PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Pitching on the rise in CIN

Cincinnati Reds

A week ago, Bobby Nightengale posted an article on Cincinnati.com in which David Hernandez (RHP, CIN) and Anthony DeSclafani (RHP, CIN) discussed the team’s emphasis on throwing their fastballs up in the zone more frequently. The approach has worked for DeSclafani in the early going. In 2018, he threw 27% of his fastballs up in the zone, which resulted in a 5.9% whiff rate and a .344 ISO for opposing hitters. This season, that mark has risen to 45%, with opposing batters registering a more palatable .250 ISO (14.1% whiff rate). While he’s still surrendered three home runs off the pitch, there is clear improvement in the results, and that provides hope that he can pitch more consistently as the season progresses.

There have been similar changes for both Luis Castillo (SP, CIN) and Sonny Gray (SP, CIN). While both have seen improved results on their fastball, Castillo’s have been drastic. Hitters teed off on the pitch last season—he surrendered a .282 ISO and 13 home runs off the pitch—when he threw only 27.2% of his fastballs high in the zone. Even in his strong debut in 2017, hitters managed a .273 ISO against his heat. Yet, with his changed approach this season—he’s throwing high in the zone 43.3% of the time with his fastball—he's held opposing batters to a .150 ISO and two home runs. While his secondary stuff has gotten the majority of the attention this season, his continued success with the fastball could be the key to maintaining his breakout performance as we roll into the summer months.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

Carlos Martinez (RHP, STL) is in the midst of a rehab assignment and could return to the team as early as their weekend series against Texas. While it’s been determined that he will work out of the bullpen—at least initially—manager Mike Shildt commented that Martinez could pace towards a 100-inning workload. While working as a reliever for the entirety of the season would rule Martinez out of making contributions in areas such as quality starts, if he carries as heavy of a workload as Shildt suggests, he could be a key contributor in wins, strikeouts, and perhaps even saves.

We got a small sample of what Martinez could provide in terms of skills after his 18.1 innings out of the bullpen last season. While the sample wasn’t exceptional (9.3 Dom, 1.7 Cmd), he did manage a 1.47 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. It’s not clear if he was ever fully healthy when he returned to a bullpen role after recovering from a shoulder cuff strain, another reason to view those results with a degree of skepticism. In positive news, health, for the time being, doesn’t appear to be an issue for Martinez this season. In a rehab appearance Friday in which he pitched one inning, Martinez touched 97 mph with his fastball and also commanded the zone well, throwing nine of his 11 pitches for strikes.

He’ll make at least two more appearances with the Cardinals’ minor-league affiliates before returning to St. Louis. A return to the rotation still seems likely as the ultimate result for Martinez if he proves healthy, but regardless of role, Martinez is prepared to make an impact and it shouldn’t be overlooked even if he isn’t making starts or recording saves.  

  

Pittsburgh Pirates

After serving mostly as a part-time utility man across the last three seasons, Adam Frazier (2B, PIT) has gotten the chance to call second base home in 2019. However, he’s seen a significant decline in skill through 145 plate appearances. Though his ct% (83%) and Eye (0.48) have remained intact, he hasn’t hit the ball particularly well (85 HctX). That has left him largely with empty contact, as he has done next to nothing with those at-bats, registering a 60 PX and 57 xPX, .264 xBA, and .681 OPS.

Despite the struggles, Frazier has remained the team’s primary leadoff hitter, so it doesn’t appear that his playing time is in immediate danger. Still, it’s worth taking inventory of some of the depth in the Pirates’ organization, particularly because most of the options are young prospects or recently graduated former prospects. Kevin Newman (2B/SS, PIT) got off to a rough start in his major league debut, posting a -43 BPV in 97 plate appearances in the 2018 season. While still dealing in small samples, he’s managed to look much better at the plate, already racking up three extra-base hits in just 34 plate appearances, a performance also backed by relatively solid indicators (95 HctX, 93 PX, 108 xPX, .277 xBA).

Another potential challenge to Frazier’s playing time is Kevin Kramer (2B, PIT), who remains at Triple-A Indianapolis. Despite the horrific skills he profiled in his brief major-league debut in 2018 (46 ct%, .094 xBA), Kramer has shown the ability to get on base regularly, with a career .362 on-base percentage in the minors. He’s also showing some increased power in recent seasons (.492 slugging percentage at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2018). A final variable could be the addition of Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B, PIT) to the major-league squad, as he would push Colin Moran (3B, PIT) off the hot corner. The Pirates have briefly tried Moran at second base, and that could turn into a longer-term experiment if they are set on keeping Moran’s bat in the lineup.

 

Chicago Cubs

In Yu Darvish’s (RHP, CHC) start against Miami on Thursday, he allowed only one hit and one earned run, but continued to struggle with his command. He walked six and racked up a pitch count of 97 while lasting only four innings as a result. After the game, Joe Maddon repeated his sentiment against using an opener, however, Darvish’s severe control issues could make the opener something for the team to consider.

Joe Maddon also stated post-game Thursday that Darvish was “thinking too much.” Perhaps more interesting was his further clarification on what was plaguing his pitcher, to which he responded, “I don’t have any solid answers. He’s healthy, (the) ball’s coming out of his hands really well. We’ve just got be more consistent in the zone. It’s not that complicated.” Taylor Davis (C, CHC), the man who caught his game Thursday, had a slightly different take, saying, “I don’t think he’s thinking too much as just caring too much. That sounds crazy, but he really just wants to make the perfect pitch when he doesn’t have to.” Given those comments, Darvish’s issues certainly to seem to be mental rather than physical.  

While Darvish has still struggled with walks the first time through the order, he’s managed a 3.14 ERA in that split, as opposed a 6.61 and 7.50 ERA, respectively, his second and third times through the order. Additionally, he has a 3.7 Ctl against the top two hitters in opposing lineups, as opposed to 1.6 and 0.4 marks against the three through six and seven through nine hitters, respectively. While those numbers don’t necessarily suggest the need for an opener, Darvish’s struggles to pitch deep into games through his Cubs tenure indicate otherwise. Specifically, he’s made 16 starts with the team and failed to surpass five innings in exactly half of them. This season, he’s managed to cover just 36.2 innings across his eight starts, meaning the bullpen has pitched nearly as many innings (35.1) as he has in his eight outings. The team has two built-in long relievers who should have no problem working two to three innings per outing in Mike Montgomery (LHP, CHC) and Tyler Chatwood (RHP, CHC). While the Cubs remain resistant, if they want any type of return on their investment with Darvish, they may have to turn to uncomfortable solutions.

 

Milwaukee Brewers

Travis Shaw (2B, MIL) spent the entirety of the Brewers’ three-game weekend set against the Cubs out of the starting lineup. While that was mostly due to the fact that the Cubs trotted out three southpaws, his performance hasn’t made him an indispensable part of the team’s lineup. After entering the game on Saturday as a pinch-hitter, Shaw went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. A high volume of whiffs has been a common theme for Shaw to start the season, as he has a troubling 14.2% swinging strike rate that has translated to a 32.4 K%. Oddly, his plate discipline has remained nearly identical to last season when he posted a 66 BPV and 133 PX. That gives hope that he’ll work his way through the slump, but the question has now become whether he will have time to. Keston Hiura (2B, MIL) remains at Triple-A San Antonio, but is knocking down the door for his call-up to the big leagues. While his strikeout rate remains bloated at 26.8%, more recent results suggest his early-season struggles were a small stumble rather than a major roadblock. Since April 21, Hiura has 15 strikeouts compared to 13 walks across 82 plate appearances. That equates to an 18.3 K%, which he’s paired with a season-long line of .333/.406/.706.

In addition to trying to get Shaw on track, the Brewers have also been searching for the right combination of pitchers to remain in their starting rotation. Of late however, Brandon Woodruff (RHP, MIL) has stated his case and should remain one of the starting five barring injury. In five starts to begin the season between March 30 and April 21, Woodruff averaged 95 mph with his fastball. In that same span, he posted a 5.17 ERA and allowed 1.4 HR/9. In three starts since, his velocity has ticked up to 96 mph—where he sat last season—and the results have followed. In 16 innings since his velocity returned, Woodruff has struck out 22, walked three, and allowed zero home runs, all while posting a 1.69 ERA.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.