Evidently, expectations are the Rockies’ kryptonite. Individually, collectively and in small groups.
So it should come as no surprise that Drew Pomeranz’s much-anticipated first major league start of the season disappointed. The 23-year-old power left-hander, the jewel of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, lacked command of his fastball from the start, surrendering three hits to the Diamondbacks in the first inning, including a rocket of a home run by Chris Young.
Before the game, manager Jim Tracy said he would let Pomeranz throw 90-95 pitches after opening the season with a 77-pitch outing for Double A Tulsa. The Rocks intend to manage Pomeranz’s innings carefully this season, trying to avoid a jump from last season’s 119 so dramatic it might produce an arm injury. Last year was Pomeranz’s first as a pro after Cleveland made him the fifth overall pick of the 2010 amateur draft.
Already nursing an overworked bullpen after four starters failed to reach the fifth inning in the five previous games of the current nine-game homestand, Tracy was hoping 90-95 pitches would get Pomeranz deeper into the game than 4 1/3 innings, which is all he managed.
“His command was not quite where we saw it in spring training, and I think a big part of that was he struggled with his breaking ball today,” Tracy said.
“He was throwing a lot of breaking balls where he was trying to involve it in the count and it ended up looking as though it was a two-strike breaking ball — a lot of bounced breaking balls and some misses with his fastball. And I think evidence of that is 100 pitches in 4 1/3 innings and you can’t go any further than that.”
In those 4 1/3 innings, Pomeranz gave up nine hits and five earned runs. He walked two, struck out three and surrendered the one homer. He also seemed baffled by the presence of baserunners, giving up four stolen bases, three of them on jumps so big that catcher Wilin Rosario didn’t even make a throw. Trying to change his rhythm to hold runners on, Pomeranz also committed a balk.
So, plenty to work on.
“I threw a lot of balls down the middle,” Pomeranz said. “I’m usually pretty good about staying corner to corner and missed over the middle of the plate to a good fastball-hitting team and that’s what happens.”
The inquiring minds offered up an assortment of excuses. Was he nervous for his first big league start of the season?
“Not really,” he said. “I may have been a little jacked up that first inning, but nothing after that.”
Did the cold (a wind chill of 39 to start the game) and wind affect his grip?
He shook his head, no.
“The takeaway from that is a good learning experience,” he said. “You miss over the middle of the plate, you’re going to get hit. I didn’t throw a lot of changeups today, didn’t have a good mix of three pitches. Struggled a little bit. They weren’t swinging at my curve ball. I threw some good curve balls, (but) it was like they were spitting on it waiting for fastballs.”
This may have been because, as Tracy suggested, he seldom threw his curve for strikes. Hitters will chase breaking pitches out of the zone when they have two strikes and are forced to defend the plate, but more often than not the Diamondbacks were in hitters’ counts against Pomeranz that allowed them to wait for those fat fastballs.
Pomeranz also lacked the mid-nineties velocity that has been advertised. The top speed on his fastball Sunday, according to the Coors Field radar gun, was 92.
I asked him what typically causes the command issues he demonstrated Sunday.
“A lot today, most of those hits, the home run the first inning and the last hit I gave up, were fastballs that were away that were kind of coming back middle of the plate up,” he said. “They weren’t down. They’re a good fastball-hitting team and when you’re missing down the middle up, they’re going to hit it.”
Is that the normal action of his four-seam fastball, starting outside to right-handed hitters and coming back over the plate?
“Yeah, normally my four-seams will cut, but stay in,” he said. “Like I said, I’m usually pretty good at staying out of the middle. But today I threw a lot of fastballs away that would come back and they hit ’em.”
Pomeranz downplayed the issues he had with baserunners, suggesting a simple switch to a slide step out of the stretch was all he needed.
“You could see I just went to the slide step after that,” he said, referring to three third-inning steals, two by Gerardo Parra and one by Young.
“They were getting good jumps on me so I just tried to cut my time down as much as possible and mix up some more looks. I think they may have stole one base after I switched to the slide step. The slide step’s what I did all last year. This year I’m back to picking my leg up, but it’s pretty long to the plate, so I just switched back.”
Tracy clearly thought it was more than that. Parra’s uncontested journey from first to third in the third inning was something you just don’t see in the big leagues. He tried to repeat the process in the fifth, but Justin Upton drilled a base hit as he ran, turning it into a run-and-hit and producing the jam that led to Pomeranz’s exit.
“I think as we go back and we look at film, there’s obviously an adjustment we’re going to have to make there because there was something, it seemed very apparent to me, that they had,” Tracy said.
“We have to be mindful of that and get busy and take a look at it and find out exactly what it is because when you have catchers that up until today, because today they had little if any chance to even make a throw, they have done a terrific job. When people have attempted to steal bases, they don’t make it to second. But you can’t give them a running start like they got on two or three different occasions today.”
For whatever it’s worth, Pomeranz merely joined the parade of Rockies starters who have failed to do their job in the first two series of the current nine-game homestand. Jhoulys Chacin managed four innings, Jeremy Guthrie 3 1/3 and Juan Nicasio 2 2/3. At least Pomeranz made it to the fifth. He actually went deeper than anyone except 49-year-old Jamie Moyer (5 2/3).
On the bright side, thanks to the bullpen and offense, the Rocks are 3-3 on the homestand despite the woeful starting pitching.
“We’ve got to get more length from our starters because if we continue in the manner in which we’re going right now, at some point that’s going to become hurtful,” Tracy said.
A more cynical soul might suggest it’s already been hurtful. Nine games into the season, the bullpen is in survival mode.
It’s a long season. For Pomeranz, like the rest of the starting staff except for Moyer, there’s nowhere to go but up. Watching him develop should make for a compelling summer pastime.
“We’ve got probably, hopefully, another 30 starts with him,” outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”