Memories are enormously powerful things, evocative of both good and bad times long passed and influential over our present-day opinions and emotions. My pet theory is that some of this accounts for the lukewarm initial response to the news of Colby Lewis's transpacific jump from Nippon Professional Baseball -- where he pitched at a transcendent level for two years in Hiroshima's starting rotation -- back to the major leagues, from which he fielded several multi-year offers before agreeing to a two-year, $5 million pact with Texas back on January 15th.
The typical Rangers fan remembered Lewis as just another defective hurler in a long line of once-heralded pitching prospects that failed to pan out, and they would not have necessarily been misguided in that assessment; after being ranked as the 32nd-best prospect in the game by industry publication Baseball America before the 2003 season (flanked by the likes of Rich Harden, Cliff Lee, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Hamilton, no less), Lewis was figuratively socked in the jaw as a 23-year-old rookie during an occasionally promising, but mostly brutal 127-inning campaign. Brutal, but hardly impossible to overcome ... unless you get hurt.
And so it was that our enduring memory of Lewis would be that of great potential sullied by ineffectiveness and the always-dreaded arm problems. On April 17th, 2004, two days after a mediocre five-inning effort in Seattle, he was shelved with Eric Hurley-esque shoulder soreness and supplanted in the Rangers' starting rotation by Joaquin Benoit, with Lewis ultimately undergoing surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and being claimed off waivers by Oakland later that year, ostensibly never to be seen around these parts again. And so, given that historical backdrop and the multi-year contractual guarantee, a bit of skepticism was neither unexpected nor widely begrudged.
Lewis's outright domination of NPB's Central League notwithstanding (e.g. the nearly 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratios), I think some doubt rightly remained concerning the quality of his stuff and how that would translate stateside -- doubt which was not altogether abated by lukewarm Cactus League scouting reports, but doubt that he would nevertheless strive to eliminate in what would amount to an emergency Wednesday evening start in Cleveland made on just three days' rest. Displayed below is an exhaustive pitch-by-pitch dissection of Lewis's 117-pitch outing, which utilizes a slightly modified version of the pitch-recording template popularized by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus:
"Basically, each notation has three pieces on information: TYPE-VELO-RESULT. Under Type, FB is fastball, CU is curveball, CH is changeup; SL is slider; Velo is simple enough. Under Result, 'b' stands for ball, 's' for swinging strike, 'c' is a called strike, 'f' a foul ball, and 'x' is a ball in play. So, an 81 mph slider taken for a strike is SL-81-c."
Asdrubal Cabrera: FB-88.9-c, SL-80.0-c, CU-79.1-b, SL-84.3-b, CH-86.7-f, FB-93.3-b, FB-91.8-x (ground out, 4-3)
Grady Sizemore: FB-91.3-c, CH-87.3-b, SL-83.2-s, FB-88.6-f, FB-93.0-f, CU-80.4-b, SL-83.9-f, FB-94.1-b, FB-92.2-f, FB-88.1-b (walk)
Shin-Soo Choo: FB-91.0-b, CH-84.6-b, FB-92.0-f, FB-92.6-b, FB-88.8-f, FB-90.9-b (walk)
Travis Hafner: FB-92.7-c, FB-93.3-s, FB-93.5-f, SL-85.2-b (hit by pitch)
Jhonny Peralta: SL-82.9-b, SL-83.2-s, FB-92.6-b, SL-82.3-s, FB-94.4-b, SL-82.9-c (strikeout looking)
Matt LaPorta: FB-93.2-b, FB-92.1-c, CU-78.7-s, SL-86.0-s (strikeout swinging)
Notes: One of the very first things that reaches out and palm-slaps you in the forehead about Lewis -- in a manner very much akin to what you see in those "Could've Had A V8" commercials -- is his decidedly quick pacing and tempo; even with runners on base, my perception was that he worked quicker than the league-average pitcher, with the compact, rapid-fire delivery to match. We really haven't seen enough of his pick-off move yet to accurately gauge whether that's also a plus in his favor, but his speed to the plate is probably something that will behoove him as far as suppressing stolen bases, particularly when his batterymate is Taylor Teagarden.
Here, Lewis did some things well and some things not quite so well; he did a fine job of mixing up his pitches and changing speeds, but also got away from what he's supposed to be all about (that is, pounding the strike zone), persistently nibbling at the outer edge of the strike zone against both Sizemore -- who somehow laid off a filthy down-and-in curveball on a 1-2 count -- and Choo and then losing Hafner on an 0-2 count with an errant slider that nailed him in the foot. Redemption manifested in the form of two slider-capped strikeouts (the first looking, the second swinging), thus averting potential disaster, but this was not a crisp inning by any means.
Luis Valbuena: FB-89.2-c, FB-90.8-f, SL-82.9-b, CH-86.8-x (fly out, 8)
Lou Marson: FB-92.1-c, FB-91.8-c, SL-86.0-b, SL-84.3-f, FB-91.2-s, FB-91.0-s (strikeout swinging)
Michael Brantley: FB-92.7-b, FB-90.2-b, FB-90.2-b, FB-90.9-c, FB-91.9-f, FB-92.1-b, FB-91.6-f (strikeout swinging)
Notes: Lewis would not squander this opportunity to pitch against less dangerous foes, going after Valbuena and Marson in a more assertive manner than he did in the previous frame and, for that matter, actually daring to throw inside strikes to the left-handed-hitting Valbuena, something which he seemed far less inclined to attempt against the likes of Sizemore and Hafner. Both of his strikeout pitches were up-and-in fastballs; Brantley seemed particularly baffled, with the third-to-last 91.9 mph fastball being foul-tipped on a defensive and very ugly-looking check swing. Superb inning.
Asdrubal Cabrera: SL-80.0-c, FB-91.1-f, FB-92.9-b, SL-82.3-f (strikeout swinging)
Grady Sizemore: FB-92.0-c, SL-82.6-b, FB-87.1-c, SL-85.0-s (strikeout swinging)
Shin-Soo Choo: SL-83.0-x (single, 4)
Travis Hafner: FB-92.2-c, SL-82.9-b, FB-92.4-s, FB-91.4-b, SL-83.5-b, SL-83.2-b (walk)
Jhonny Peralta: FB-93.0-s, FB-92.7-b, SL-83.1-b, SL-83.4-b, FB-91.1-c, FB-92.8-x (pop out, 3)
Notes: Lewis's distancing from the nibble-at-the-edges approach began to pay even more conspicuous dividends here, although they would not last for the entire inning; every single pitch in the Cabrera at-bat was thrown at the very top of the strike zone (culminating in his fifth strikeout in seven outs), and he worked in-out-in with his first three pitches in the Sizemore at-bat before snapping off a 1-2 slider very similar in movement and location to the 1-2 curveball which Sizemore had managed to resist two innings earlier; this time, he couldn't resist.
Choo's base knock was a fairly routine grounder towards the middle which Joaquin Arias cleanly gloved on the run, but then attempted to fire as he tailed away from first base; Chris Davis failed to cleanly scoop the ensuing one-hop throw, and realistically it was closer to an error than a base hit, but the hometown scorer was eager to put an end to any burgeoning no-hit aspirations. Lewis reverted to nibbling form against both Hafner and Peralta, and while he did manage to escape without incurring any scoreboard damage, those two at-bats did no favors to his pitch economy.
Matt LaPorta: FB-90.9-c, SL-83.3-s, FB-91.6-f, FB-93.3-f, CU-83.9-b, SL-83.8 (ground out, 5-3)
Luis Valbuena: SL-83.6-b, FB-91.5-f, FB-92.7-b, SL-83.0-f, FB-92.4-b, FB-91.0-s (strikeout swinging)
Lou Marson: FB-92.5-s, FB-90.7-c, FB-93.4-s (strikeout swinging)
Notes: Already past the 70-pitch threshold, but still firing away on all cylinders and showing no apparent signs of tiring in spite of the inflated early-inning pitch counts. Solid, but not great command of a fastball-slider-curveball arsenal to this point in the game, although by this point he was rolling almost exclusively with his two fastball variants -- the four-seamer and the cutter -- and his slider, the latter of which he had appeared to have an especially good feel for and was employing fairly liberally at this point. One could really grow used to this whole "good pitching" thing.
Michael Brantley: FB-88.4-c, FB-91.6-b, SL-82.6-f, SL-86.2-b, SL-84.2-b, FB-92.6-f, FB-91.6-s (strikeout swinging)
Asdrubal Cabrera: FB-90.9-x (fly out, 8)
Grady Sizemore: FB-91.3-c, FB-92.6-f, FB-93.7-x (double, 7)
Shin-Soo Choo: SL-82.1-b, SL-81.8-x (fly out, 9)
Notes: And so after a 36-pitch first inning, Lewis was now threatening to make it six innings -- a proposition which seemed remarkably far-fetched only an hour earlier. There was one misstep in an otherwise impressive inning, that being Lewis opting to go to the well one too many times against Sizemore and firing his third-fastest pitch of the night in virtually the same location as the previous pitch, which ended up getting slashed down the left field line for the Indians' lone extra-base hit against Lewis. In the interest of objectivity, it should be pointed out that Progressive Field's Pitch f/x setup appears to be slightly "juiced," at least in the sense of conveying accurate pitch velocities; you may want subtract 1-2 mph from every single pitch listed here, in fact.
Travis Hafner: FB-91.5-c, SL-83.5-s, SL-85.4-s (strikeout swinging)
Jhonny Peralta: FB-88.6-b, SL-82.7-b, FB-91.9-b, FB-91.4-c, FB-90.3-s, FB-91.2-f, FB-92.8-f, FB-91.7-f, FB-91.4-f, SL-82.8-b (walk)
Matt LaPorta: FB-90.5-f, CU-82.2-x (single, 8)
Notes: With one more dramatic falling-off-the-table slider, Lewis concurrently vanquished Hafner and secured his first double-digit strikeout game since August 15th, 2003, a date upon which he posted a 7.2-inning, four-run effort against the White Sox and logged 120 pitches in an 11-5 victory. Perhaps more remarkable than Lewis's seven-year-old performance was the fact that the Rangers managed to score 11 runs with a lineup simultaneously boasting Laynce Nix, Jason Jones, Einar Diaz and Ramon Nivar, but then that's really neither here nor there.
It's something of a pity that Lewis had to end what was a pretty dominant performance on a walk-single note (both runners would come around to score after being inherited by long reliever Dustin Nippert), but then that's the sort of thing that stems from a push-for-a-little-more organizational pitching philosophy.
Final Pitching Line: 117 pitches (74 strikes), 5.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 10 K, 0 HR, ground-to-fly ball ratio of 4-to-4
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Despite not exactly featuring the second coming of Murderers' Row (ca. 1927), the Indians do wield some respectable offensive pieces, so we can't solely attribute Lewis's above-average performance to weak opposition; he made several good hitters look very foolish last night and, with the exception of his laborious 37-pitch first inning, worked with surprising efficiency. Of particular note is the number of swinging strikes Lewis induced (17 out of 117 pitches, to be exact), amounting to a 14.5 percent swinging strike (StS%) rate -- assuredly not sustainable, but a very good sign all the same, given that StS% rate is a strong leading indicator of future strikeout rate.
The two adjustments I'd like to see Lewis make going forward involve (a) less early-start nibbling and (b) a little more usage of the curveball/change-up, which he'll likely have to rely upon to a greater extent if/when the league catches onto his fastball/slider-rich repertoire; granted, their relative infrequency in his Wednesday evening start was probably by design, since he was clearly comfortable -- and dominating -- with the slider and thus didn't need a second breaking pitch, but you can't count on that continuing. In sum, a very encouraging start with a few hiccups, one which lends further credence to the line of thought that he's a solid No. 3-4 starter on a first-division ballclub.