BLOW-PEN Report: Cubs, A’s, Astros, and Rays

In previous BLOW-PEN Reports, I have talked about Steve Cishek needing to be replaced by A.J. RamosNeftali Feliz making way for Shawn Tolleson, Addison Reed not being the man for the D-Backs, and Fernando Rodney to eventually be replaced by Carson Smith.  So far, so good with those predictions.  Today I bring to you another edition of the BLOW-PEN Report to check in on four situations that require our attention.

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CHICAGO CUBS

On Saturday, Hector Rondon, who began the season as the Cubs closer was inserted into a save opportunity to begin the 9th inning, but after walking the leadoff batter he was relieved by Pedro Strop who proceeded to close out the game cleanly for the save.  After the game, manager Joe Maddon told reporters that it wasn’t a case of changing who his closer was and that he just wanted to put his team in position to win the game.

So then on Sunday, Rondon appeared yet again to protect a lead, but this time it was to begin the 8th inning where he pitched a perfect inning but failed to strike anyone out.  But this time it was not Strop who pitched the 9th inning for the save opportunity.  Instead it was Jason Motte, former Cardinals closer.  Motte pitched a perfect inning with one strikeout for his first save of the season.  Maddon then went on to say that Strop was unavailable, but if he was unavailable then it was not because of a large recent workload since he only pitched twice in the last three days with a 9 pitch outing and a 14 pitch outing.

I am finding it hard to put much value into what Maddon has said, which makes it hard to know what to make of this situation, but I’ve said it so many times now — Maddon has done some interesting things with his bullpens in the past, so with this development, the closer situation can be very fluid the rest of the season.  Rondon didn’t exactly do a whole lot to merit any type of demotion from the closer’s role, but he also wasn’t pitching lights out either with a 3.09 ERA and 1.29 WHIP and 10 for 13 in save opportunities entering Sunday’s game.  But no one else in the Cubs bullpen was exactly performing significantly better than Rondon either.  Whatever the case, Rondon may have fallen out of Maddon’s favor, which would contradict what Maddon said after Saturday’s game.  If that is the case, then Strop and Motte are candidates for saves moving forward, and even lefty Travis Wood.

Strop has very little experience closing out games, but he does have powerful stuff and the ability to miss a lot of bats as his strikeout rate on the season currently is 10.04 K/9.  Motte does have the closer experience having saved 42 games for the Cardinals in 2012, but he has not been the same pitcher since returning last season from Tommy John surgery.  Motte’s velocity has been nowhere near his pre-Tommy John levels, which has adversely affected his ability to strike batters out.  Motte’s strikeout rate this season is a measly 5.91 K/9 and he’s also having a little trouble limiting the walks with a walk rate of 3.38 BB/9.  Wood is just a wildcard who couldn’t hack it in the rotation, so he was moved to the bullpen in mid-May.  Since the move to the pen, Wood has had a 2.84 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 9 K/3 BB in 6.1 IP, and he would probably only be an option for saves in a situation where the opposition has a lot of lefties coming up in the 9th inning.

If I have learned anything about Maddon over the years from his time as a bench coach with the Angels to managing the Rays, it is that he has an incredible baseball mind and will do unconventional (but smart) things to help his team to win ball games, and he does not really care for labeling a single pitcher as his closer.  For fantasy baseball team owners, Maddon is a big headache in this regard and it’s going to be difficult to predict what his next move will be the next time his team has a 3-run or less lead in the 9th inning.  Then to complicate matters even further, the Cubs are one of a few teams who are considering signing current free agent Rafael Soriano.

If I had to guess at this point, I would say that Motte would be the leading candidate for saves as Rondon appears to be in the doghouse, and Maddon probably is putting some value in the fact that Motte was one of the game’s best closers for a year and has the closer mentality.  But I would not trust Motte at all to do well if given an extended look since he’s just not striking many batters out.  But Strop is also a good speculative add and would probably have a greater chance of success than Motte.  But ultimately, unless the Cubs bring in someone via trade or signing Soriano, then I think that this will be a closer by committee situation the rest of the way. Continue reading

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U Can’t Touch This, Hammel Time! (and other notes from 5/19/15)

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Well, when you got three different Jason Hammel‘s coming at you like a Denny’s Grand Slam hologram card like in the picture above, I imagine it would be hard to touch him!  Do you remember those hologram collector’s cards from Denny’s?  When I was a kid, Friday nights were always “out to eat dinner” nights with my parents and brother.  The places that we would frequent the most included Coco’s, Bob’s Big Boy, Flakey Jake’s, and of course Denny’s.  Denny’s had the promotion if you ordered one of their signature “Grand Slam Meals” then you would receive a collector’s Grand Slam hologram card by Upper Deck.  So being the collectors that we were, we would venture out to Denny’s restaurants to try and collect all the different players cards that they had to offer.  We wouldn’t just go to the local Denny’s, because each restaurant location had different cards.  So we would go to Denny’s a couple towns over in each direction to try and get them all.  But I just remember ending up with one too many Danny Tartabull cards.

But anyway, onward to talk about MC Hammel.  Hammel pitched on Tuesday at Petco Park versus the Padres and had an excellent game giving up one unearned run on 3 hits and 0 walks while striking out 8 Padres in 7 IP in a no-decision.  The brilliant effort leaves him with a 3-1 record, 2.70 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 49 K/6 BB in 53.1 IP.  Now we have seen Hammel go on some pretty good runs over the last few years, but what stands out about this 8 start stretch to begin the season is the low amount of walks.  His 6 walks in 53.1 IP translates to a walk rate of 1.01 BB/9, which would easily be a career best and he would be quite the force if he can maintain it.

Over the course of his career, Hammel has had a slightly better than average walk rate with 2.99 BB/9 heading into the 2015 season.  However, he did showoff one of his best seasons in the category last year with a 2.25 BB/9, so maybe he was on to something.  But is Hammel going all 2014 Phil Hughes on us this year when Hughes had a miniscule 0.69 BB/9 and an all-time best strikeout to walk ratio of 11.63?

Hammel’s great first pitch strike rate of 63.0% backs up the low walk rate, but his PITCHf/x rate of pitching within the strike zone 50.9% of the time, although higher than the recent years and 28th best in the Majors this year, is not indicative of a walk rate as low as he has.  For comparison, out of the top 7 pitchers in BB/9 in 2014 (all 1.41 BB/9 or lower), 6 of the 7 pitchers were in the top 10 in zone% ranging from 52.6%-61.1%.  Hammel could end up being that one who does sneak in to the top of the rankings in BB/9 despite not being one of the elite in zone%, but the odds are against him.

So what can we expect from Hammel the rest of the season?  Even if his walk rate does not remain as low as it currently is, which I don’t believe it will, he definitely seems to have turned a corner with his command and control dating back to last season.  So he can surely end up maintaining a walk rate under 2.00 BB/9.  His slider is his out pitch and it is good enough to allow him to keep a strikeout rate at or above 8.00 K/9.  Some areas that he may see some regression in are in his HR allowed and BABIP.  Currently, he is allowing HR at a rate of 0.84 HR/9, which is well below his marks the last couple of seasons.  And his BABIP of .262 is likely not sustainable, and although it may not get as high as his career mark of .304, it is surely to increase at least somewhat.  One more thing with Hammel is that he has never gone very deep into games and he has had some injuries that he has dealt with over the last few seasons, so he is not exactly the perfect model of health.

But with all this being said, Hammel still should be a fairly productive pitcher for the rest of the season.  For the remainder of the season I’ll give him:  9 W-6 L, 3.48 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 122 K/31 BB in 137 IP.

Now let’s see what else happened on Tuesday…

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