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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

So Much For Small Sample Sizes


Highly-touted prospect Jason Heyward started his major league career with a bang. The right fielder hit his first major league home run which gave the Braves a 6-3 lead. That helped open the floodgates, as the Braves won by a score of 16-5.

After Yunel Escobar tied the game with a two-run single, moving Brian McCann to second base, Heyward endured two up-and-in fastballs from Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano. Then, Zambrano tried to throw a fastball over the plate around Heyward's knees. With a short, powerful stroke, Heyward blasted the pitch into the Braves bullpen. That sent most of Turner Field and watching on television into euphoria.

The second inning proved to be Carlos Zambrano's last as he committed a throwing error to third base, allowing a straying Martin Prado to score. The last straw was a solo home run given up to McCann. Zambrano became the fourth pitcher since 1920 to last less than 1 2/3 innings on an Opening Day start, giving up at least 7 earned runs:

- Carlos Zambrano, 4/5/10 @ ATL - 1 1/3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 1 SO
- Jose Contreras, 4/2/07 vs. CLE - 1 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO
- Dave Stewart, 4/6/95 @ TOR - 1 1/3 IP, 5 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO
- Brad Havens, 4/5/83 vs. DET - 1 1/3 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO

Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija didn't fare much better than Zambrano. The former Notre Dame wide receiver gave up six runs, five earned, after walking the bases loaded to start the frame.

Braves starter Derek Lowe fared better than Zambrano, but he wasn't exactly stellar. The sinkerballer gave up a first-inning, three-run home run to Marlon Byrd, which gave the Cubs an early 3-0 lead. Lowe lasted six innings, giving up five hits, including two-run home run to Aramis Ramirez in the third, which closed the gap to a score of 8-5.

A pivotal play occurred in the sixth inning with none out and Kosuke Fukudome on first. Byrd hit a hard line drive to left-center. Center fielder Nate McLouth dove at the last second and caught the ball. Unfortunately, when he hit he ball, it squirted free. He threw the ball back to the infield on his back.

In the meantime, Byrd was called out. Aramis Ramirez was confused by that and stood on second base while Yunel Escobar collected McLouth's throw. After Escobar tossed the ball to Troy Glaus, the first basemen stepped on the bag and the umpires ruled it a double play. Television replays clearly showed that McLouth lost control of the ball, but it was somehow shielded from the umpire's view. After Lou Pinella argued and the umpires conferred, the play was upheld and the Cubs runners were erased. Lowe struck out Alfonso Soriano to end the inning and a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the inning ended his day.

The Braves bullpen threw three perfect innings. Relievers Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner struck out five batters combined. The three pitchers pitched because of Tuesday's off-day and to get in some work.

The Cubs' Sean Marshall and James Russell tossed 4 2/3 scorless innings in relief of Zambrano, while Justin Berg and John Grabow finished the game. Chicago's pitchers combined for eight walks; six of those runners came around to score.

My Commentary: The Braves showed how patience and some power can lead to very good things. I hope they keep that trend up.

McLouth's failed catch-turned-double play in the sixth inning shows that instant replay needs to be implemented for those plays. It could work with some ground rules on where to place the runners after such a play is overturned.

In my last blog post, I listed the Braves hitters' previous numbers against Carlos Zambrano. Escobar got a two-run single despite being 0-6 over two games (one in 2008, one in 2009). Jason Heyward homered in his first at-bat and Melky Cabrera went 0-1 with a walk and a run scored; both of them had no previous experience against him. Brian McCann had a single and a home run against Zambrano, boosting his career line against him to nine hits in 14 at-bats.

Things like that illustrate that batter vs. pitcher stats aren't particularly meaningful. They are fun stats, but they don't prove that McCann has Zambrano's number or that Zambrano owns Escobar. The sample sizes don't increase quickly enough to have significant statistical meaning.

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