W: Sowers (3-8) L: Liz (5-5)
Boy, that's a much different game without the walks and the homers and the sucking. Who knew?
1) Now THAT'S a counterargument!
In Monday's installment, I made the Forceful Statement that Zach Jackson is better than Jeremy Sowers. Now, it's pretty much a given that Cleveland Indians do not read this column, as evidenced by the fact that I still have functional legs, but if there were ever a time in which a player appeared to be flipping me several hundred middle fingers in a row, this performance by Sowers would have to be near the top of the list.
In that same column, I noted that the difference between Jackson's "mediocre" start and Cliff Lee's "start of fine quality" was essentially one single; the difference between Lee's start and Sowers' was that Sowers' was significantly better. Now, with Lee in 2008, one reaches the later innings with the expectation that his fine performance will simply be extended, while with Sowers, one hopes the fire trucks and sand bags have come far enough down the tarmac to extinguish the flaming ball of death that is almost guaranteed to follow.
Except a funny thing happened last night: Sowers was simply great.
I went back and watched the MLB.tv showing of the game to see if I could glean anything special about Sowers' performance. It bears mentioning that if you watch video of Lee in, say, 2006 or 2007 compared to video of Lee in 2008, a cursory glance won't show much difference. It's not like Lee suddenly added 5 mph to his fastball or began throwing a screwball: if anything, one is struck by the fact that if anything, Lee's repertoire has been shortened. He throws fewer curveballs. He throws fewer sliders. He seems to throw more cutters to my untrained eye. But what he does in 2008 more than anything else is throw exactly the pitch he wants at exactly the speed he wants to exactly the spot he wants. And, as it turns out, sometimes we tend to think of baseball in much too complicated terms: you need to cross him up here, and change him up there, and think think thinkity think think. Here is Cliff Lee's apparent thought process (again, to a untrained eye):
This pitch is hard to hit well.
That's it. Sure, he changes the eye plane up and down and in and out and generally follows the tenets of successful pitching, but he basically knows that he throws good pitches, and if he throws the good pitches he intends to the locations he intends, the batter has to be very, very good to beat him. Since most batters aren't, they don't. QED.
Lee has accomplished three significantly different results in his pitching this season: he has changed from a fundamentally flyball pitcher to a fundamentally groundball pitcher, he has kept the ball in the ballpark (kind of a corollary), and he has thrown a very high percentage of his pitches for strikes. With these three weapons in hand, he appears to have developed an auxiliary result: the confidence of repeatability.
I'm nothing like a professional athlete, but I was reasonably athletic before I beat my knees into jelly playing blacktop basketball. I mean, I could hold my own with guys in school or in the office on a Weekend Warrior basis, playing competetively at things like baseball or softball or tennis or basketball and such. (Ironically, the one thing I could never play successfully was snooker. With all my math and physics background, I am unfathomably bad at snooker. I have never won a game, and, with the normal scoring rules, am probably incapable of EVER winning a game, even against myself.) But regardless of whatever statistical significance "hot streaks" do or do not have, I think everyone of this ilk can appreciate that the times that they feel most comfortable and successful are those times when they know that their action, free from serious conscious thinking, is going to have the desired result. If you are concentrating very hard on your arm angle and finger placement and release point on a jump shot, you are probably going to press more unsuccessfully than those times when you're "in the zone" and simply shooting.
It seems from watching Lee that he is locating the ball precisely because he has kinesthetically trained his body to do something fundamentally more fluidly and/or repeatably than ever before in his career. In his early career, I think part of the reason he was a flyball pitcher was that he was consciously trying to hump balls past or in on people. In popular parlance, he looked like he was "aiming" rather than "flowing." I'm not a scout, so this may be projection on my part, but I really think the only substantive difference in Lee's delivery is command: his ball may have more late movement this year, but he's throwing roughly the same stuff at roughly the same speeds ... he's just doing it very much more cleverly and consistently.
Which is a pretty roundabout way to get to the actual point of this item, which is Jeremy Sowers' excellent performance. Let's get the numbers on the record just for the archives: Sowers threw 72 of his 96 pitches for strikes, striking out 7 in 8 complete innings, walking one and giving up one run on 4 hits. Two of the hits were doubles, but it was an extraordinary performance overall. And, in fact, in Sowers' last inning, with a man on first and the Orioles All-Star fast good-hitting second baseman Brian Roberts at the plate standing between a 6-1 easy win and a potential save situation, Sowers got Roberts to bounce into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Look, pitching one outstanding game does not make a pitcher excellent or remarkable. Maintaining success is what makes a pitcher excellent. But let?s take a look at the elements that make up this game and ask, "Are these elements that can translate into future success?"
a) 72 strikes in 96 pitches
Consider this: Sowers faced 28 hitters, and FOUR of them started 1-0. He threw two balls in the first, two in the second, ZERO in the 7th (swinging K, two groundouts, 6 pitches), and ONE in the 8th (foulout, single, GIDP, 10 pitches). Four of his innings were perfect, and five featured the minimum three hitters. He induced 14 swings-and-misses. Now, this looks very much like a pitcher who is not simply throwing strikes (after all, Juan Rincon and Brendan Donnelly threw strikes), but throwing good strikes on both sides of the plate with multiple kinds of pitches. Sowers in the postgame interview said it was three (kinds of pitches), so I'll take his word for it. But BECAUSE he had command of those pitches, he was CONFIDENT that he could place them in the strike zone and not get hit hard.
b) 12 ground outs, 5 fly outs
Part of what propelled Lee around the proverbial corner was his ability to make hitters hit HIS pitches, which they could no longer simply drive into gaps and over the wall. Whether this is sustainable or not is anyone's guess, but again, I think that if Sowers is throwing the KINDS of strikes HE WANTS TO THROW, then this might be his opportunity at propulsion as well
c) 4 H, 1 BB, 0.625 WHIP
Again, think of this as an antecedent rather than a standalone stat: you don't walk people when you throw strikes, and you don't give up hits when you throw well-located pitches with good velocity and/or movement.
Reviewing these elements, this sounds an awful lot like the set of keys to Cliff Lee's success. I am not going to conclude that Sowers is ready to make a Lee-like transformation after one very good start, but I think that a lot of Sowers' problems come when he lacks the confidence in his ability to make certain pitches: he presses, misses the strike zone, and ends up grooving a pitch. He's certainly shown in other starts that he's capable of some extended success (the five-inning starts and subsequent collapses): if he can get these pitches down "by feel," stop thinking about how to force the ball to do what he wants and instead simply let the ball do what he wants, this would represent a true quantum step in Sowers' career.
And then he'd be a LOT better than Zach Jackson.
2) Managerial Head-Scratcher
I mean, he's gotten back on track and is an important cog and yah yah yah, but ... is there EVER going to be a lead or deficit large enough to see if Jon Meloan can pitch? Ever?
3) Box Score Follies
With an 11-pitch (10-strike) ninth inning, Betancourt combined with Sowers to retire a team's worth of Orioles in 107 pitches.
Orioles starter Radhames Liz threw 102 pitches. He left with two outs in the FIFTH.
4) Ducks on the pond!
It would seem that getting 12 hits and 6 walks supplemented by an error and a wild pitch ought to add up to more than six runs. And, sure enough, not only did the Indians leave 13 men on base, a mind-boggling TEN of them were in SCORING POSITION AT THE TIME.
Think about this: in the first inning, the Indians stranded a guy in scoring position (actually two, bear with me here). This is also true of the second inning. The third inning. The fourth inning. The Indians stranded at least one guy in SCORING POSITION in EVERY BLOODY INNING except the ninth. Eight innings in a row! That's not just Squander Ball, that's like Crazy Lady Willing Her Fortune To The Cat Ball. Horrific. Just awful.
You know, I think the AP write-up meant it to sound really dreadful when they said:
The Indians hit 6-for-19 with runners in scoring position.
And, yeah, that's a lot of ABs with runners in scoring position without a whole lot to show for it. But ... y'know ... 6-for-19 is a .316 batting average. I mean, that's pretty good. I'll take .316.
So I guess what you end up with is the fact that none of those hits scored multiple runs, and a bunch were singles. But it's funny that two of the six runs didn't even score on hits with runners in scoring position: Dave Dellucci tripled with Grady Sizemore on first, and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a sac fly.
Special mention goes to Mike Aubrey, who, on an otherwise fine 2-for-5 night, managed to end innings with FOUR men in scoring position. Yikes.
5) Welcome back!
Travis Hafner blasted ... well, okay, not really "blasted," but ... anyway, he hit two singles and went 2-for-4 before getting an intentional walk from Rock Cherry. For this, he drove in as many runs as he scored ... and he was unable to score from first on a double, so that number is zero. Still, two hits is better than what Hafner had going for him in the early season, which was ... pretty much nil. I'll take it.
6) Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.
Andy Marte lashed an RBI double, his 11th on the season. (I had no idea he was in double-digits.) He also had a single in a 2-for-5 night.
Kelly Shoppach reached base an impressive four times on a part of doubles and a pair of walks. He scored twice and drove in a run. He also struck out, so I know it was really him.
The replacement left fielder had a perfect night at the plate, drawing a walk off a right-hander and singling later in the game. He also stole his sixth base of the season off a battery I'd never heard of until this season.
Four of Cleveland's six runs scored with two outs.
Juan Rincon did not pitch.
7) The end of an era
Shin-Soo Choo took an Elizabethan collar, going 0-for-5 to end his 12-game hitting and 28-game on-base streaks. He still hit the ball pretty well a couple of times.