Monday, July 7, 2008

Balester Pt. 2: More Alike than Different

Yesterday looked a lot different in the box score than Mr. Balester's first start, but really what I saw was actually pretty similar.

The quick version is that, like against the Marlins, he was effective as long as he could paint the corners with his 91-92 mph fastball and mix in the curveball for strikes. But again he didn't really have a plan B when he lost command at all, and his stuff isn't overpowering enough to allow mistakes in plan A.

Here's the more detailed version, at least how I saw it.

He faced the minimum for the first three frames, but in the first and second he threw almost all fastballs, and he was playing with fire with long flyball outs on hittable pitches to Dunn, Hairston and Encarnacion. He did throw a really good fastball tailing out of the strike zone up and away to Griffey in the first, but otherwise he was getting by, nothing more.

His best inning hands-down was the third. He threw 12 pitches, 10 for strikes, but more importantly he threw three real nice curveballs for strikes--two to Votto and one to Ross. He's going to get a lot of outs if he can do that more consistently.

The fourth started ok. He got Hairston on a curveball that he probably hung a bit, but he got away with it. Keppinger grounded out on a nice tailing fastball down and away that'll get ground ball outs 90% of the time it's put in play. He started Griffey with another very nice backdoor curve and got strike two with a fastball on his hands that he fouled off. At this point by my count he'd thrown 42 pitches, 30 for strikes. He was looking real good.

Then it came apart. Four times he tried to get the tailing fastball away that struck out Griffey in the first, and four times he missed badly. It looked to me like his left shoulder was opening up early, but whatever it was he lost command, just as he did in the 5th against the Marlins. After walking Junior he started missing out over the plate, resulting in a sharp base hit by Phillips and the homer by Dunn. You could summarize the difference between the first start and this one like this: in the inning when he lost command, Cantu bailed him out by popping up a hittable pitch with 2 outs and 2 on. Dunn homered in the similar situation this time.

Next inning, 4-pitch walk to Votto, with all four pitches just off the plate. Then he seemed to dial back his fastball to 88 just to get it over, and predictably, Ross doubled. He can't do that. Volquez tried to give away an out on sac bunt, and Meat couldn't field it. That doesn't help the kid.

Then Balester bore down. Truthfully, Hairston bailed him out a bit by grounding out on a curveball nowhere near the strike zone. He got a run in, but Balester needed the first out badly. After that, he jammed Keppinger with a good fastball in and got Griffey to ground out on a very good fastball painted on the outside corner. Gotta like the nerve he shows in these spots.

In the sixth for the first time ever we saw him throw as many off-speed pitches as fastballs in an inning. After four good pitches to Phillips, he hung a curve that was drilled for a double. He fell behind Dunn with three pitches not close, then caught up by painting the corners with the fastball and striking him out on a nice curveball. Encarnacion saw four pitches, three of them curveballs, all strikes, and popped up. Then the intentional walk to Votto. Not sure about that decision by Manny. Kid had a nice little rhythm going and then seemed to lose his feel, falling behind Ross and then hitting him with a fastball.

That was it. Colome got the third out with the bases loaded to keep the ERA from ballooning any more.

Overall, I like that he at least tried to throw more off speed stuff. He needs to, and against the Reds he threw a more sustainable 61% fastballs, versus 78% in his first start.
(BTW I wonder how much of that was game plan and how much was LoDuca.) However, I don't like that he still threw just 58% of his pitches for strikes, almost exactly the ratio he had in his first start. In some ways he actually pitched better this time (same strike to ball ratio with 17 percentage points more breaking pitches is better pitching, right? OK, not necessarily, but in his case I think yes). I'm still in favor of the call-up, but we may regret having him here now if he has two more starts like this and goes back down with weakened confidence.

One final thought. Where's the heck is the change up that we were told was key to his getting called up? He threw four in his first start and just six today, but only one for a strike.

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