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Friday, July 13, 2007

SEASON RESUMES, WILL THE MAGIC? 

Well, finally, baseball's back. I think this whole de facto four-day All-Star Break that so many teams have enjoyed is a lot of nonsense, frankly, but what'chu gonna do?

I was silent over the break, but this time it wasn't laziness or busy-ness or anything of that sort; I simply failed. I started working on a piece to try to diagnose the problems of Ervin Santana. I took a gander at batted-ball types, at the types of counts he was getting in ... nothing jumped out, in the record of his performance, as explanatory of the problems he's had lately.

Compared to last season, Ervin is allowing more hits on balls in play and allowing many more home runs. He was exceptionally good/lucky/well-supported in connection with the former last year, so some bounce-back should have been expected and, honestly, is not at alarming levels. What's more disturbing is the latter: Santana is allowing home runs at a vastly higher rate than last season -- nearly twice as frequently.

His struggles don't seem to have anything to do with whether he's from the stretch or not, either -- oddly, he's been better with men on (an OPS allowed of 802) than with the bases empty (944) -- this is the opposite of what you normally see. He does struggle with men in scoring position the most (1000), but is actually doing pretty well with a guy on first only (618).

Does he struggle to close out innings? He's worst with zero outs. Does he struggle after guys have already seen him a couple of times in a game? He's worst the second time through the order, not the third.

The simple solution just seems to be: he's making bad pitches. How someone with his talent, and his level of success, falls apart so, I don't know. There were 84 pitchers in the AL last year who qualified for the ERA title; Santana's 102 ERA+ ranks tied for 51st out of that group, which isn't bad (qualifiers tend to be at least okay pitchers, otherwise they wouldn't get that many innings). And yet, he's starting to look nothing like a pitcher.

The temptation to bring up Joe Saunders remains -- especially that he's starting to perform fairly well at AAA -- but I honestly don't know that putting Ervin in the PCL's gonna do anything for him. (Also, it's not like Ervin is the biggest rotation problem we have now.)

What this really is is the first big challenge Mike Butcher has faced as our pitching coach. Can he figure out what's ailing The Magic? Can Ervin respond? Or is this just a bunch of bad luck, where every single bad pitch is getting punished, instead of a few being fouled off or hit right at someone?

I don't know.

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Comments:
I think it's very much a coaching & maturity issue. So far Magic seems to pout a lot at Butcher's suggestions, exaggerating them (like the orders to speed up delivery) for effect, to show that they're stupid. It's right to blame him if he's being a jerkoff, but it's also on the coach to establish a rapport.

All that said, I think he becomes dynamite overnight if he could just locate that fastball at all, for instance at the knees instead of the belt, and maybe even on the corner sometimes. (Obviously, the same could be said for every pitcher, but he really does seem to miss right smack dab in the middle, with a perfectly straight pitch, way too much.)
 
One nit to pick: he's better the third time around against guys because he only gets to face them a third time if he's pitching well. Lately, he's been so bad he hasn't survived the second round.

One observation to make: When he goes bad, Santana seems to go bad in a hurry. He'll cruise for an inning or three, but once that first run or two gets on, watch out. Matt's right -- it's a maturity issue. He's letting his frustrations get to him, he's overthrowing and missing high, and those mistakes up are getting hit over the fence.

I still wouldn't trade him -- one has to believe Colon's gone after this year, and Santana's still young -- but I'd maybe have him skip a start, see if a breather helps him at all.
 
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