Tonight we were treated to a freak show. No, I do not mean the wonderful, psychedelic city of Miami with its stadium full of swimming pools, illegitimate Cuban sandwiches, and scantily clad women. This was a sabremetric freak show, featuring perhaps the two current pitchers best known for putting up ERAs not in line with their FIPs (or other DIPS theory metrics).
We Rays fans know the Jeremy Hellickson story well. A dominating control artist in the minors, Helly looked the part in his brief 2010 debut, striking out nearly a batter per inning while walking less than two per nine for a 3.42 SIERA in 36 innings. Things did not go as well last year for the young right hander, as his strikeout rate fell to 5.57 K/9 while his walk rate ballooned to 3.43 BB/9, combining for a worrisome 4.78 SIERA. And yet, Hellickson managed to post a sub-3.00 ERA. Possible explanations ranged from his high rate of swinging strikes (which belied the low strikeout rate), his league leading infield fly ball rate (quite possibly a repeatable skill), and his unflappable calm demeanor on the mound (extremely impressive in a pitcher this young). Well, this season the whiffs and popups have gone away to some extent, and yet Jeremy Hellickson still sports a SIERA in the fours and an ERA in the twos. How does he do it and will it continue? I have no clue.
Ricky Nolasco is Hellickson’s inverse. After a very good and unsurprising 2008 season, Nolasco went wonky. His 2009 peripherals (9.49 K/9, 2.14 BB/9) were fantastic, yet he sported an ERA over five. Since then, he’s continued to post high (but lowering) ERAs and low (but rising) SIERAs until this season, when they’re finally in balance again, mostly due to his peripherals becoming those of a mediocre pitcher. This was one of those "Be careful what you wish for" situations.
How would this battle of glass-jawed dancing bear vs. strongman midget turn out?
The first bit of excitement came in the bottom of the first, when Giancarlo Stanton came to bat with a man on and two outs. Part of the theory on how elite control pitchers (like Hellickson was in the minors) beat their FIP is that sure, they give up walks when they nibble, but they only do it purposefully and intelligently. Now the numbers may not bear this out, but with an powerful slugger like Stanton at bat and a career pinch hitter like Gregg Dobbs due up, this was a time to nibble. Hellickson walked Stanton on four pitches. With two men on, Dobbs took the count full, but then gifted Hellickson a strikeout by swinging on a high fastball that was clearly ball four.
In the top of the second Carlos Pena walked on four pitches with one out. Jose Lobaton drilled a line drive past first and into the corner, but Pena didn’t know whether it had gotten past Dobbs or not (and apparently decided not to trust Tom Foley), and he paused at second base to turn and check on the ball, eliminating any chance he had of scoring on the play. This baserunning mistake was especially egregious because of who was up next. Sean Rodriguez is easy meat for Nolasco’s good right handed slider and curve, and Hellickson is an American League pitcher. I’ll mostly trust Maddon on this, but to my eyes, today was a good day for Elliot Johnson at shortstop, and if he wanted to play S-Rod, this was a good situation (men on first and third, one out, the pitcher up next, righty with good breaking balls on the mound) for a squeeze bunt.
In the bottom of the second inning, Hellickson got the first two outs before John Buck hit a fly ball just barely over Jennings’s head for a double. It didn’t seem like a huge problem, though, with the pitcher’s spot up next. And then Hellickson let the count go full and finally walked Nolasco. Remember what I said about control pitchers intelligently choosing when they walk batters? This was not that.
In the top of the third, Matt Joyce flared a high fly ball into right field that a pull-shifted Austin Kearns couldn’t reach. Joyce hustled into second for a double. Upton was up next and as the at bat started, it looked like he was overmatched. First he whiffed on an outside slider and then watched an inside fastball go by for a strike. On the third pitch he got another outside slider, but Upton was ready this time, reaching out over the plate and pulling it through the hole between third and short. With the ball in front of him, Joyce got a tremendous jump to score the first run of the game.
The Marlins, though, came right back in the bottom of the inning. Omar Infante lined a double into left field and Hellickson treated Hanley Ramirez very carefully, walking him on five pitches. With two men on and no outs, it seemed that Hellickson would not be able to pitch around Giancarlo Stanton this time. But he did, also walking him on five pitches to load the bases. The ever-forgiving Dobbs would not be able to make Hell Boy pay (or at least not much). He lifted a fly ball to short center field that did score infant from third, but the other runners could not advance on BJ’s strong, low throw, and two groundballs later, Hellickson was out of the jam.
In the top of the fourth, Lobaton hit another liner up the right field line for a double, and after Rodriguez struck out, Hellickson bunted his catcher over to third. Now with two outs, Will Rhymes hit a hard grounder to second that Infante made a fantastic diving stop on, but then threw wide to first from his knees, pulling Dobbs off the bag and allowing the Rays to take a lead they would not relinquish.
That is not to say that the Marlins would not threaten. In the bottom of the inning, Hellickson ran into a bout of déjà vu and walked Nolasco for the second time. Then, with two outs and another man on base, Helly walked Ramirez once more, bringing up Stanton with the bases loaded. It was as if God was a sabrematrician (I’m sure he’s a very good one), and he had decided to run a little experiment – what would it take to get Hellickson to go after Giancarlo? Well, this time Helly threw two changeups in the dirt (which did not inspire much confidence) before challenging Stanton with a fastball up that got him to fly out to center and end the inning.
- Joyce, who looked locked in today, sent a homer out to the right field bullpen in the fifth.
- Also in the fifth, Lobaton barely missed on a hard swing, fouling it straight back, before being struck out looking on a backdoor breaking ball that probably wasn’t a rulebook strike. Perhaps it’s just my pathetic expectations, but I’m enjoying him at the plate.
- With two men on and one out in the fifth, Maddon turned to right-handed ground ball specialist Burke Badenhop to come in against John Buck. Badenhop did his job perfectly, inducing an inning ending 6-4-3 double play. Maddon left him in to hit so he would be available in the next inning. With the pitcher’s spot up to lead off the sixth, Ozzie Guillen brought in Donnie Murphy to pinch hit. I have no idea how Ozzie came up with this move. There’s a right handed specialist on the mound, and he has Logan Morrison, a better hitter and a lefty, on the bench. Ridiculous.
- In the bottom of the seventh, good old Justin Ruggiano pinch hit for Dobbs (while Morrison still languished on the bench). Lobaton reached for the ball and had his glove knocked off his hand in one of the more violent bouts of catcher’s interference I’ve seen. I don’t know if he was hurt or just embarrassed, but Lobaton didn’t put his glove back on for a while.
- I don’t know much of anything about Marlins reliever Sandy Rosario, but his windup looks a bit like Joel Peralta’s.
- Lobaton’s pitch framing is noticibly inferior to Molina’s. When Molina has to shift his glove to his left to catch a pitch, it moves quickly, and completely horizontally, with no unnecessary motion. Lobaton actually rotates his glove as he reaches for the pitch.
- That being said, Lobaton’s pitch blocking is fantastic. There were plenty of balls in the dirt tonight for him to deal with, and he smothered every single one. He’s very quick to shift his body and he’s athletic when he does.
- Many times, against a left handed batter with the catcher set up outside, right handed pitchers can miss inside but still have the pitch [correctly] called a strike, even though the catcher had to reach a bit. It seemed today that the umpire was calling those as balls. I wonder if that means that some umpires base their calls on the catcher's actions more than others do, and hence are more susceptible to the catcher's pitch framing ability. If so, I imagine that smart teams (like the Rays) know who they are, and I imagine that it gives us another "split" to consider when leveraging when to play Molina and when to play Lobaton.