Author Archive

Jeremy Hazelbaker on Proving His Skeptics (Like Me) Wrong

With the exception of an eight-game stretch in April where he went 13-for-26, with seven extra-base hits, Jeremy Hazelbaker has had a fairly unremarkable rookie season. The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder is slashing .239/.300/.487, with a dozen home runs in 221 plate appearances. He spent parts of June and July in Triple-A.

For a time, it looked like he might be a minor-league lifer. Drafted in the fourth round out of Ball State University by the Red Sox in 2009, Hazelbaker was dealt to the Dodgers following the 2013 season. Eighteen months later he was released. St. Louis signed him last May and assigned him to Double-A Springfield. He finished the year in Triple-A.

Hazelbaker was 28 years old when he reported to spring training — he turned 29 last month — and the odds were against him earning a spot on the Cardinals roster. He beat those odds.

I’d followed Hazelbaker’s career. I’d interviewed and written about him a handful of times as he was coming up through the Red Sox system. I’d seen the tools, but I hadn’t seen those tools translate into consistent performance. I was skeptical that I ever would.

When I caught up to Hazelbaker in early August, I admitted as much. Being perhaps a little too honest, I began the interview by saying: “I didn’t think you’d make it. Why was I wrong?” Here was his response.

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Hazelbaker on proving me wrong: “Everybody has their opinion on guys coming up. There are things people don’t really get. Looking in from the outside, you don’t see how hard of a worker a guy is, or how much drive and determination he has. Do you want to call me an underdog story? You can if you want. Whatever you want to call it, I know there have been people skeptical of me — my path, my journey, my abilities along the way.

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Sunday Notes: Dickerson, Velo Bias, Melancon in DC, more

Corey Dickerson’s numbers with the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t as good as they were last year with the Colorado Rockies. That’s not surprising. Coors Field is an extreme hitter’s park and Tropicana Field leans pitcher.

For Dickerson — acquired over the offseason in a trade for Jake McGee — his new ballpark hasn’t simply leaned. It’s tilted precipitately. The lefty-swinger is slashing a robust .280/.313/.576 on the road, but only .205/.262/.367 at home. Only seven of his 23 home runs have come at The Trop.

There is also a chasm in his positional splits. In a close to identical number of plate appearances, Dickerson is hitting a healthy .278/.325/.511 as a left fielder, but only .216/.262/.457 as a designated hitter. Paired with the pressure of wanting to thrive in his new environs, the unfamiliar role proved burdensome.

“It was tough at first,” admitted Dickerson, who downplays his change of venues. “I was DHing a lot, which is something I wasn’t used to. You have all this time between at bats, and what happened is that I started critiquing every at bat. You have expectations for yourself, and because I wasn’t having success, I was trying to change. I was trying to be perfect, and this game isn’t perfect.” Read the rest of this entry »


Zach Britton on Sinkers, WPA, and the Cy Young

In October 2011, a Q&A titled Zach Britton, Oriole in Progress was published in these pages. Britton had just completed a rookie season in which he went 11-11, with a 4.61 ERA, in 28 starts. He’d thrown his signature pitch 53% of the time.

Fast forward to today. Britton is still in Baltimore, but much has changed. He became a reliever in 2014, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Since moving to the bullpen, the 28-year-old southpaw has appeared in 199 games and fashioned a 1.42 ERA. Relying more heavily on his power sinker — he now throws it over 90% of the time — he has the highest ground-ball rate in the game (80.8% this year). He also misses bats. Britton strikes out better than a batter per inning.

This season he’s been next to un-hittable. In 61.1 innings, Britton has allowed just 34 hits. He’s recorded a microscopic 0.59 ERA and has 45 saves in as many chances. As August Fagerstrom wrote last month — many have echoed his opinion since that time — Britton is very much in the mix for this year’s American League Cy Young award.

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Britton on his pitch mix and changing roles: “There were a lot more four-seamers back [in 2011]. As a starter, you throw more pitches and mix in different things. It was probably a negative for me that I wasn’t learning how to command the sinker as much as I am now. That was really the big focus when I went to the bullpen — the command of my sinker. The results have been really good once I got that focus.

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Clay Buchholz on Evolving

I first interviewed Clay Buchholz in June 2005. Newly drafted — 42nd overall by the Red Sox — he’d made his professional debut a few days earlier. His future was bright.

A lot has happened since then. Buchholz has had a roller-coaster career in Boston, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He’s thrown a no-hitter, won a World Series ring, and made a pair of All-Star teams. He’s also had train-wreck seasons. Injury prone and maddeningly inconsistent, he’s become a lightning rod for the Fenway Faithful.

Earlier this year, his days in Boston looked numbered. Relegated to the bullpen, he was 3-9 with an ERA north of 6.00 as the July trade deadline approached. By all accounts, he was as good as gone — assuming a rival team made a decent offer. It didn’t happen.

Buchholz is still wearing a Red Sox uniform. He’s also back in the starting rotation and showing signs of a revival. The 32-year-old right-hander has pitched well in two of his last three outings, and his ERA is down to 5.20. His future remains cloudy, but for now, he’s taking the ball every five days in a pennant race.

Buchholz talked about his past — and where he is today — prior to his last start.

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Buchholz on how he’s changed since 2005: “I think it’s probably moved in three- or four-year intervals. Obviously, the older you get — the more innings and pitches that you throw — your stuff goes down a tick. The velocity on my fastball has gone down three or four mph. That’s happened gradually. When I go out there now, I’m anywhere from 91 to 94. When I came out of junior college, I would start the game 88-90. Third inning I’d be 92-94. Fifth inning on I’d be 97.

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Sunday Notes: Refsnyder’s Plan, Dozier’s Bananas, Santana, Hardy, Wainwright, more

Rob Refsnyder has gone deep just 37 times since the Yankees drafted him out of the University of Arizona in 2012. He’s homered twice this year in 397 plate appearances between Triple-A and the big leagues. Power hasn’t been a forte.

He wants that to change.

“I’m going to try to hit home runs next year,” Refsnyder told me on Friday. “I’ve had a lot of good conversations with people and I’m going to try to completely change my game. I think it will help my career.”

The change may be necessary. Refsnyder has good bat-to-ball skills, but he’s neither a speed-burner nor a plus defender. He came up through the Yankees system as a second baseman, but with Starlin Castro manning that position, he’s been seeing action at first base and in right field. Without added pop, he’s unlikely to be an everyday player going forward.

He has role models for his goal. Read the rest of this entry »


Matt Duffy on Seeing the Baseball (and the Penguin)

A few weeks ago, I approached Tampa Bay (and former San Francisco) infielder Matt Duffy in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. I wanted to talk to him about the mental side of the game. He was getting dressed, so we agreed to meet in the dugout in five minutes. At that very moment, Brian Kenny began talking about the idea of clutch on MLB Network, which was showing on the TV a few steps from where were standing.

Duffy kept his eyes and ears on the MLB Network discussion as he pulled on his uniform and cleats. With that in mind, I began our subsequent conversation with that very subject. From there, we segued into his mindset as a hitter, which is heavily influenced by Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Keys of Hitting.

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Duffy on clutch hitting and heart rate: “I think there is something to [the idea of clutch]. When you look at the RBI leaders every year — the guys who do well with runners in scoring position — for the most part it’s the same guys. To me, that’s not an accident. I think a lot of people think RBIs are purely a result of the opportunities you have. That does play into it, but I also think that, in certain situations, if I can keep my heart rate at a more efficient level than the pitcher does, more times than not I’ll succeed. I don’t want my heart rate to be so low to where I’m not awake, but I also don’t want it to be so high that I’m jumping at everything in the box.

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Cody Allen on His Weird Year (2016 Version)

Last September, we ran an interview with Cody Allen that was titled A Cleveland Closer’s Weird Year. At the time, his BABIP was .366 (it was .342 at season’s end). Despite his balls-in-play issue, opposing batters hit just .219 against him (with a .305 SLG). He finished with 34 saves, a 2.99 ERA and a 1.82 FIP.

The 27-year-old right-hander is having another weird year. His ground-ball rate is up almost 10 points and his infield-fly rate has plummeted from 15.4% to 4.1%. Counterintuitively, his BABIP has plummeted to .248. On the season, Allen has 27 saves, a 2.70 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. Opposing batters are hitting .184 against him, with a .333 SLG and a much higher HR/FB rate (14.3% versus 3.1% a year ago).

Allen’s repertoire hasn’t changed, and his pitch ratios and velocity are essentially the same. His strikeout rate remains high. All in all, he’s the same pitcher he was a year ago, so why are some of the numbers so markedly different? Allen did his best to explain — and expounded on a variety of other pitching subjects — this past weekend.

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Allen on his numbers: “As a reliever, your numbers can change quite a bit, because your innings aren’t that high. One or two blowups can really inflate some of them. I had one against Chicago where I gave up five and got only one out. My ERA went way up in one game. As for explaining my numbers the past two years — the ones you’re asking about — I’m not sure if there are any simple answers.”

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Sunday Notes: Brewers’ Erceg, Francona’s Computer, Lamb’s Power, Miller, more

Lucas Erceg hopes to have his name on the back of a Milwaukee Brewers uniform someday. In order to get there, he will have to keep his word to the scout who put his name on the back of Erceg’s. So far, so good.

Erceg slashed .327/.376/.518, with nine home runs, between a pair of low-level stops this summer. He did so after the Brewers drafted him 46th overall out of an NAIA program that helped him grow up. The left-handed-hitting third baseman had transferred to Menlo (CA) College after becoming academically ineligible at Cal-Berkeley.

“My priorities were mixed up,” admitted Erceg, who made a name for himself by hitting .303/.357/.502 in his sophomore season at Cal. “I failed a couple of classes — I didn’t pass enough units — because I was trying to live the life of a college student instead of going to the library on a Tuesday night. In essence, I wasn’t taking school seriously.”

Erceg is taking seriously the fact that he let people down. He doesn’t intend to have it happen again. Read the rest of this entry »


Matt Bowman on Leaving Las Vegas (for St. Louis)

Matt Bowman is having a solid rookie season in St. Louis. The 25-year-old right-hander — a Rule-5 pick out of the Mets system — has a 4.06 ERA and a 3.64 FIP in 50 games out of the Cardinals bullpen. He’s admittedly surprised by his success. As he explained to me six weeks ago, “It was a tough year last year.”

The numbers bear that out. Pitching as a starter for the Las Vegas 51s, Bowman went 7-16 with a 5.53 ERA. In 140 innings for New York’s Triple-A affiliate, his WHIP was a whiplash-inducing 1.68.

Bowman doesn’t attribute his turnaround to a mechanical tweak or an alteration of style. Nor does he point to an amended repertoire or an increase in velocity. Those things haven’t changed. What has changed is his environment. Bowman is no longer in a hitter-friendly ballpark in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. It’s often said that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and for Bowman that meant perplexity and poor performance.

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Bowman on leaving Las Vegas: “From a statistical standpoint, you would look at last year, and then at this year, and wonder how exactly that jump happened. People are usually like, ‘Add on a run for Vegas; that’s really all you need to do. Whatever that was, that’s how good he was.’ I think there’s probably more to Vegas than that.

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Jesse Winker on Hitting (But Not in Cincinnati)

In June, I talked to Jesse Winker following a 2-for-3 game that included a double and a walk. At the time, a big-league call-up seemed almost imminent. The top outfield prospect in the Cincinnati system was performing well for Triple-A Louisville, and with the Reds in rebuild mode, Great American Ballpark loomed right around the corner.

I wrote up the interview, then decided to hold it until the call-up came. Days later, Winker hurt his wrist and missed the next three-and-a-half weeks. Upon his return, he went 20-for-50 — albeit with limited power — while, 100 miles north, the big-league club continued to swim against the tide.

August came and went, and Winker went nowhere. As Reds fans scratched their heads, he remained in Louisville where he celebrated his 23rd birthday and finished the season with a .303/.397/.394 slash line. Winker went deep just three times in 448 plate appearances — he had 13 long balls last year in Double-A — and walked and struck out an equal number of times (59).

As of today, Winker is still awaiting his first big-league call-up. Three months after it was conducted, the interview won’t wait any longer. Here is what Winker had to say following the June game.

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Winker on his game against the Syracuse Chiefs: “I didn’t know too much about their starter [Paolo Espino]. We did have a scouting report, and I was talking to Hernan Iribarren about how he likes to attack left-handed hitters, but the game kind of dictates itself. With a certain amount of outs and a certain number of guys on base, pitchers are going to attack you a certain way.

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Kyle Garlick: A Dodgers Prospect Embraces Opportunity

His season is over and Kyle Garlick is headed home. Like most minor leaguers, the 24-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers outfield prospect will spend his offseason working. He has a pair of part-time jobs lined up, which will help him make ends meet until spring training rolls around. He’ll then resume his underdog quest to make it to the big leagues.

He’s already exceeded expectations. A 28th-round senior sign in 2015 out of Cal Poly Pomona, Garlick dominated A-ball last year, putting up a .987 OPS between multiple stops. This season he slashed .293/.348/.508, with 42 doubles and 19 home runs, between Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa.

As recently as two years ago, the one-time Oregon Duck was uncertain about his baseball future. An injury, followed by a family health issue, preceded a season in which he put up mediocre numbers and was subsequently bypassed in the 2014 amateur draft.

Garlick talked about the challenges he’s overcome — and the ones still in front of him — prior to suiting up for the final game of his 2016 season.

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Garlick on what it’s like to have the minor-league season end: “A couple of weeks ago I would have told you I was really excited. This being my first full season, my body wasn’t feeling too great. I was drained, both physically and mentally. But now that the last game of the year is here, I’m actually feeling kind of sad. I don’t really want it to end. I love playing this game and I’m going to miss is it over the next five months or so.

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Danny Duffy on Pitching (and Not Overthinking)

Danny Duffy has had his ups and downs since being drafted by Kansas City in 2007. Many of the former have come in the past 12 months. The 27-year-old southpaw made three relief appearances for the Royals in last year’s World Series and has a ring to show for his efforts. This season, he has emerged as a dominant starter. Duffy is 11-2 with a 3.13 ERA, and his game log includes a 16-strikeout gem.

His resume includes rocky moments, as well. He’s undergone Tommy John surgery, shoulder woes, and more than a little inconsistency. The issues have been mental as well as physical. Duffy admits to having gotten inside his own head at times. He’s put too much pressure on himself, and an early-career soul-searching session even resulted in him walking away from the game for a few months.

Duffy talked about the road he’s traveled, and where he is today, when the Royals visited Fenway Park in late August.

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Duffy on why he’s been able to take a step forward: “That’s an interesting question. I’m just trying to keep it simple, man. It’s that battle I’ve tried to conquer for a while. When you don’t make the game so difficult… it’s hard enough already. I’m kind of just trying to use my stuff for what it is and not trying to be better than I am.

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Sunday Notes: Richie Martin, Miller’s HRs, Gordon, Twins, more

Richie Martin grew up in Tampa and plays in the Oakland A’s organization, but he has a lot of Detroit in him. The 21-year-old shortstop prospect was born in the Motor City and still has family there. There are baseball connections. Martin’s 74-year-old father was a high school teammate of Tigers legend Willie Horton — the two remain friends — and the youngster considers Chet Lemon a huge influence and “almost a second dad.”

Martin — the 20th-overall pick in the 2015 draft —played youth baseball for Lemon beginning when he was 12 years old. Not surprisingly, he’s friendly with the former centerfielder’s son, Marcus Lemon, who plays in the White Sox system. The two share more in common that athletic talent. Both are creative. Read the rest of this entry »


Rex Hudler Manager Stories

Rex Hudler played for six big-league teams from 1984 to 1998. He also spent a year in Japan, suiting up for the Yakult Swallows in 1993. Along the way, the man known as “Wonder Dog” played for some of the most notable, and entertaining, managers in baseball history.

Hudler, now a color commentator for the Kansas City Royals, shared stories about his former skippers prior to a recent game.

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Rex Hudler on his managers: “My first manager was Yogi Berra. I was a young player in Yankees camp and Matt Winters, another rookie, and I were at the hotel restaurant. This was a few days into spring training. We saw Yogi Berra sitting at another table with his wife. We go — in a hushed tone — ‘That’s Yogi Berra!’ We were on his team, but we were in awe of Yogi.

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Rowdy Tellez: A Future Jay and the Chip on His Shoulder

Two years ago, I wrote that the Blue Jays may have hit it big when they took Rowdy Tellez in the 30th round of the 2013 draft. So far, that suggestion looks solid. The 21-year-old first-base prospect logged an .801 OPS in A-ball last season, and this year he’s slashing .296/.384/.516 with Double-A New Hampshire.

Power is his calling card. Tellez has 50 extra-base hits as a Fisher Cat, and 20 of them have left the yard. When he really gets into one, they cross property lines. In our 2014 interview, Tellez told me he once hit a ball “over the fence, then a back yard, then a house, then over a cul de sac, and then into the next house across the street.”

He sees himself as more than a slugger. His minor-league numbers back that up, as does a left-handed stroke modeled after a pair of All-Stars’.

Tellez talked about his game — and the draft-snub chip that remains on his shoulder — prior to a recent game in Portland, Maine.

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Tellez on what has changed since two years ago: “A lot is different. I’m two years older and hopefully a little wiser. Defensively, I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I was then. I’m a much more competent fielder. Everybody is confident in throwing the ball over to me and pitchers don’t worry about ground balls hit to me. Defense is what I’ve worked on the most. I’ve worked on it day in, day out.

“I’ve lost weight. I’m 245 now. The most I’ve been is probably about 275. That was around the time I signed out of high school.

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KC’s Chris Young Versus Three Boston Batters

Chris Young faced three batters in the sixth inning of last Friday’s game at Fenway Park. Pitching in relief of starter Ian Kennedy, the Royals right-hander came on with one out, a runner on second base, and Kansas City leading the hometown Red Sox 5-1. He allowed a run-scoring single to Dustin Pedroia, then retired Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz to end the inning.

Two days later, Young talked about the at-bats, the role of luck, and how his pitching approach is influenced by a home run he gave up in 2005.

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Young on facing Pedroia: “A lot of variables go into it, but I’m big on looking at the reports. With Pedroia’s numbers off fastballs, and what he does against sliders, in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Alright, I probably need to get him out with a slider.’ The fastball he covers pretty well. If I do throw a fastball, it’s got to be in a specific location.

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Kevin Newman on Hitting (His Way to Pittsburgh)

The Pittsburgh Pirates knew they were getting a good hitter when they made Kevin Newman the 19th-overall pick in the 2015 draft. Not only did he hit .337 in his three seasons at the University of Arizona, he won a pair of Cape Cod League batting titles along the way. There wasn’t much power — just two home runs as a Wildcat — but he fanned a grand total of 48 times in over 700 plate appearances.

Newman is still putting his bat on the baseball. In 95 games between High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, the 23-year-old shortstop is slashing .328/.391/.435. He’s even showing a little pop. On the season, he has 21 doubles, a pair of triples, and five home runs.

Newman talked about his line-drive approach prior to a recent game in Portland, Maine.

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Newman on his hitting approach: “I try to hit low line drives all over the field. I know myself as a hitter — I’m a singles-doubles sort of guy — and I want to stick to my strengths. My swing plane is short and level through the zone. I try to hit a line drive over the second baseman, a line drive over the shortstop. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Jessica Mendoza, Stubby Clapp, Strahm, McGuire, more

Jessica Mendoza will be careful not to get too nerdy when she discusses Yordano Ventura’s repertoire in tonight’s ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game. She could if it fit the script. Unlike many analysts, Mendoza is a data hound when it comes to game preparation.

With ESPN in Boston for Red Sox-Royals, Mendoza made it a point to become well-acquainted with Ventura’s offerings. She consulted PITCHf/x data. She read articles posted here at FanGraphs and at Beyond The Box Score. When I chatted with her yesterday, she cited — off the top of her head — details about Ventura’s grips, arm slots, and his horizontal and vertical movement.

An accomplished hitter in her playing days — she starred at Stanford and for the United States women’s national softball team — Mendoza feels she needs to do more homework on the pitching side. Read the rest of this entry »


Tyler Clippard on Beating BABIP and the Limits of FIP

Tyler Clippard has always been a smart pitcher. That’s evident from his erudition as well as his results. Based on my experience, the 31-year-old reliever is equally adept at discussing his craft and flummoxing opposing hitters with solid-but-unspectacular stuff.

As noted in this past Sunday’s Notes column, Clippard has recorded the lowest BABIP against (.237) of any pitcher to have thrown at least 500 innings since 2007. That’s when the righty broke into the big leagues. Pitching for the Nationals, A’s, Mets, Diamondbacks and now the Yankees, Clippard has 45 wins, 54 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 539 appearances (all but eight out of the bullpen). Augmenting his ability to induce weak contact is a better-than-you-might-expect 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s made a pair of All-Star teams.

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Clippard on his BABIP and creating plane: “Someone brought it to my attention a few years ago. I guess it didn’t surprise me when I learned that. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways that I can pitch to get the weakest contact, whether it’s from my arm slot or my pitch selection. That’s kind of how I’ve always pitched. I’ve always tried to maximize my room for error. I’m not a guy who is going to have pinpoint command, so I’m always trying to create more plane, more deception.

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Robbie Ray: A Diamondback Discusses His Arsenal

Robbie Ray has a 7-11 win-loss record and a 4.31 ERA. Neither is impressive. Some of his other numbers are. The Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander has a 3.53 FIP and his walks and strikeouts per nine innings are 3.2 and 11.2, respectively. His velocity is also notable. Ray’s heater is averaging 93.9 mph and topping out at 97. Six weeks short of his 25th birthday, he’s never thrown harder.

There have been a few situational issues. Third time through the order has been the biggest problem — resulting in a .331/.373/.598 slash line — and he’s had trouble closing out innings. With two outs, opposing batters are hitting .286/.347/.432 against him. As August Fagerstrom wrote earlier in the month, despite his plus stuff, Ray is “something of an enigma.”

In his last start he was masterful. On Sunday, in San Diego, Ray allowed one hit — a home run by Patrick Kivlehan — and fanned 13 over seven innings of work. A week earlier, he sat down to discuss his repertoire and the reasons behind his not-without-flaws breakout.

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Ray on his mechanics and velocity gain: “The velo on my fastball is up this year. I think a lot of that is just me understanding my body better and fine-tuning my mechanics to get maximum efficiency out of my body. It hasn’t been anything big. I did make a minor change with my initial step. I step back now, kind of at a 45-degree angle, whereas before I stepped a little horizontally.

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