Friday, April 06, 2012

Pitching dominates Thursday

Following MLB's third Opening Day was fantastic with a combination of televised games and talk on Twitter. What was truly fascinating about the day was that it took the New York Mets to score a run to end all the talk about the scoreless innings that began the day. In those early games, the score was 0-0 through three or four innings in all of them. It was a day of pitching magnificence.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates will not be anyone's idea of a high-scoring machine, Roy Halladay threw a gem. During Spring Training, there was all this concern about his velocity being down. And in all reality, Brooks Baseball showed his fastball below last year's average in the first game. But when you can pitch with the precision that Halladay does, what does velocity mean? He still managed twelve swinging strikes en route to five strikeouts with no walks and only two hits allowed in eight innings of work.

Erik Bedard was nearly as good for the Pirates. Or, the Phillies' offense is exposed for what it is, which could be a problem. Bedard didn't have much of a fastball (88.14 average) and didn't miss many bats (seven), but only gave up one run in his seven innings of work, giving up the only run of the game on a sacrifice fly. Jonathan Papelbon got his first save in a Phillies uniform.

Last year's Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, was brilliant against the Red Sox. He topped out at 98 MPH and seemed to be able to ratchet up the heater when in tough situations or ahead in the count. The Red Sox are a great hitting team and thus Verlander only missed six bats in his eight innings. But he kept the Red Sox off balance with his terrific curve and change up and only yielded two hits and a walk in eight innings. Unfortunately for him, after going a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities in 2011, Jose Valverde blew his first opportunity of 2012. So give Verlander 23 wins this season instead of 24.

Jon Lester was good for the Red Sox, but not terrific. He only gave up one run in his seven innings, but had far too many three-ball counts and was helped by three double plays. Lester always seems preoccupied with the strike zone he is getting from the umpire. He needs to forget all of that and just pitch his game.

Stephen Strasburg did not disappoint in his first outing against the Cubs. Strasburg went seven innings and allowed one run on five hits and a walk. He averaged almost 96 MPH on his four-seam fastballs and almost 95 on his two-seamers. And he threw his curve for strikes 79 percent of the time. Strasburg struck out five and walked one. The strikeouts came in bunches late in his outing. 

Strasburg was matched by Ryan Dempster. Dempster only averaged around 89 MPH with his fastball but fought out of two jams by getting batters to miss his slider or tap it weakly. He left with two outs in the eighth and a runner on base after allowing only two hits and three walks. Unfortunately, Kerry Wood walked three batters to force Dempster's runner to score and tie the game. A Twitter bud said that Wood was getting squeezed by the home plate umpire but the Pitch/FX data does not support that theory. Only two of his thirteen non-strikes were borderline, one at the top of the strike zone and one at the bottom. Carlos Marmol then gave up the winning run in the ninth.

It was nice to see Brad Lidge get the save for the Nationals in his return after a lost season last year with the Phillies. Lidge struck out two in the ninth. He has lost his fastball which is now in the 89 MPH range but his slider is his go-to pitch now and--at least for yesterday--got the job done.

Johnny Cueto blanked the Miami Marlins to give the Cincinnati Reds their first win of the season. Cueto didn't miss many bats with only seven swinging strikes in his seven innings, but he did strike out four, allowing three hits and two walks. It did not help the Marlins' cause when Jose Reyes was thrown out stealing and Emilio Bonifacio was picked off. Perhaps it was a bit of a BABIP game for Cueto and aided by bad base-running, but the bottom line is that no runs scored.

Perhaps the most impressive pitching display was the eleven scoreless innings thrown by the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen. Last year's bullpen was such a mess for the Blue Jays that this performance has to give the team hope that a weakness has been turned into a strength.

The same couldn't be said for the Indians as Chris Perez blew the save and ruined a fantastic outing from Justin Masterson. The latter pitched eight innings of two-hit, one-walk ball and struck out ten Blue Jays. His only blemish was a bomb by Jose Bautista. But he is hardly the first pitcher to have that happen these past few seasons. Of Masterson's 27 batters faced, ten of them struck out and ten of them hit ground balls. It was a wasted brilliant performance.

Offense has been down the last two seasons and if Thursday was any indication, this season won't be any different. Pitching had the upper hand all day.

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