This was supposed to be the year that Mat Latos announced his presence with authority. The young right-hander with more heat than an Arizona summer was tabbed by San Diego Padres manager Bud Black to lead the rotation and help the Friars duplicate the magic of 2010. Six starts into the new season, San Diego is still waiting for last season’s Latos to show up. Their fear should be that he already has.
After struggling through 5.2 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, Latos’ record dropped to a dismal 0-5 while his ERA jumped to 4.86. More disconcerting is that it was the 10th consecutive decision Latos has lost going back to last season.
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Black says he’s not overly concerned since the righty struggled at the start of last year. In that respect, he’s pretty much correct.
Except there are a few things that probably jumped out at you in that chart — walks, strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings are up noticeably from the same stretch last season. The immediate assumption is that Latos is throwing more pitches per start this year than last, but even that’s negligible (93 pitches/start in ’10, 95 pitches/start in ’11).
The biggest difference has been the first inning. Last season, Latos allowed only eight first-inning runs in his 31 starts. This year? He’s already surrendered five in just six starts. And usually it has taken him quite a few pitches to do it. The end result is a lot of high-stress innings. In an era that’s beginning to question the value of straight pitch counts, there’s little argument that an accumulation of high stress innings isn’t good for anybody.
Adding to that stress has been the stolen base. So far this year, opposing base stealers are 6-for-7 against Latos. Compare that to last season when he allowed seven stolen bases all season. Perhaps there’s something that’s showing up on film to give players and coaches a better idea of when to take off. Regardless, the ability to move a runner into scoring position without having to swing the bat is a headache that no pitcher wants to deal with.
Monday’s start was a perfect example. With one out, Latos gave up a triple to Carlos Gomez followed by a walk to Ryan Braun, who promptly stole second base. After falling behind 3-0, Latos got Prince Fielder to pop out to shortstop but once again transformed into his own worst enemy. A wild pitch scored Gomez and was followed by a walk to Casey McGehee and another wild pitch before finally striking out Yuniesky Betancourt at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat. The final result: one run, one hit, two walks, two wild pitches … 29 pitches altogether.
Of course, not all of Latos’ problems are his own doing. Like every other Padres starter, he’s been victimized by a lack of run support. In his five decisions, San Diego has only scored eight runs on his behalf. But that has little to do with a curveball that hasn’t consistently found the strike zone since some time last season. That lack of command could be attributed in part to shoulder troubles that put Latos on the disabled list to start the season.
It was about this time last season that Latos turned things around and rattled off 13 wins in his next 16 decisions. If he’s able to put together a similar streak this year, then the ups and downs (mostly downs) of April and early May will be forgotten. With the Padres quickly sinking in the NL West, Black and the rest of the Padres can’t see that turnaround happen fast enough.