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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Life After Pujols Sweet Thus Far

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2008 at 9:11 AM

So far, so good.


Johnny Cueto, the Reds' immensely talented young fireballer.
First game the Cards played after Albert went down, and they didn't miss a beat. Ten runs, ten hits, eight walks. They jumped all over Johnny Cueto, the Reds' immensely talented young fireballer, for the second time this year. Both times, it's been largely the same story: the Cardinals simply waited out the kid. You can't really do too much trying to hit a guy with stuff the quality of Cueto, but he doesn't have a whole lot of control over his repertoire. So, just wait. Work the count, put him in a position where he has to throw a hittable strike, and then attack. Textbook.

Of course, the big story of the game wasn't the offense. The real story was pitcher Braden Looper, who recorded his first career shutout. Nine innings pitched, no runs, three hits, and no walks. That last number is the most important one. Not a single walk in the whole game. Then again, not that hard to throw strikes when you're staked to a five run lead before you even step on the mound.

What I was struck by, watching the game, was the number of fastballs that Looper threw in the game last night. Quite often in Looper's starts, I've found myself wondering why he throws so many sliders. Last year in particular, the slider was Looper's go-to pitch, especially against right-handers. He seemed afraid to go to the fastball, even early in the count. Last night, though, Looper pumped fastball after fastball after fastball into the strike zone, both of the straight four seam and sinking varieties. In the first inning, for instance, after having been staked to that big lead, Looper threw eleven pitches, ten of them fastballs. The lone non fastball that inning was a changeup to Jay Bruce leading off the game. Looper started Bruce off with three straight fastballs, mixed in that change, and then coaxed a ground-out from Bruce on another fastball.

And from there on out, Looper didn't much deviate from that plan of attack. He consistently pounded the strike zone with fastballs, using mostly his changeup and the occasional splitter to keep the hitters off balance. Time after time, he was able to induce weak contact off the bats of the Cincinnati hitters.

The other thing I thought was notable about Looper's performance last night was the new little wrinkle he seems to have added into his delivery. Rather than simply swinging back into his windup as he usually does, in last night's game Looper would take his sidestep back, then hesitate, seeming to collect himself, and then continue forward into his leg kick. What was most interesting about the little hesitation, to me, was the fact that he seemed to be varying the length of the pause from pitch to pitch. Several different times, particularly against left-handed hitters, Looper stepped back, stopped, and hesitated for nearly a full second before he continued his delivery. Of course, I have no idea how much, if any, that variance was able to upset the timing of the Reds' hitters, but I was reminded of several of the Japanese pitchers we've seen make their way into the major leagues. Many of the pitchers from Japan have odd hesitations in their motions, from Daisuke Matsuzaka's pause with his hands above his head to Takashi Saito's, (the Dodgers' closer) single extra beat right as his foot begins to come down from the top of his leg kick.

Again, I'm not sure how much of an effect the little hesitations I saw at various times may have had on the hitters' timing, or even how much it was a conscious effort. Looper may have been doing it completely without intention, but I have a hard time believing he wasn't aware of what he was doing. Pitchers have an absolute metronome in their heads when it comes to their deliveries. I have to believe that the slight little changes in pace that Looper was throwing in last night were entirely intentional.

Going forward, I wonder if Looper is going to continue adding in little things like that here and there? For that matter, I wonder why more pitchers don't add things like that in? I know that consistency is a huge issue for a pitcher, but even the slightest little wrinkle every now and again gives a hitter something completely different to look at, and a little extra bit to worry about.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be watching Looper very closely the next time he starts, to see if he continues to vary the pace of his delivery or not. It certainly seemed effective enough in last night's game; I have to believe we may see some more of it. Personally, I'm hoping we do see more of it, and more performances just like last night. The team got a huge boost from an unlikely source, and they're going to need plenty more of them if they are to survive this next stretch.

Life After Pujols

I want to track just how the team plays in the absence of Albert Pujols. To that end, I'm going to track their record, run differential, and number of walks here every day. Without Pujols in the middle of the lineup, I would expect the walks to drop off heavily, as pitchers are no longer pitching quite so strategically. If the Cardinals are going to be able to offset the loss of Albert's bat at all, they're going to need to continue on with the excellent plate approach we've seen so far this year, and maybe even try to improve on it. Anyhow, after one game, here's what we've got:

Well, that's a pretty encouraging line so far, I have to say. Obviously, this team is just fine without the best hitter in the game. Albert who?

Record: 1-0 Runs Scored: 10 Runs Allowed: 0 Bases on Balls: 8

-Aaron Schafer

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