Sunday, August 3, 2008

Scouting Report: Reds at Nationals (8/3)

Reds at Nationals: Sunday, August 3 at 1:35 ET
The brooms are out on South Capitol Street. Just remember, folks, the youth movement is going to have a lot more "learning experiences" than what we've seen so far this weekend. I'm not trying to be a killjoy, just enjoy it now, and be mentally prepared for the inevitable.

One little pet peeve that I need to get out there. For the love of God, Washington Post, stop writing about our pitchers' W-L records. It's a stupid stat that has way more to do with things the pitcher has no control over than what he does. It's bad enough that our GM makes people think it's relevant. Just cut it out. Lannan, Bergmann, and Balester are all doing fine. If the Redskins lose the season opener 3-0, you aren't going to write about the "disappointing hard-luck Redskins defense." Our kids have enough legitimate things to worry about without a stupid sports page trumping up stupid things like this.

Here's my take on the series finale against the Redlegs.

Pitching match-up
Johnny Cueto: We get to see another of MLB's top young guns today. Cueto is a little guy (5' 10", 198) with big stuff. Fastball sits at 93, occasionally touching the upper 90s. Slider is his second plus pitch, and he also throws an occasional change. Don't be fooled by the 5.02 ERA. Today's challenge is a lot more like Kershaw than Bailey.

The hard slider-fastball combination can be a tricky one for hitters and pitchers both. If he's on, look for a lot of strikeouts and jammed lefties. The idea for him will be to establish his fastball and get ahead in counts by locating it well down and on the corners. Then the slider will then come in looking like the fastball and then disappear, often into the dirt. Hitters will look terrible if he has both the fastball and slider working.
Cueto also can get a lot of called strikes with the slider by putting throwing it on the outside edge to lefties--it comes in looking like a ball all the way and the bites hard over the back corner of the plate. Sometimes with pitchers like this the home plate umpire can have a big effect depending on whether he's calling that "backdoor" strike or not. The change up is there to keep batters off balance and help induce groundouts when needed.

Watch this video of him making a bunch of Nationals look silly back on 7/3. First he just blows away Bernadina with the fastball, but then Guzman, Young, Lannan, and Bernadina again all strike out on deadly sliders that were nowhere near the strike zone.
Why are they swinging at that slider out of the zone? Notice the called third strike on Belliard in the middle. Fastball on the black. That pitch looks just like the buried slider out of the pitcher's hand. Bernadina and Lannan are easy, but to strike out Guzzy and DY you gotta have killer stuff.

The tricky part for Cueto is that with this arsenal he needs to really learn how to pitch. It's the sequence and location that matters as much as the pure action and velocity. And the command of the slider needs to be there. If he can throw it for strikes, then hitters have to respect it and will look like Guzman and Meat flailing away in that clip. But if hitters can afford to just lay off the slider and sit dead red, well, that's what happened to Brad Lidge in 2006.

This year Cueto's taken some lumps, with a 5.02 ERA overall, and he's been struggling lately, which makes me wonder if his small frame is maybe wearing down a bit. His command is fine (just 3.28 BB/9). His HR/FB rate has also been high--14.6%, versus the league average of 10-11%. That's the Great American Small Park effect and bad luck on the road too (he's actually done worse on the road than in the GASP). He's not getting quite as many groundball outs as you'd like, but the strikeouts are fantastic--8.09 per 9 innings, good enough for 11th in the NL. He's a good pitcher, and the Nationals have their work cut out for them.

Collin Balester: Balester had his best start as a big leaguer last time out, allowing 2 runs on 6 hits with 5 Ks and 0 BB against the tough Phillies lineup. For the first time, I saw him throwing all three of his pitches--fastball, curve, change--with command in all counts. The lanky righty never had any stretches of lost command, which can be a problem for the big guys who can have trouble repeating their delivery. He's been a lot tougher on lefties than righties so far this year, and the Reds' best hitters are lefties.

What To Look For
No one should benefit more from the improved defense than Balester. He's a groundball pitcher, and he was betrayed at several key moments by Lo Duca at first and other defensive breakdowns in his first few starts. The difference in infield range between Guzman-Lopez-Lo Duca and Gonzalez-Bonifacio-Casto is gigantic.

Balester faced the Reds in the GASP in his second start, probably his worst. He walked a couple guys in front of Adam Dunn in one of the league's most hitter friendly parks. Can't do that. But he's already a better pitcher than he was then. Should be an interesting contrast.

Cueto is one of the worst hitting pitchers in baseball. He has one hit in 31 AB with 11 Ks.

Guzman made an appearance last night. Since he's pinch-run and played the field only, I assume the situation is that he's unavailable to hit. One of these days I'm going to do a post adding up the number of games Manny has gone with less than 25 available. I'm curious to see how he handles it though if/when Guzzy is ready to go. If the AG is playing as well as he is, how do you bench him for a guy who was hitting .167 BA /.235 OBP / .267 SLG since the AS break?

Dukes was late, Manny sent his message by removing him from the line-up, and then got him right back out there in time to make sure it isn't a lingering issue and oh by the way help win the game. Brilliant handling of the situation. Just enough tough love to get your point across without letting it become some power struggle.

Is Kearns getting his head out of it tush? Sure would be nice to have him act the veteran leader and not the moping albatross he was with Felipe and Lo Duca around...

What to Root For
Balester of course, but I'm hoping to see Milledge keep. LMillz needs to finish strong, and there isn't much time left. Cueto could be tough, but with the right approach he has the bat speed to drive the fastball or a slider if he hangs one. He can't go up there guessing though.

What to Feel Good About
Just savor the moment. Don't think too much.

Fearless Prediction
(Season record: 7-3, one bull's eye)
The Nationals battle hard and play well, but fall in a close duel of young 'uns. Reds win, 3-2.

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