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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Carlos Hernandez, Durham Bulls blank Buffalo Bisons: Crunching the numbers (and cracking some bones)

Posted by on Wed, Jun 9, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Carlos Hernandez
  • File photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Carlos Hernandez
DBAP/DURHAM—The Durham Bulls wore pink last night. There's a lot of breast cancer awareness signage around Durham these days (although it isn't National Breast Cancer Awareness Month), and it was good to see the local ballclub represent.

Pink may not be first on anyone's list of sports team colors—I can't think of a single team in any sport that wears it, in fact—and it isn't really worth going into a disquisition on how or why it is exactly that pink has come to represent all that is feminine and unsporty. It's not as if Carolina Blue, to name a local example, is exactly super-macho.

But for the Bulls these days, the uniform hardly matters, and while they're playing the way they have been for the last ten days they can wear whatever color they want: seafoam, pastel orange, bridal white. What do you call a 500-pound gorilla? You call him Sir. What do you say to a 500-pound gorilla wearing pink? Sir, pink looks great on you, Sir.

After whipping the Buffalo Bisons last night, 7-0, the Bulls are 8-2 over their last 10 games, all of them versus three over-.500 North Division teams (and eight on the road). In that span, they've outscored opponents 66-18, thrown four shutouts (!) and increased their lead in the (admittedly weak) International League South Division to 8.5 games. They are now 11 games over .500—more about the team's record after the jump—for the first time this season.

The Bulls hit two more homers last night—the second in as many games for Chris Richard, who is 20-43 over his last 10 games with a ludicrous 1.373 OPS (and celebrated turning 36 on Monday with a 400-foot homer), and an incendiary bomb over the Blue Monster by Ryan Shealy that surely rattled glassware in the Tobacco Road Cafe. Shealy's blast was part of a four-run fourth inning against Buffalo starter Dillon Gee that basically ended the game. To be fair, it included a pair of infield singles on grounders that couldn't quite be turned into outs by the Bison infield. Nonetheless, from the fourth inning on, seven of the 12 Bulls who reached base scored. Dillon Gee allowed six runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings. On April 27 at Buffalo, he allowed the Bulls five runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings, including a homer by Chris Richard and a double by Ryan Shealy. Any other questions?

Moreover, Matt Joyce is back; in seven games since returning from an arm injury, he's got an OPS close to .900. Desmond Jennings was moved back up in the order (he batted second on Tuesday after hitting seventh for most of the last week or so; the original demotion was Charlie Montoyo's idea, by the way, he told me, not a decree from the Tampa front office), and hit his first triple of the season to go along with an infield hit and a bloop single. Even on a night when both Dan Johnson and Justin Ruggiano went hitless, they each walked and scored (and both hit balls hard). The Bulls lead the league in OPS, slugging, homers and runs scored, are in second place in most other important hitting categories, and, just to prove they're not just a power station, lead the league in stolen bases by a wide margin. To top it off, they have also committed the second-fewest errors.

But the story of last night's win was pitching—the Bulls threw a one-hitter against Buffalo, and that one hit came in the first inning against Carlos Hernandez, who earned his sixth victory. He should probably have more than that; the Bulls average fewer than four runs per game when he pitches, which is amazing for this group of hitters. Please, though, don't forget the pitchers: Scoring 66 runs in 10 games is excellent; allowing 18 might be even better.

A lot about Durham's awesome pitching after the jump.

Carlos Hernandez throws something like six pitches: three different fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter), slider, curve, changeup. He no longer throws hard—89 mph is pretty much his max—and, despite his track record of decent success, he doesn't really throw strikes. He has walked 27 batters in 62 innings this year, not a great ratio (about four per nine innings) but actually an improvement over his career average (4.8/9). His WHIP this season is 1.31, which is only okay and is about in line with his lifetime stats. He has allowed 30 runs so far this year, but only 20 of them have been earned, which suggests poor defense behind him. His ERA this year is an excellent 2.90

If you follow the latest trends in baseball stats—sabermetrics, as they're known—you may have read that unearned runs actually owe more to the pitcher than we may have thought: in other words, errors don't make as much difference in a pitcher's overall performance as it might appear. And in any case, the fielding hasn't been that bad. For example, back on May 2, Hernandez allowed five runs in seven innings against Rochester, but only one was earned. That's because Danny Valencia led off by reaching on Fernando Perez's fielding error; later in the inning, Hernandez allowed a walk, a triple and a home run. He was much more the culprit than Perez was. In his next start against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Hernandez followed an Angel Chavez error (on a stolen base attempt) by giving up a three-run homer to David Winfree. Again, the bigger mistake was the pitcher's.

So there's this stat called FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) that tries to measure pitchers only by what they can control: walks, strikeouts and homers. I have some issues with FIP—it derives from the suggestion that pitchers have no control whatsoever over the fate of balls put in play, about which I'm a bit skeptical—but it's a good stat overall in its isolation of the barest bones of pitching success and failure. Hernandez's 2010 FIP is 3.42, which is quite good. He has allowed only four home runs, and has struck out 55 in 62 innings. Where it counts, despite the walks, he's very good.

Another, much more practical place where it counts, if it hits you (and to get back to the headline of this post): your body and bones. Carlos Hernandez looked only OK for the first three innings last night. Buffalo had beaten him in late April—with, it must be said, a vastly different lineup than the one he faced the first time around. A few have been called up to the Bison parent club (the incondite New York Mets: fire Omar Minaya! good grief!); Jason Pridie, a former Bull who always seems to victimize his old team, is injured; and league OPS-leader Mike Hessman, who homered off Hernandez in April, had the night off.

Still, Hernandez had a score to settle, but early on it didn't look good. Justin Turner flied out to very deep center field in the first inning before Mike Jacobs got what would turn out to be Buffalo's only hit, a line single to left. Hernandez walked a batter in the second, and needed 38 pitches to get through the first two innings, including three full counts.

Then, with two outs in the third, Turner smacked a grounder at Hernandez. It hit Hernandez's leg, hard, and bounced right back toward home plate, almost all the way to catcher Alvin Colina. (Later, Colina joked that Hernandez told him "he saw the ball coming but he just didn't feel like moving." That was the laugh-line of the night. And, anent Hernandez's outer shin, a few inches above the ankle: "It's gonna look pretty good tomorrow.") Colina fielded the ricochet and threw out Turner, who either wasn't running all that hard or isn't very fast. A rare 1-2-3 putout.

And for the next three innings after that, Hernandez was nearly perfect. No one hit a ball very hard off of him, he struck out four batters, and allowed only one baserunner (a two-out walk to Turner, who had the Bisons' most eventful night). In the fourth and fifth innings, he threw 16 of 21 pitches for strikes. After the game, Hernandez talked about "pounding the strike zone." He did that for much of the night. About 2/3 of his pitches were strikes, he kept the ball down—there were only three outs in the air—and generated 12 swings-and-misses. Charlie Montoyo called it Hernandez's best start of the year—nice to have that on a night when the Bulls had arisen before 4:00 AM to fly home from Syracuse, and thus were tired—and the evidence amply supports Montoyo's assessment.

Montoyo also volunteered unsolicited praise for Joe Bateman, who pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Hernandez and who has quietly excelled all season so far. Bateman leads the Bulls in appearances (22) and relief innings pitched (33), and has a superb 1.34 ERA. (Amazingly, that's only third-best on the team: both Mike Ekstrom and R. J. Swindle, who have combined to pitch only 25 innings, have ERAs under 1.00.) The main reason for Bateman's increased success this year has to be walks. He allowed 35 of them in 62 2/3 innings last year; in 2010 to date, that ratio is 11/33. The strikeouts are down a bit and the hits up a little, but Bateman's improvement is a convincing example of the importance of walks. If you don't put them on base yourself, they have to do it themselves. Also, in the FIP zone, Bateman has allowed only one home run this year, after surrendering none at all last year.

Dale Thayer pitched a perfect ninth inning for Durham to complete the ONE-HITTER (!). It says something that a guy who is something like a closer—he saved 17 Bulls games in 2009, and one for the Tampa Bay Rays—and has been excellent this year (take away a disastrous four-walk, three-run, 1/3-inning appearance versus Pawtucket on May 25 and his ERA is 1.44) gets called on to mop up a 7-0 blowout. Winston Abreu had to do the same in the Bulls' 12-3 pasting of Syracuse on Monday. (Abreu has regained peak form since his early-season, post-surgery struggles; he has allowed just one run in his last nine appearances, with 18 strikeouts in 10 innings.) The Bulls have only 10 saves, but the bullpen is so good that you can't help thinking they could easily have 30 had the need been there.

Too bad for a guy looking for work in the DBAP fire department, and guess who showed up at the DBAP last night? Jason Childers! Childers, who led the team in appearances last year, started the season with the Sultanes de Monterrey in the Mexican League. He didn't do well, though, and was recently released. He came up from his hometown in Georgia to hang out with his Bull buddies and, not incidentally, maybe throw a few cutters and changeups before the eyes of pitching coach Xavier Hernandez. Childers is 35, and his best years may be behind him, but he is a durable and skilled pitcher, and he'll latch on somewhere, especially as the better arms are called up this summer to reinforce crumbling big-league bullpens. It probably won't be in Durham, however, where the relief corps is probably the best in the league, and would still be terrific even if you took away a couple of guys.

(I'll be interviewing Childers tomorrow before the ballgame. Look for a report soon...)

In fact, the Bulls' whole pitching staff is tops in the league. Lost in the higher-visibility exploits of the hitters is that the Bulls lead the league in ERA by nearly half a run (!), and have the best WHIP. They've allowed the fewest hits and the second-fewest home runs. (Oddly, they're not near the top of the heap in strikeouts, even though Jeremy Hellickson is fourth in the league and Hernandez 11th.) In short, the pitching is as good as the hitting, and the hitting is the best in the league.

So when you tally up the hitting and the pitching, here's what you get: the best team in the league, with a run differential of a whopping +122. For comparison, the best RD in the majors is +98 in just about the same number of games—the Bulls have played 59 games, the big-leaguers 58. The team with that +98 mark happens to be the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are 38-20, the best record in baseball.

So then why, with a better run differential, are the Bulls only 35-24? There's another fun sabermetric stat (it's the wave of the present, kids) called "Pythagorean Winning Percentage" that predicts how many games a team should be expected to win based on their run differential. The Bulls' Pythagorean winning percentage is .710, which means that they should currently be 42-17; in other words, they're underperforming by a lot. That's because the Bulls have a poor record in close games. In outcomes decided by more than three runs, they are 23-10, which is fairly close to their Pythagorean percentage (.697 as opposed to .710). But in games decided by three runs or fewer, they are only 12-14, and just 4-8 in one-run games. Why? Luck, to a significant degree. You could argue that they aren't a "clutch" team, but with a bullpen this good and a lot of productive power hitters, that would be hard to do. The evidence doesn't seem to be there.

Which is to say that chances are very good that the Bulls will win at a higher rate as the season goes on, due to the old regression-to-the mean phenomenon—I used this fun tool that said the Bulls ought to win a tremendous 91 games at their current run-differential rate. Chances are good if, that is, guys like Chris Richard and Dan Johnson keep hitting like they have done so far and aren't injured or traded or promoted (ditto Hellickson and others). But of course they will, some of them, either fall off their current level of production or fall onto the disabled list or move up or out. We could very well see Jason Childers in a Bulls uniform by year's end, if some of the current relievers pitch their way out of Triple-A. The Bulls could be forced to refit their starting rotation by swapping out one Iowan (Hellickson, if he's promoted) for another (Jason Cromer, if he's really healthy). Chris Nowak and Rashad Eldridge could return from Montgomery, in place of Dan Johnson and Desmond Jennings. And so on.

And that's life in Class AAA: if you get too good, some of what made you too good will be taken away and you'll get less good. Triple-A has a built-in regression-to-the-mean mechanism. Maybe that's why the International League championship trophy is called the Governor's Cup: "governor" like the thing on a schoolbus engine; you just can't go that fast in the end. So enjoy the Bulls' current stampede while it lasts.

After the game, I was tickled, uh, pink to hear "Dance Yrself Clean," the lead track on the excellent new album by LCD Soundsystem, playing on the Bulls' clubhouse stereo. When did ballplayers get so hip? And what will they be playing tonight after Jeremy Hellickson, the ace of the staff (8-2, 2.28 ERA), pitches at the DBAP against the Bisons' Tobi Stoner (3-5, 4.91)? See you at 7:05 PM.

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