Senzatela throws strikes but gets few whiffs

August 31st, 2019

DENVER -- Say this for Rockies right-hander : He throws strikes, which is way better than the alternative. However, batters also like it.

Senzatela accounted for himself well into the fifth inning Friday night against the Pirates, until his mysterious inability to get swings and misses caught up to him. Melky Cabrera’s three-run homer in the fifth was the key swing in the Rockies’ 10th loss in the last 12 games, 9-4, at Coors Field.

All five of the Rockies’ season-opening starters populate the current injured list, with Jon Gray, Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson gone for the season. Dipping this far into depth is a key reason the Rockies have a Majors-worst 5.93 ERA from their starting pitchers.

Senzatela (8-9) is different. He started a postseason game last year and may have pushed Bettis to the bullpen had he not come down with an infected blister on his right heel during Spring Training and started the season on the injured list.

But with a 6.95 ERA through 20 starts, Senzatela is left feeling that he is a touch from being really good.

“I’m trying not to be frustrated right now,” said Senzatela, 24 and in his third Major League season. “I’m trying to work hard every day to give me a chance of a decent ballgame. I’m trying to make really good pitches. I did today, but good for him [Cabrera].”

Senzatela has authored some of the Rockies’ best outings this year, but he also has spent time at Triple-A Albuquerque. Rockies manager Bud Black found Friday to be closer to the good ones than the bad ones. Nonetheless, Senzatela has given up six or more runs in five straight starts -- tied with (Sept. 24, 2000 to April 12, 2002) for the longest such streak in club history.

“They put the ball in play, found some holes, especially the first inning,” Black said. “He's throwing strikes. The ball-to-strike ratio was fine. He was keeping us in the game. The backbreaker was the three-run homer after the walk to [Josh] Bell.”

In five innings, Senzatela threw strikes on 67 of his 97 pitches. But just seven times did the Pirates swing and miss -- and a position player didn’t whiff at a pitch until the fifth inning. Still, his stuff was good enough that he went into the fifth down 3-1.

The Rockies’ run was the first first-inning leadoff homer for shortstop , who finished the night at .300 -- a long climb for a power hitter who didn’t always hit for average.

In the fifth, Starling Marte singled, then Senzatela issued his only walk, to Bell. He fanned Colin Moran, swinging for his second strikeout. But with the count 1-1, Cabrera seemed to anticipate a slider -- and golfed the 10th hit off Senzatela over the out-of-town scoreboard in right for a five-run lead.

“If you look at the [at-bat] before, it’s the same pitch that he hit a grounder to me,” Senzatela said. “The same pitch. He hit it out.”

Senzatela visited the Driveline facility in suburban Seattle during the offseason to work on his four-seam fastball/slider combination. When he came off the injured list on April 15 at San Diego, he gave up one run and six hits while striking out four in six innings of a 5-2 victory. The performance was a classic example of “tunneling,” or making the fastball and slider look like they are coming from the same path, which created deception.

But Senzatela never found consistency. Before being optioned to Albuquerque in July, he had six starts of at least six innings and no more than two earned runs. But counting his start Sunday in his return to the rotation, when he coughed up six runs in 1 2/3 innings, Senzatela has had six starts of 4 2/3 or fewer innings and six or more earned runs.

During the stay at Albuquerque, which lasted about a month, Senzatela worked on the timing of his delivery and continued a career-long attempt to sharpen his secondary pitches. On Friday, he threw 53 fastballs, most early, and eventually ended up with 35 siders, five curves and four changeups.

And while he got 14 called strikes, on eight fastballs and six sliders, he didn’t fool Pirates hitters nearly enough. The Pirates fouled off 17 fastballs and seven sliders. The first two swings-and-misses came against Pirates starting pitcher Dario Agrazal.

In the second inning, Agrazal grazed a pitch into catcher ’ mitt, which counts as a swing and miss. But with a runner at third, Agrazal made contact for a sacrifice fly on a foul ball to right and a 2-1 Pirates lead.

A deeper look at the numbers shows Senzatela was credited with 10 ground-ball outs, and several of the hits were late swings for less-than-hard contact. Friday’s 84.7 mph slider average meant there was an 8.4 mph difference between that and his fastball, which was a plus. But a few more balls not hit in play also could have made for a better outing.

“I’m working for that, too, getting people to swing and miss, making good pitches and separating my slider from my fastball,” Senzatela said. “But I’m trying to keep the ball down, get groundouts. Right now, I’m getting unlucky.

“I feel today I pitched better than the line. But I just need to keep working on that.”