Insider: Price, Matsui Lead Rays to 1st Place

Baltimore Orioles’ left-hander Wei-Yin Chen came into his first start against the Tampa Bay Rays with nearly neutral platoon splits. Entering Friday’s game, right-handed batters were hitting .247/.307/.419 against him while lefties were hitting .250/.316/.385 in a smaller sampling. The lack of early-season splits has not stopped opposing managers from stacking the lineup with right-handers against Chen (76%).

Perhaps by design – or more likely a lack of options – Rays’ manager Joe Maddon started four left-handed batters and five right-handed batters (two switch-hitters) on Friday night. Regardless of the lineup’s origin, the Tampa Bay lefties went to work on Chen early. Leading off the game, Carlos Pena belted a double to deep right field. Pena was later thrown out at home, but fellow left-handers Luke Scott, Matt Joyce, and Hideki Matsui each had a first-inning hit of Chen. Scott drove in the first two runs of the game with an RBI single while Matsui brought home two more with a towering home run; his second with the Rays.

As a member of the Oakland Athletics in 2011, Matsui hit just 12 home runs – his lowest full-season total in the major leagues. While his home run percentage dropped quite a bit, his extra-base hit rate received a lesser decline. Just around eight percent of Matsui’s plate appearances ended with an extra-base hit in 2010; a season spent with the Los Angeles Angels. Last season, that rate dropped down to about seven percent. Looking at hit distribution (h/t to R.J. Anderson) over the last few seasons, it looks as if Matsui – willingly or not – traded a few more homers for an increased amount of doubles with the A’s.

Although the Trop and the Oakland Coliseum play nearly the same against left-handed power hitters, the right-field fence in St. Petersburg is nearly 10 feet closer to home plate. Last season, 11 of Matsui’s 12 home runs were hit to right field; eight of them away from Oakland despite appearing in less road games. Meanwhile, the closer wall had nothing to do with his two-run blast on Friday night that reached the back wall of the stadium, showing that Godzilla still has some fire burning in his belly. With Desmond Jennings and interleague road games coming up next week, it will be interesting to see how creative Joe Maddon in generating at-bats for both Matsui and Luke Scott.

Chen settled down and tossed 4.2 shutout innings after the first, but with David Price going for the Rays, the damage was already done. After struggling in his second start of the season against the Boston Red Sox, the left-hander has averaged over seven innings in each of his previous eight starts entering play against the Orioles. In those eight games, he struck out 49 batters while issuing just 14 walks in 57 innings.

With a five-run cushion, Price breezed through 7.1 shutout innings against the Orioles. The 26-year-old flirted with a perfect game; however, “settled” for the seven and one-third scoreless. He allowing just four hits and two walks. He struck out five and induced another eight groundball outs. Although not as extreme of a batted-ball shift as his teammate James Shields, Price’s groundball rate stands at career-high 53%.

Unlike Shields, who has used his offspeed and breaking ball to generate the grounders, Price can attribute the spike in groundballs to increased usage of his two-seam fastball or sinker. After the game, Price said he has been throwing the pitch in “good spots” and is locating it better. Since adding the pitch to his arsenal in 2010, he has steadily increased the usage in each of the past three seasons. He entered Friday’s contest throwing his sinker 42% of the time this season according to; an increase of 28% from a season ago. Against the Orioles, 72 of his 113 pitches were classified as two-seamers.

As the amount of sinkers has increased so has the amount of groundballs. Of the two-seamers put in play this season against Price, a whopping of them 60% have been groundballs. Left-handers have hit the sinker in to the ground an overwhelming 80% of the time while right-handed batters have been more prone to burn worms on changeups or curveballs.

Behind the strong offensive outburst, strong start from David Price, and nifty bullpen work by Jake McGee and Fernando Rodney, the Rays take sole position of first place in the American League East after Friday’s 5-0 victory.

2011 American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson goes for Tampa Bay on Saturday.