New Phrontiers: Contreras, Ruiz, Cosart

Hi, Nation. I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about not having an abundance of time to contribute as often as I’ve wanted to. To make it up to you, I’m going to start an irregularly scheduled new column called “New Phrontiers,” taken off my shiny, beautiful Twitter account handle and the deceased Phrontiersman blog from which Mike and I emigrated. Within, I’ll take a look at some of the subplots of previous or future games, as well as some other details of the Phillies’ game.

Let’s get to it, then! I’m so excited!

Contreras as Closer

Jose Contreras is off to a strong start in relief, and has been, to this point, the best reliever in the Philly ‘pen. He’s striking out 12.5 batters while walking just over one and a quarter per nine innings pitched. What’s his secret?

Contreras features a plus fastball, even as he approaches 40, and offsets the mid-90s cheese with an excellent split-finger and slider. Being used in a short relief role, rather than starting, has allowed Contreras to rear back and get that little extra zip on his pitches, something the league was first introduced to during his brief stint in Colorado last season.

All of that helps, but it seems the early key to Contreras’s success isn’t in the velocity of his pitches, but rather their movement. For his career, Contreras has had opposing hitters chase about 22 percent of his pitches out of the strike zone and make contact – fair or foul – on about 80 percent of their swings. Through 16 appearances thus far in 2010, those rates are dramatically lower.

Opposing hitters are chasing “bad” pitches a crazy 36.3 percent of the time, and making contact on just 66 percent of their swings. The ability to miss bats is crucial for an ace reliever, especially when called upon to clean up the messes of his predecessors.

A Crushing Catcher

The offensive surge of Carlos Ruiz is one of the many pleasant surprises for the Phils in 2010. Ruiz emerged as a more patient hitter in the second half of 2009, but the early parts of this season have him hitting the cover off of the ball, in addition to his excellent newfound patience.

While his average won’t stay so high forever – a .364 average on balls in play is likely to fall, taking Chooch’s average with it – Ruiz may not turn into a pumpkin so soon. This season, Carlos has eschewed fly balls for line drives, something that could be the result of improved swing mechanics or, simply, better vision. That’s speculation on my part, but the line drives are certainly more abundant. Nearly one in four balls Ruiz puts in play are liners, and as the league average on line drives in play is somewhere near .700, that’s a real good way to increase your chances of having balls fall for hits.

Of concern is Chooch’s strikeout rate, which will become a hindrance later in the season as some of his numbers regress a bit. He won’t be the next Johnny Bench, but Carlos Ruiz is driving the ball better than he ever has before.

Introducing: Jarred Cosart

When Kyle Drabek was packaged in bubble wrap and sent through Canadian customs as part of the package that brought the Phillies Roy Halladay, the lack of a minor league ace became something of an issue. With Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp having been dealt for Cliff Lee last July, the upper minors (and most of the lower minors) seemed devoid of the next apparent, standout pitching stud.

Not anymore.

Jarred Cosart, who turns 20 this coming Tuesday, has leapt to the forefront of the Philly farm system, sidling up next to Domonic Brown as a top prospect. Pitching for the Lakewood BlueClaws of the class-A South Atlantic League, Cosart has impressed fans and scouts alike. His 52 strikeouts in just 40.1 innings, paired with only eight walks and two home runs allowed, peg him as a power arm with the control his prospect counterpart Trevor May has yet to discover.

Friday, Cosart was impressive once more, notching nine strikeouts in seven innings, while allowing just one run on three hits. Opponents are hitting just .195 off Cosart so far this season – 29 hits allowed in those 40.1 innings – and there’s little to suggest he won’t earn a promotion in the coming weeks and months.

Paul would be happy to clutter up your Twitter timeline with useless baseball trivia and musings, and is currently craving a tuna sandwich. Until next time, Nation.

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