower even than Mariano Rivera's .187, which ranks second. Lester has 92 strikeouts in at-bats ending with a cutter since 2010, 26 more than any other pitcher. He's given up just two home runs on the 887 cutters he's thrown over the last two seasons.
Roy Halladay: Halladay throws his cutter for a strike just over 75 percent of the time, most among pitchers who have thrown more than 250 cutters in the last two years. He's thrown 998 cutters, most since 2010. Almost 45 percent of the cutters that opponents have not swung at have been called strikes, most among pitchers with 250 cutters.
Chad Billingsley: Billingsley's thrown 554 cutters since 2010 and has not allowed a home run on one. Opponents are hitting .211 in at-bats ending with his cutter over the last two seasons, fourth-lowest among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 cutters in that span.
This one was random and surprising, but ...
Francisco Rodriguez (LAA, not K-Rod): Opponents have missed at 39.1 percent of the swings they've taken against his cutter; no other pitcher who's thrown at least 250 cutters in the last two seasons is even over 30 percent. When they do put it in play, it's on the ground 54.8 percent of the time, sixth-best among the 42 pitchers with at least 250 cutters. His .200 opponent batting average in at-bats ending in his cutter ranks fourth.
• Bankruptcy could help Frank McCourt maintain control of the Dodgers, writes Bill Shaikin.
Moves, deals and decisions1. The Diamondbacks may move Josh Collmenter into the rotation this week.
2. Brilliant bargain shopping has paid off for the Rays.
Dings and dents1. Josh Hamilton aims to start taking batting practice Friday, writes Evan Grant.
2. Tommy Hunter suffered a setback in his rehab. A tough break.
3. Vernon Wells got hurt in the Angels' loss to the White Sox and was put on the disabled list.
4. It was a really bad day for the Mets, who learned that Chris Young has a significant shoulder injury, as David Waldstein writes.
5. Luke Scott intends to play hurt, as Jeff Zrebiec writes.
6. Joe Mauer won't be brought back until he can catch again -- and he's not catching at all now.
7. Stephen Drew hopes to play today.
8. Some of the injured Phillies have made progress, as Marcus Hayes writes.
9. Jake Peavy will make his first start Wednesday.
Monday's games1. The Pirates climbed over .500, as Colin Dunlap writes.
2. Zack Greinke got it done just like the Brewers envisioned, as Todd Rosiak writes. Maybe this victory will be a spark for the Brewers, writes Michael Hunt. From Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information, how Greinke won:
• Offspeed success: Padres hitters were 0-for-9 in at-bats ending with offspeed pitches Monday, including 0-for-6 with three strikeouts against the slider. Greinke threw 19 sliders out of 89 pitches Monday (21.3 percent), well above his 2010 average of 14.1 percent.
• He stayed ahead and finished hitters off: Greinke went to three-ball counts on just two Padres hitters, walking neither, and never went to a 3-0 count. When he got ahead of hitters, they went 1-for-15, including 1-of-13 in at-bats ending with two strikes. This includes all six of the at-bats ending with the slider.
3. The slumping Rangers were no match for Trevor Cahill.
4. The White Sox won again: that's three straight wins, and counting. Edwin Jackson threw well.
5. The Rockies stopped the bleeding, as Jim Armstrong writes.
6. Juan Uribe was ejected in the Dodgers' loss.
7. Mat Latos was pinned with a loss and described it with a word that Don Norcross couldn't write. I was trying to guess what it could have been and thinking it starts with an 'h.'
8. Victor Martinez had a really good day. The Tigers are back to .500, as Tom Gage writes. Max Scherzer was good again (see chart at right).
9. The Toronto Blue Jays had a really bad day.
10.The Philly bats stepped up, as Matt Gelb writes.
11. Travis Wood was The Man for the Reds.
12.Javier Vazquez struggled again, as Clark Spencer writes. Vazquez has a 6.88 ERA.
13. The Twins battled for 11 innings, but couldn't close it out, as Joe Christensen writes.
14. Carl Crawford walked off into a sea of happy teammates, again.
The Patience Index
• Yuniesky Betancourt and Rickie Weeks pulled off a play to remember.
• The Cardinals players don't enjoy Wrigley Field as much as the fans, writes Dan O'Neill.
• The Jays' young rotation needs to step it up.
• George Steinbrenner aided the FBI, as Richard Sandomir writes.
• Writing about Derek Jeter, Bill Rhoden notes that every great athlete faces the age questions. All of the older guys are a concern for the Yankees, writes Joel Sherman.
• You'd be surprised at who leads the Reds in RBIs, as Hal McCoy writes.
• Nate Schierholtz is back to being Nate the Great, writes Henry Schulman.
• Orlando Cabrera has been the voice of experience for the Indians, writes Jodi Valade.
• Jarrod Dyson has been a baserunning specialist for the Royals, writes Rustin Dodd.
• The Braves are returning home while on a hot streak, as Carroll Rogers writes.
• Kevin Correia has wanted to make a difference in Pittsburgh, as Ron Cook writes.
• Jayson Werth is trying to make adjustments. I talked to a rival evaluator who believes that Werth is really, really pressing.
• Ryan Vogelsong avoids mind clutter.
• Casey Kotchman's cleared vision has helped him revitalize his career, writes Rick Stroud.
• Carlos Gonzalez knows how ugly the numbers are for him.
• Vanderbilt has taken over first place, as it should be.
And today will be better than yesterday.