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high-wire act

It was the sort of pitch you dream about: just below belt-high, right over the plate, breaking a bit toward your wheelhouse. And Adam Jones didn’t miss it -- he pulled a line-drive home run some 400 feet to left-center.

It might have felt like deja vu for Andy Sonnanstine -- after all, Jones had done the same thing to him an inning before, the pitch a bit lower but another 400-foot homer.

In my last post, I said I’d talk about Sonnanstine’s high-wire act this season, and then I held off after his fine outing against the Yankees. But look at his game logs and you realize that was the exception. Even the win against Boston was something of a miracle: He put 12 Sox batters on base in less than six innings. Overall, he’s pitched just under 20 innings and given up 18 runs, all but one earned.

But last year, he won 13 games for the Rays, with a decent 4.38 ERA. So what gives? When things don’t add up, I turn to the rabid fans/rocket scientists at The Hardball Times.

One of their measures is called fielding-independent pitching. It’s supposed to measure how well you pitched, regardless of the defense behind you. And by that measure, Sonnanstine’s just a hair worse than Matt Garza -- he of the near no-hitter.

But if that’s true, it’s saying that the Rays’ fielders are Gold Glovers with Garza out there, and the Bad News Bears behind Sonnanstine. And they’re even worse behind Kazmir and Shields, who have better results so far.

So look at two other stats THT keeps. One is defensive efficiency rating -- simply, the percentage of batted balls that your fielders turn into outs. Sonnanstine’s is .613 -- in other words, almost 4 out of every 10 times someone connects off him, it’s a hit. That's the second-worst percentage among AL starters.

So why is it so bad? My best guess is based on another THT stat: One out of every four balls hit off Sonnanstine is a line drive. That 25.2 percentage would fall seventh-highest among AL starters.

It does put him in good company, though, right between scuffling aces Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett, and only slightly worse than the dazzling Tim Lincecum. But those three make up for it by striking out a batter an inning or more. They simply don’t give the batters as many chances at hitting those liners. And that makes enough of a difference.

So: My guess is that batters are sitting on Sonnanstine’s fastball and mashing it. Sometimes a pitcher loses speed; sometimes he changes philosophy and decides to throw fastballs in certain counts. Either way, word gets around and hitters adjust. Until Sonnanstine can get back to fooling the hitters with breaking stuff, I’m afraid it’s going to stay ugly.

(PS -- And don't look to the farm for help: David Price has been putting up mediocre numbers in Durham, though his last start (4.2 IP, 4H, 2R, 5K) was an improvement.)

Dave G