The 2022 MLB regular season is nearly two months old and we are beginning to see the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Several clubs that started out hot have come back to Earth and others that started slowly are beginning to climb up the standings. That said, there's still a lot of season to be played and a lot of time to decide postseason races.
With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one pitcher's trouble with the One Bad Inning, another's transition into a new role, and one late blooming hitter's breakout..
Ray's issues with the One Bad Inning
Robbie Ray, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, is off to a so-so start with the Mariners. Seattle gave him a five-year, $110 million contract over the winter and Ray has pitched to a 4.77 ERA (76 ERA+) in nine starts. The underlying numbers are a bit better (4.09 FIP and 4.02 xERA), though not quite ace-like. Ray didn't really hit his stride until June last year and surely the Mariners hope he'll follow a similar path this season.
More than anything, Ray's underwhelming performance this year boils down to the One Bad Inning. In five of his nine starts he's had one inning where things unraveled, and the other team put a dent in the scoreboard. The recap:
|Date||Opponent||One Bad Inning||Rest of start|
at White Sox
2nd: 4 R on 4 H and 1 BB (1 HR)
5.1 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 4 K
5th: 3 R on 3 H and 3 BB (0 HR)
5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K
4th: 4 R on 4 H (1 HR)
5.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K
4th: 4 R on 3 H and 2 BB (0 HR)
5 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K
at Red Sox
3rd: 4 R on 2 H and 2 BB (1 HR)
5 H, 3 R, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 K
Ray's allowed 19 runs in those five One Bad Innings. He's allowed 10 runs in his other 49 2/3 innings, a rate much more befitting a reigning Cy Young winner. To put it another way, Ray has allowed 66 percent of his runs in only nine percent of his innings this season. The rest of the time he's been excellent. There's just that One Bad Inning that keeps tripping him up.
"It's become a common theme and he knows it," Mariners manager Scott Servais told the Seattle Times following Ray's start against the Red Sox. "He's frustrated by it as well because it sneaks up on him. And it's not just one run, it's a crooked number. And that's what has gotten us the last few times he's been out there."
Ray has always been home run prone (he had a 1.5 HR/9 last season) but he's only allowed two multi-run homers -- a Mike Zunino three-run shot and a Trevor Story grand slam -- in those five One Bad Innings. The larger issues are the walks (eight in those five innings and 12 in all other innings) and the times through the order penalty. To wit:
|First time through the lineup||Thereafter|
Like every other pitcher Ray performs worse once the lineup turns over because hitters get another look at him, fatigue begins to set in, etc. It's probably not a coincidence Ray's One Bad Inning keeps happening after the lineup turns over rather than in the first inning. That plus maybe some temporary mechanical issues (leading to the walks?) is enough to derail an inning.
Having that One Bad Inning is preferably to grinding through each and every inning. You're always a pitch or two away from escaping a jam and limiting the damage, but the more jams you have to escape in a start, the less likely you are to avoid disaster. Ray's been really good outside those One Bad Innings. If this evens out and he can stop things from snowballing, his season could turn around in a hurry. He certainly has the talent to do it.
"It's super frustrating. My last few starts, I've felt really good. I feel like my stuff is really good. I always talk about the big inning, but this was one pitch and it's super frustrating," Ray told the Seattle Times. "It's gonna come around. I just have to stick with the process. My stuff is really good. I'm still punching out eight, nine, 10 guys. The stuff is there. It's just a matter of one pitch, figuring out that one pitch, buckling down in that inning where things start to go a little haywire. Just breathe and stay calm."
Springs excelling as a starter
Truth be told, the Rays are not blessed with great starting pitching depth. Shane McClanahan is excellent, though Corey Kluber and Drew Rasmussen have worrisome injury histories, and Ryan Yarbrough is an innings guy more than an impact starter. Once Shane Baz got hurt in spring training, the rotation depth took another hit. (Plus Tyler Glasnow is out with Tommy John surgery.)
But because these are the Rays, they continue chugging along with strong pitching, and their latest revelation is left-hander Jeffrey Springs. Acquired from the AL East rival Red Sox in a minor trade last February, Springs was solid in a relief role last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury on July 31. The 29-year-old opened this season back in the bullpen, but the Rays began to stretch him out last month, and now he's a full-fledged member of their rotation. His four starts:
vs. Blue Jays
It should be noted Springs made a 31-pitch, 3 1/3-inning scoreless relief appearance on May 3, between his first and second starts. Also, Springs gave up back-to-back homers to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani on May 9 and, well, that's gonna happen. Those two are incredible and I have a hard time holding that against Springs, especially since it was only his second start. Overall, Springs has been great in his new role.
"Every little kid dreams of being a big-league starter," Springs told MLB.com following that May 15 start. "If they're going to give me the opportunity and believe in me, I'm going to do it as long as I can. I want to do well enough to make a case for myself down the line. Obviously, they're running me out there, so they believe I can do it. I'll do everything I can to continue and run with it."
There were two key reasons to believe Springs could have success as a starter. First and foremost, he holds his own against righties. Springs has actually been quite a bit better against righties (.177/.233/.320) than lefties (.241/.307/.468) since joining Tampa, so there's no real platoon concern. You can send him out there against a righty-heavy lineup and feel comfortable.
And second, Springs has always been a three-pitch pitcher. Even as a reliever last year he threw his fastball, slider, and changeup at least 27 percent of the time each. And he throws strikes too. Springs has a better than average 7.4 percent walk rate over the last three seasons. He wasn't the typical two-pitch reliever who runs up high pitch counts because he strikes out and walks a bunch of hitters. Springs was seemingly a starter trapped in a reliever's body.
"He gets outs. He's pretty quick at it. It's the same guy who was coming out of our bullpen. He hasn't changed anything," Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB.com. "The reason he's capable (of starting) is he bounces back so well. We would tack on (extra) innings to his bullpen (sessions), and he responded well.''
Springs was never a full-time starter in the minors (his career high is 17 starts in 2017, when he was in High Class-A), so he'll have to show he can hold up under a starter's workload. Also, what happens when the league gets second and third looks at him? That isn't to say Springs can't start. Just that four starts isn't enough to definitively say he can. The early returns are very encouraging though, and when it comes to pitching, don't bet against the Rays.
Joe breaking out for Rockies
The case can be made Connor Joe broke out last season, when he authored a .285/.379/.469 batting line in 211 plate appearances for the Rockies. That was 18 percent better than average even after adjusting for Coors Field. The 29-year-old took a .285/.368/.430 line into Tuesday's game. That's 19 percent better than average (remember, ).
Joe had the three-hit game against the Mets this past weekend and it was textbook. Line drive single to right, line drive single to left, and a line drive double to center. Joe's skill set is reminiscent of a former Rockie: DJ LeMahieu. It's just line drives all over the field.
Joe has always been a stathead favorite because he combined high contact rates with tremendous plate discipline throughout his minor-league career. His 17.8 percent strikeout rate and 8.1 swinging strike rate the last two seasons are far better than the MLB averages (22.5 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively), and his minor-league swinging strike rates were in the single digits as well.
The Giants hired president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi in Nov. 2018 and one of his first moves was acquiring Joe from the Reds (Cincinnati selected Joe from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft, then traded him to San Francisco). Joe went 1 for 15 with the 2019 Giants before being cut, and he's since admitted he may not have been big-league ready at the time, but he did learn from the failure.
"Looking back, I'm not sure if I was ready," Joe recently told The Athletic. "There's a lot I had to figure out. It was a good way to test what I was working on at that time. And based on what I saw in the big leagues and what I was doing at that time, it didn't match up. It wasn't going to be sustainable or allow me to be successful. So I made some changes to simplify a little bit and be more consistent."
Zaidi is a master at unearthing hidden gems in other organizations and it appears he had the right idea with Joe, just at the wrong time. Joe spent the rest of 2019 back in Triple-A with the Dodgers, opted out of 2020 following his cancer diagnosis, then he signed a minor league deal with Colorado and opened 2021 in Triple-A. He hit his way to MLB at midseason and has been a lineup mainstay since.
Joe's contact ability and military style plate discipline is a perfect match for the spacious outfield in Coors Field, especially since he's not a big power hitter. In fact, his exit velocity and hard-hit rates rank near the bottom of the league. His strength is dropping the ball in front of outfielders for singles, and splitting the gap for doubles. Homers aren't really his thing and that's perfectly fine.
In this age of high strikeouts and deadened baseballs, a hitter who swings at the right pitches (like Joe) and can get the barrel on any type of pitch (like Joe) in any location (like Joe) has heightened value. Joe's closing in on 400 plate appearances as a Rockie with a .285/.374/.452 batting line and above-average left field defense. Zaidi had the right idea. He was just early. Now Colorado is benefitting from Joe's breakout.