Don't panic: Should these pitchers be worried after horrid 2015 debuts?
To say Mat Latos’s Marlins debut didn’t go well Tuesday night would be a significant understatement. Facing the Braves, Latos faced ten batters and recorded just two outs, the first on a hard-hit ball to leftfield and the second on a sacrifice bunt by the opposing pitcher. Of the other eight batters he faced, he gave up three doubles, three singles and two walks, finally getting chased after giving up seven runs in the frame.
It was an ugly day for Latos, who Miami expects will serve as something of a replacement ace as Jose Fernandez finishes his rehabilitation from last May’s Tommy John surgery. But should the Marlins and their fans be worried about his performance? To tweak a formula used by MLB Network host Brian Kenny, here’s a quick look at Latos and a few other pitchers who laid an egg in their 2015 debuts, along with a ruling as to whether those bad days are cause for concern, panic, or just small sample size issues.
Mat Latos, Marlins: 2/3 IP, 6 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 0 K
As I wrote in my Marlins team preview two weeks ago, with the possible exception of Fernandez, Latos was Miami's largest concern coming into the season. An above-average workhorse in his first four full seasons (an average of exactly 200 innings and a 116 ERA+ from 2010 to '13), Latos didn’t make his '14 debut until June 14 due to meniscus surgery on his left knee and a flexor mass strain in his pitching elbow. When he did return, it was with significantly reduced velocity, and after 16 starts, his season was over due to inflammation in his elbow. In the interim, he lost a full two miles per hour from his previous standard, with his four-seam fastball going from 93.9 mph to 91.9. Accordingly, his strikeout rate dropped from an average of 8.4 per nine the previous four years to a mere 6.5, well below league average.
Given all of that, the big questions heading into Latos’s first start concerned his velocity and his ability to miss bats, and the answers were not positive. Per Brooks, Latos’s velocity was unchanged from last year, with his four-seamer averaging 91.8 mph against the Braves. He threw 38 pitches but got just one swing-and-miss, and not one of the ten men he faced struck out. Given all of that, it seems extremely likely that Latos’s elbow is either not healthy or permanently diminished. That would be a huge problem for the Marlins given the regression expected from Opening Day starter Henderson Alvarez, whose 2014 fielding independent pitching mark was nearly a run higher than his actual ERA, and Jarred Cosart, whose 2014 FIP was more than a run higher than his actual ERA. With Fernandez not expected back until midseason, it's unlikely that the Marlins will have the starting pitching to contend without a healthy Latos.
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: 4 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Tanaka was a hot topic on Tuesday after getting lit up by the Blue Jays in the Yankees’ home opener on Monday. The obvious concern is Tanaka’s right elbow, where doctors found a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament last July, resulting in the right-hander being shut down for 2 1/2 months of rest and rehabilitation. Tanaka returned to the mound for the final week of the season and made two starts, one good (5 1/3 IP, 1 R, 4 K), one awful (1 2/3 IP, 7 R, 5 ER); he showed slightly diminished velocity but emerged from both without additional discomfort in his elbow.
After more rest and rehabilitation over the offseason, Tanaka made his exhibition debut on March 12 and generally pitched effectively in the spring (14 2/3 IP, 1 BB, 13 K), but raised concerns with what appeared to be a tentative approach. Most notably, newly-minted Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said a week ago on Chris Russo’s SiriusXM channel that Tanaka did not look healthy to him: “He’s hesitating to throw his fastball and he’s hanging every breaking ball he’s throwing out there. Plus, his velocity is not there yet.”
Tanaka respectfully dismissed Martinez’s comments, but has admitted that he is reducing his use of his four-seam fastball in favor of his slightly slower two-seamer. Indeed, according to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka threw just five four-seamers on Monday out of 82 pitches—6%, compared to 22% in the 18 starts prior to his UCL diagnosis last July. That lack of four-seamers made it look as if Tanaka were operating with reduced velocity, but per Brooks, that is not the case. On each of his pitches, Tanaka was in line with his 2014 averages, including the four-seamer, which averaged 92.7 mph last year and was at 92.6 mph on Monday. He also recorded six strikeouts and was able to keep the ball low in the zone with significant movement, and the Blue Jays scored all of their runs in just one of those four innings, with assistance from a Chase Headley throwing error. Given all of that, one might be willing to write off Monday’s outing as a fluke.
That said, there was one significant difference between Tanaka’s fastball on Monday and his fastball from last year: maximum velocity. Last year, Tanaka was able to pump his four-seamer up to 96 or 97 mph when needed. On Monday, his fastest pitch was 94.6 mph, and his two fastest pitches were taken for a ball and smacked for a clean opposite-field single. Without the occasional blazer and living mid-80s to low-90s and down in the zone, Tanaka limits what opposing hitters have to look for. The jury’s still out on Tanaka, but given the absence of that big fastball and the presence of that tear in his UCL, I can’t quite bring myself to write off his debut as a small-sample fluke.
Weaver’s declining velocity has been an issue for several years now. Per Brooks, here are the average velocities of Weaver’s four-seamer from 2010 to '13: 91.0, 90.1, 88.7, 87.3. Weaver appeared to arrest that decline last year, averaging 87.5 mph on his four-seamer, but according to MLB.com's Gameday, on Opening Day, Weaver only topped 84 mph with two of his 90 pitches against the Mariners, both of those coming in a fifth-inning at-bat against Mike Zunino in the fourth inning. One was an 85-mph four-seamer, the other an 87-mph cutter.
I cite Gameday’s figures here because Brooks Baseball, which corrects for variations in the radar guns at each stadium (which is what makes them the go-to site for pitch velocities), seems to have had some difficulty translating the Safeco gun on Monday due to small-sample-size issues. According to BrooksBaseball.net, Weaver’s velocity was right in line with last year’s, but Dan Brooks, who runs the site, says those figures could be skewed by an algorithm that uses “normal performance” for the pitcher in question as a baseline, making it “possible, especially early in season, to overadjust.”
As for Weaver, that he was just one run away from a quality start in this game suggests he can continue to get away with reduced velocity, even if it has reduced him to being a junkballing righty. Still, an additional red flag exists here: He struck out just one of the 25 men he faced, and only four of his 90 pitches caused a batter to swing and miss. Last year, Weaver made a batter swing and miss on 10% of his pitches, but on Monday, he did so on just 4% of his offerings.
The Dodgers’ bullpen: 2 G, 6 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 SV, 1 BSV
The Dodgers ranked 22nd in the majors in relief ERA last year, and the efficacy of the L.A. relievers was already a concern coming into the season, with Kenley Jansen (foot) and Brandon League (shoulder) opening the year on the disabled list. On Monday, rookie righty Yimi Garcia and new additions Joel Peralta and Chris Hatcher got the job done against the Padres with a scoreless inning each in relief of Clayton Kershaw, with the 39-year-old Peralta picking up the win and Hatcher working a perfect ninth for the save. On Tuesday, the bullpen was trusted with a slim 2-1 lead passed down from starter Zack Greinke. It didn’t go nearly as well, with Garcia blowing a lead in the sixth and Hatcher melting down in a tie game in the ninth.
Called upon to get the last out of the sixth after Pedro Baez allowed a single between a pair of strikeouts and Paco Rodriguez gave up a single to pinch-hitter Clint Barmes, Garcia was undermined by a Jimmy Rollins error that allowed the tying run to score. Garcia got out of that inning by getting the next batter to pop up, but in the seventh, he gave up a leadoff single to Derek Norris, who later came around to score on a single by Yonder Alonso off of J.P. Howell, giving San Diego the lead.
The Dodgers tied the game in the bottom of the eighth on a solo homer by Adrian Gonzalez, so manager Don Mattingly went back to Hatcher in the ninth inning for the second straight day. Three batters later, the Padres had the lead back via another Barmes single, a throwing error by catcher Yasmani Grandal on a sacrifice bunt, an RBI single from Wil Myers and a two-run double by Norris, ending Hatcher's night. They tacked on a final run off of Juan Nicasio with a single by Will Middlebrooks. And just to rub it in, the Padres' new closer, some guy named Craig Kimbrel, struck out the side in order in the bottom of the ninth to nail down the 6-3 San Diego win.
So, one good day and one bad one, both for the pen at large and for new-addition Hatcher, who had a 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.56 FIP for the Marlins last year. Can we derive any meaning from any of that? I’m hard pressed to do so. Confirmation bias will lead you to favor the game which best represents your expectations for the Dodgers' 'pen, but no Los Angeles reliever has faced more than Garcia’s nine batters. Garcia got seven of those guys out, and he’s the only Dodgers reliever other than Hatcher with an ERA above zero. Hatcher, meanwhile, has allowed just three hits and walked no one. We need to see more before we can properly pass judgement.
Verdict: Small Sample