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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Durham Bulls lose again at Indianapolis: more of the same

Posted by on Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 5:00 AM

I didn't have a chance to listen to the Bulls' 2-1 loss at Indianapolis last night, so I can only go by the game logs and Neil Solondz's report; but it seems to me that the Bulls showed some widening of the holes in the fabric of their season to date. It's hard to know whether these can be stitched up adequately enough to set this team up for the playoffs. Certainly the talent and the drive are there, but over and over again the Bulls lose for the same handful of reasons:

1) Not Enough Hits and Too Many Strikeouts. I wrote last night that the Bulls have trouble stringing rallies together unless the opposing pitcher helps out with walks; they just don't put enough balls in play. Last night, they struck out nine more times (or 10, depending on whose count you accept) in six innings against Ian Snell, and managed just five hits overall in 33 plate appearances. That's a little extreme---Snell has major-league stuff and a chip on his shoulder, and Indians' closer Chris Bootcheck was an International League All-Star---but lately the Bulls seem to be hitting less and striking out more. Chris Wise over at WDBB has a chart and notes about the Ks.

2) Baserunning. And when the Bulls finally did get something going off of Snell, they ran themselves out of the rally. With two on and one out in the sixth inning and Durham down 1-0, Justin Ruggiano doubled to drive in Henry Mateo and move Reid Brignac to third. But Ruggiano rounded second base too widely and was thrown out trying to retreat to the bag. That SBG (the Bulls' old nemesis) might have cost the Bulls the lead: there would have been two men in scoring position and one out. Instead, there were two outs with Brignac on third. Naturally, Chris Richard struck out. See 1).

3) Runners in scoring position. (Geeky stats advisory!) Last night's 1-5 isn't really that bad when you consider how few chances the Bulls had with RISP, but lately they've really struggled to hit in the clutch. By my count, they're now 10-61 with RISP since the All-Star break. If memory serves, they had a similarly anemic stretch early in the season, too.

Oddly, a wider-angle lens on this stat shows minimal distortion between overall season hitting (.255) and RISP hitting (.251 as a whole, although the current roster is actually at a collective .249). But when you pick that apart, you see that the problem is the mean, not the average---or at least I think that's the correct mathematical distinction (said the book critic, drowning in numbers). Six of the team's hitters are batting under .232 with RISP; three are hitting above .315; and just three are between .232 and .315. That means that a clutch-deficient Bull is nearly always twice as likely to come to the plate as a decent or excellent clutch hitter. And one of those apparently excellent clutch hitters has deceptive numbers: Ray Olmedo is at .316 with RISP, but his slugging percentage in that situation is only .355 (that's actually slightly higher than his overall mark). Not surprisingly, the clutchiest Bull is Jon Weber, who is a King-Kongly .345/.400/.707.

A couple of quick notes before I hit the hay:

* Did Jason Cromer make a god angry? All the guy does is pitch well every single time out. He has a 1.75 ERA and a WHIP barely over 1.00 with a .214 BA-against; but he's just 3-2 in 10 starts even though he's lasted at least six innings in six of his last seven. He allowed one run in six innings last night and got another no-decision.

* Should we be worried about Dale Thayer? He has allowed 10 earned runs this year: half of them came in his first 26 appearances, the other half in the last nine. I could be wrong, but it seems like he often gets victimized by doubles. In fairness to Thayer, one of his recent blown saves was almost entirely the result of bad luck; and he was a strike away from keeping the winning run from scoring last night when Lastings Milledge prolonged the inning with an infield chopper off the plate that went for a cheap hit. Nonetheless, Thayer surrendered an RBI single to the next batter to end the game.

Any number of things could be causing Thayer's recent struggles (which aren't really that bad: he has a decent 3.46 ERA over his last 10 appearances, although that's about double his ERA for the rest of the year). One, part of Thayer's effectiveness owes generally to his unusual slingshot-like delivery, which makes the ball hard to pick up until you adjust to Thayer's motion; by now, a lot of hitters have seen Thayer at some point in the season and may have started seeing the ball better when he pitches. Two, Rays' player-development whiz-kid Chaim Bloom told me earlier this season that Thayer is still prone to missing his spots badly on occasion; perhaps, as the season wears on, he's having more trouble locating his pitches. Third, Thayer fell apart last year after the All-Star break, posting a 1.46 ERA prior and a 6.16 mark from there on out. Maybe he's a first-half pitcher, or maybe it's that his second-half troubles were actually just a symptom of one of the first two chronic issues: familiarity and control. It's also possible that Thayer is trying to hone his changeup, and hitting a few bumps in the road while he throws it more often. Whatever the case, the Bulls need him to be strong at the back end of the bullpen. With Winston Abreu long gone (and learning the hard way how steep the step is between AAA and the majors), Thayer is the only Boba Fett-like action figure in the Durham bullpen.

* The Bulls have lost three straight games. They're still only 1.5 games behind Norfolk, though, because the Tides also lost again last night (they have a bizarre habit of paralleling the Bulls' win-loss patterns). Wednesday's game at Indianapolis starts at 1:00 in the afternoon, which explains why John Jaso caught his fourth straight game on Tuesday even though two of them were knee-bustingly long extra-inning affairs. It's almost certain that Craig Albernaz will catch Wade Davis for the Bulls, who need a strong start from their ace. The way they've been hitting lately, zeroes might be in order.

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