Game 15, Rockies at Mariners

marc w · August 7, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Antonio Senzatela, 6:40pm

A day after Taijuan Walker wasn’t quite able to recapture the electrifying form that saw his toss 7 IP of 1H, 0R ball, Yusei Kikuchi will try to follow up his own gem. This is the sort of thing that Kikuchi’s found difficult. After some slight tweaks to his mechanics, he fired a brilliant shutout of Toronto last August, allowing 2 hits and striking out 8 to just 1 walk. His next outing, he gave up 5 runs in 4 lackluster innings, with 3 walks and just a single K. This is a new year, though, and he’s got to be confident coming off 6 shutout against Oakland.

The Rockies come in hot, and they’re the surprise early leaders of the NL West at 9-3. This isn’t because their line-up is carrying them, either. Nolan Arenado is showing signs of life after a poor start, but their wRC+ is just 97, the exact same mark as Seattle’s. Ok, ok, their other numbers look better: K:BB ratio, K rate, ISO, batting average, etc. But after accounting for the differences in playing environment between Denver and Seattle, it comes out pretty even.

No, the real reason for their success isn’t hitting a ton of HRs. It’s preventing them. Despite a poor team strikeout rate, the Rockies have allowed far under 1 HR/9, and have a team FIP of 3.51. They have the second lowest HR/FB ratio behind Oakland, which is remarkable for a team playing at altitude. For years now, they’ve run very high GB rates, particularly as a starting rotation. That’s still broadly true, though it’s not as extreme as it was when I was completely stumped by them back in 2017. They *Still* throw more four-seam fastballs than almost anyone else (they’re second in MLB so far behind Houston), and they still get grounders. How?

They throw *weird* four-seamers. Today’s starter, Antonio Senzatela, is a microcosm of the approach. Senzatela’s four-seamer is thrown pretty hard, at 94-95, and when he came up in 2017, he threw it all the time: over 70% of his pitches were heaters. It was arrow-straight, but because of very low spin, it didn’t rise as much as it “should”, and presumably confused some hitters. He didn’t throw it up in the zone per se; he’s always moved it around, but stays close to the middle of the zone, vertically. He mixed in a slider, and was functionally a two-pitch starter, without any real swing-and-miss offerings. It worked, though – at least for a while. He slumped in 2019, with his K rate falling and his walk rate rising along with HRs (the drag-free baseball probably hurt him).

Thus, Senzatela’s made a slight adjustment. His spin rate is up noticeably this year, but his vertical movement is down signficantly. He was always below average, but his “rise” is over 1.5 standard deviations from the mean this year. He’s cutting his fastball, killing its backspin. Interestingly, he’s not the only Rockie to do this. It looks like Jon Gray is doing the same thing. Despite low spin of his own, Gray’s fastball had average rise in 2017. Now, it too is nearly 2 standard deviations below average. While his spin rate hasn’t spiked, just looking at the movement on his pitches shows that he’s added plenty of sidespin and choked off backspin. Will it work? Both struggled in recent years, and both are pitching fairly well in the early going, but it’s too early to say. Gray’s not missing *any* bats, and while that was never really Senzatela’s game, both could use some additional swing-and-miss pitches.

Senzatela’s giving it a go, adding a curve and change to his FB/SL arsenal. Interestingly, Senzatela’s ground ball rate has plummeted in the early going, but he hasn’t yielded any HRs yet. Gray’s GB rate is still high (though not as high as it has been). Another interesting thing to monitor in this short season.

One factor that may be helping them is the ever-changing baseball. Today, Rob Arthur had a great article at BP (it’s free) showing that drag on baseballs has crept back *up* after falling through the floor in 2019, leading to a massive glut of dingers. Less aerodynamic baseballs mean shorter distances given the same speed/angle, and thus, fewer homers. That’s probably good news for Yusei Kikuchi, too.

1: Long, 2B
2: Moore, 1B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Gordon, SS
9: Smith, RF
SP: Kikuchi

Interesting line-up today, with Dee Gordon moving to shortstop and Dylan Moore playing 1B. Evan White very clearly needed a day off, as he’s got just 6 hits and 24Ks in 56 PAs. His struggles with fastballs weren’t improving, and Dylan Bundy got him out throwing three elevated fastballs at 90 MPH right by the first baseman. He’ll get it going at some point, but it’s a bit ugly right now. That had been true of Vogelbach, but he had his best game at the plate in a while yesterday, with a dinger and some loud contact. Smith and Gordon are still mired in serious slumps, but it’s probably good to get JP Crawford a day off, as he’s cooled in the last week; he’s also made more plate appearances than anyone on the club.

Rob Arthur also notes that MLB’s switched its pitch tracking/ball tracking technology from TrackMan radar to a camera-based system called Hawkeye. There are always data gremlins when shifting from one data source to another, and that changeover seems to be wreaking havoc with the xBA numbers I quoted in yesterday’s piece on BABIP. That said, the BABIP numbers are what the are; that’s not the product of any sort of system, it’s just the product of watching games. It DOES make it harder to know what to make of the lowered exit velocities and launch angles. Intuitively, they make sense: something has to be causing the spike in outs per ground ball. But it’s hard to know what it is yet.

Game 14, Angels at Mariners: What’s Going on with Grounders?

marc w · August 6, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Dylan Bundy, 1:10pm

It’s out first day game of the season, and another game against Dylan Bundy, the apparent anchor of a scuffling Angels rotation and staff. Bundy pitched well against the M’s last week, striking out 8 in 6 IP, but he made one mistake that proved decisive: an early mistake that Jose Marmolejos hit for a three-run bomb in the M’s 3-2 win. Tai Walker was even better HIS last outing, tossing 7 scoreless against Oakland in an M’s win.

I spent a lot of time discussing Bundy’s arsenal and its evolution last week, so let’s talk about a global trend in 2020. This morning, MLB Data Architect, former M’s advisor, and friend of this…uh…enterprise, Tom Tango, mentioned an early-season oddity:

Since start of 2020 season, fielders have converted into outs 71.1% of the 7630 balls of hit into play

In 2019, there was NO STRETCH where fielders converted as many plays into outs. The average was 69.1%

2020 is 3.8 standard deviations from 2019

DER is essentially 1 – BABIP

Defensive efficiency is way, way up in the early going. That is, fewer and fewer balls in play are finding empty spaces and becoming hits. It’s only two weeks, of course, but Tango says there was no individual stretch in 2019 in which DER was this high. This is not just a small-sample oddity.

I decided to break this down by batted-ball type, and the thing that jumps off the page is ground balls. Tango mentions that the same basic pattern holds for liners and fly balls, too, but ground balls…well, just look. Here’s a table of the batting average and MLB’s expected batting average (xBA) by year. See if you can spot the outlier:

2017 0.249 0.25
2018 0.246 0.246
2019 0.242 0.245
2020 0.215 0.261

This is odd; xBA has never been higher, but BA has never been *close* to this low. What happens when we add exit velocity (the speed off the bat) and launch angle (the angle off the bat)?

2017 0.249 0.25 83.8 -11.8
2018 0.246 0.246 86 -11.8
2019 0.242 0.245 86.1 -11.6
2020 0.215 0.261 84.3 -12.7

Launch angle is *lower* than any other year, and speed-off-the-bat is much lower than the prior two years. Yes, 2017 was even lower, but I believe there were more “missed” balls in play back then. Focus mostly on 2019 to 2020: these are pretty sizable changes. And because we’re comparing to 2019, you can’t argue it’s because teams are suddenly shifting more; they shifted all the time in 2019!

What kinds of pitches turn into ground balls, and is there anything odd there? Well, the drop in sinker usage has meant that whereas the plurality of grounders were hit on sinkers back in 2017, that’s not true any more: in 2019 and 2020, the most grounders are hit off of four-seam fastballs. That has accelerated here in 2020, with 28% of grounders coming on four-seamers compared to 25.7% last year, with sinkers’ share dropping from 24% in 2019 to 22% this year. Breaking balls’ share of ground balls had been steadily moving upwards (just as breaking ball usage had), but that’s stopped so far. Instead, the share of sliders+curves is at 24% this year, down from 26% last year, while off-speed pitches (change-ups and splitters) are filling the gap. Off-speed pitches’ share is up to 18% from 16% last year. (Note: percentages don’t add up to 100% because I’m leaving off the “everything else” category like knuckleballs, eephus pitches, and cutters).

Balls in play hit off of four-seamers have the highest average exit velocity, so a larger share of four-seam grounders should *increase* the average exit velocity, I would think. Instead, exit velocities on all types have just cratered. But nowhere is that drop more pronounced than on fastballs. Here’s four-seamers:

2017 0.282 0.279 86.7 -10
2018 0.283 0.278 89 -9.8
2019 0.287 0.28 89.3 -9.5
2020 0.24 0.295 88.3 -10.4

And here are sinkers/two-seamers:

Sinkers BA xBA EV LA
2017 0.246 0.244 85.2 -13.1
2018 0.246 0.248 87.8 -13.2
2019 0.242 0.238 87.7 -13.3
2020 0.207 0.251 86 -14.9

Again, these results hold for breaking balls (where BA dropped from .228 last year to .211 this year) and change-ups (BA of .197 in 2019, and .177 in 2020). But look at that drop for sinkers! And look at the .047 drop in four-seamer BA! In all cases, the launch angle is lower in 2020 than it’s ever been, and exit velo’s lower than the previous two years – in some cases by nearly 2 MPH. I don’t know what’s causing this, but it’ll merit some attention through the rest of the season. Pitchers’ stuff has gotten exceedingly nasty, so maybe it’s understandable we’d see more mis-hits (like the one Jo Adell used to pick up his first big league hit), but that was true in 2019, and we didn’t quite see….this.

So: any theories? What could be causing this? And is the rise in expected batting average just some sort of data gremlin, or is it *better* to hit slow/topped ground balls? In this Q and A with the Dome and Bedlam blog (which you should check out), M’s analyst and ex-Baseball Prospectus guy John Choiniere mentioned that part of his role in infield positioning, so maybe he and, uh, all of his colleagues throughout the league figured something out this offseason?

Anyway, today’s line-up:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Long, 2B
6: White, 1B
7: Gordon, LF
8: Smith, CF
9: Hudson, C
SP: Taijuan Walker

Kind of a B-team line-up with Austin Nola and of course Kyle Lewis sitting out. Shohei Ohtani’s in the Angels’ line-up at DH for the first time since his diagnosis with a forearm strain that’ll keep him from pitching this season.

Jose Marmolejos isn’t available for important dingers in today’s rematch with Dylan Bundy. Instead, he and RP Bryan Shaw were optioned to Tacoma today, as teams need to trim their rosters from 30 to 28.

Game 13, Angels at Mariners

marc w · August 5, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Julio Teheran, 6:40pm

The M’s made things moderately interesting, but they couldn’t overcome a poor first inning by Justin Dunn in yesterday’s 5-3 loss. The young righty gave up 2 HRs and used a ton of pitches early when he simply could not find the plate. To his credit, he bounced back, getting through 4 IP without yielding any more damage. On the other hand, Dunn now has walked 16 in 13 1/3 innings, with 3 HRs given up. I’m just not sure how high the ceiling is here, sitting at 91-92 with a fastball no one swings at. He could be one small tweak away from being a consistent strike thrower, but he’s got to show that he can succeed in the zone.

Erik Swanson gave up what turned out to be some pretty important insurance runs for Anaheim on a 2R HR by David Fletcher. That came a few batters after Jason Castro’s long drive to CF was brought back over the wall by Kyle Lewis; it would appear Swanson’s long-ball issues are back. That’s too bad, because I was very impressed by Swanson’s first inning of 2020. He’s showing improved velocity this year, and he *Could* have a swing-and-miss breaking ball, but he’s just been very hittable in his short time with the M’s.

I talked a lot about what makes a fastball hittable or not in yesterday’s post, and while Andrew Heaney pitched pretty well against Seattle, it wasn’t necessarily because of his odd sinker. Worse, Shane Bieber gave up two HRs on his fastball, so my timing was off (though Bieber is still the odds-on Cy Young favorite at this writing). But baseball, like life, comes at you fast: today, the M’s face another opponent with a somewhat weird fastball. Julio Teheran has settled in as a rotation workhorse, making over 30 starts the past seven seasons. Only the great viral mess of 2020 could break that streak; not even his own bout of Covid-19 seems to have slowed him down. He’ll make his season debut tonight, but he’s a known commodity.

Teheran had swing-and-miss stuff as a top prospect out of Colombia, but as baseball’s K rates have skyrocketed, he’s now got less-than-average rates of his own. Worse, the former control guy now routinely posts high walk rates. Some of this may have been an attempt to deal with rising HR rates, another league-wide issue that has forced pitchers to make adjustments. Teheran still gives up plenty of dingers, not surprising given that his fastball (two of them, actually – a four-seam and a sinker that he’ll mix in occasionally) have dropped in velo to the point he averaged just under 90 last year. So how’s he still around? His fastball beats DIPS.

DIPS is the incredibly useful shorthand that pitchers don’t really control their batting average on balls in play. It was never a hard and fast rule, even if it was often described that way. Knuckle-ballers and some soft-tossing lefties (Jamie Moyer being a great example) seemed to be able to run lower-than-average BABIPs year in and year out, but a normal righty FB/SL/CU guy should settle in around league average if he pitches long enough. Well, that finding never made it to Colombia. Teheran has routinely run BABIPs 20-30 points lower than league average. In over 1,350 innings, his career mark is .268. In the last four seasons, it’s .258, 2nd best in the majors behind Justin Verlander’s .254. But Verlander’s got that high-velo, high-spin fastball that *should* produce lower batting averages. Teheran’s got…what, a 90-MPH sinking four-seam and running sinker. They look completely normal. Up until 2018-19, his spin rates were low.

Despite that long-running success, Teheran has made some adjustments. He’s started using his sinker more to righties, instead of lefties. He’s had long-standing platoon splits, so that was a move he probably should’ve made earlier, but whatever. He’s dropped his already-low release point, and he’s suddenly boosted his fastball spin rates significantly. Is he doing something weird? No, I think he’s just cutting the ball. The additional side-spin adds more total spin than he loses in reduced backspin, so the overall rate goes up. Is it “better?” I dunno. It certainly has less vertical movement, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s interesting is that it still seems to befuddle batters, righties in particular. In his long career, batters are hitting .236 with a .405 SLG% off of Teheran’s low-90s/high-80s nothing-special fastballs. Righties are at .206/.343. Sure, lefties fare a bit better, but even they have a BABIP in the .270s. It’s pretty remarkable, and it’s meant that his ERA consistently – every single full year in the big leagues – comes in lower than his FIP.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: White, 1B
8: Long, 2B
9: Smith, RF
SP: Gonzales

It’s early, so it’s fun to look at small-sample lines (unless you’re looking at Mallex Smith’s, in which case, don’t), but the best batting line on the M’s belongs to…Dylan Moore, who homered and hit the ball really hard quite often last night. Strikeouts killed his average last year, which seems like the kind of thing that’ll happen a lot to the 2020 M’s, but it’s lower this year, and he’s playing well. His exit velo’s the top on the team for anyone with more than a couple of balls in play (yes, above Kyle Lewis), and he stands out as so many M’s have seen their exit velo crater. Dee Gordon and Mallex Smith are down below 80 MPH, and look like they’d rather be anywhere than in the line-up.

Game 12, Angels at Mariners

marc w · August 4, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Andrew Heaney, 7:10pm

It’s 2020, and we’ve had incredibly granular pitch data for over a decade. For the last few, we’ve got quasi-direct measures of spin, spin efficiency, and all manner of break measurements. Teams, of course, have even more; ultra-high speed cameras, wearable technology to measure stress, and everything pitchers need to tweak or design pitches from scratch. Nearly every team can create actionable coaching to target very specific patterns of movement to pair with other offerings or create less-hittable versions of the same pitch. And I think I know less about fastballs – the most easy-to-understand pitch – than ever.

One of the themes on this blog since 2016-2017 or so has been the interplay between pitchers and batters as the ball got slicker and fly balls starting turning into HRs at alarming rates. In the little batting ice age, the strike zone grew at the bottom of the zone, and pitchers targeted that area generating a lot of weak contact and called-strikes. But batters didn’t just shrug their shoulders and look for something better. They added loft to their swings, started actively stalking those low fastballs, and started destroying them. The “Trout Swing” was born, and it caused a sudden change in pitching approach.

The biggest casualty of this new approach was the sinker itself. Pitchers turned instead to four-seam fastballs that had more vertical movement, allowing them to sink less, and stay above batters’ swings. Vertical movement played extremely well at the top of the zone, leading both to more whiffs on fastballs themselves AND pairing extremely well with curveballs to deceive batters, who had a harder time distinguishing between the two pitches. At first, it seemed like there was no trade-off: you avoided the “bad” areas low in the zone, and you got more swing-and-miss and pop-ups to boot. But then batters adjusted again.

It’s taken a while, but in the (very) early-going in 2020, the sinker is making something of a comeback. It’s over 10% of pitches thrown this season for the first time since 2014, and it’s being thrown more often than it was back then.

Today’s opposing starter, Andrew Heaney, is a great example of a sinker specialist excelling in the current era. But what I think makes me so confused is the *way* he’s doing it. We all essentially know what a sinker is, and how it works, right? It’s a fastball thrown with side-spin, leading to more arm-side movement. Critically, the pitch doesn’t have as much backspin, leading to lower vertical movement, or, in english, more sink. All of this led to a series of trade-offs. On the plus side, that sinking movement led to a lot of ground ball contact, as batters hit the top of the ball. That arm-side movement made them very effective against same-handed batters, as the ball would tunnel in towards their hands. On the down side, they weren’t good at getting whiffs; high vertical movement/backspin produced strikeouts, whereas as sinkers were more designed for mis-hits. Still, how to utilize sinkers and four-seamers seemed easy. You’d get oddballs that threw something in between this dichotomy – Justus Sheffield’s low-spin, low-rise four-seamer in 2019 is a perfect example – and teams would try to push them towards one of the poles. Justus Sheffield’s low-spin sinker in 2020 is a great example of that, too.

With all of that as background, let’s turn our attention to today’s opposing starter, Andrew Heaney. Heaney’s been with the Angels since 2015, and has used his sinker about 60-65% of the time since then. It’s got a lot of movement, but it unlike many sinkers, it doesn’t actually…sink. With about 9″ of vertical movement, it looks like a tailing four-seamer, and that may be why Heaney’s ground ball rate has always been extremely low.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. From 2015 through 2017, he dutifully targeted the low strike, and while he got more of the middle of the zone than peak Derek Lowe or Justin Masterson, you could see the approach. He was hurt so much there’s less to go on, but he didn’t get many K’s in 2015, but after a few years in rehab, his K rate inched up in 2018 – his breakout season. But given that movement, he simply didn’t look like a sinkerballer at all. He got whiffs with his sinker, and that pitch generated a ton of fly balls, which in this day and age, meant he gave up a ton of home runs.

So he decided to just throw it like a four-seamer. Here’s how he’s using it since the start of 2019. For reasons I really can’t explain, this has turned the pitch into a dominant swing-and-miss pitch. In that time frame, his sinker – his SINKER – is generating a whiff/swing rate of about 30%. It was 12% in 2015. Moreover, it’s making his slider more deadly. There’s nothing weird in his velo – it’s identical to what it was in 2015. There’s nothing radically different in its movement over the years (normal swings and shifts). It’s just suddenly well-nigh unhittable. Heaney enters with a K/9 over 11 over his last 100+ innings, and his walk rate is declining.

It’s a very different situation, but it calls to mind Shane Bieber’s astonishing start in 2020 (and excellent 2019). Bieber’s been untouchable thus far, with 27 Ks and just 1 walk in 14 innings. Here’s the question, though: Why? What does Bieber *do* that’s producing this? Jacob de Grom throws a 94 MPH slider, and touches 100. Justin Verlander throws that high-spin, high-efficiency back-spin fastball, as does Gerrit Cole. Bieber does *none* of these things. It’s a perfectly average velocity fastball with perfectly normal spin rates and perfectly middle-of-the-road efficiency. Sure, sure, he gets most of his Ks on his breaking pitches, but you’re not supposed to be able to get away with throwing a perfectly average fastball in today’s game. Just like everyone knows you can’t succeed by throwing a sinker up in the zone all the time.

I feel like we know so little right now about how so many pitchers are doing what they’re doing. We can come up with ad hoc justifications, or point to one or two odd things about them, but it doesn’t seem to be as satisfying as the big picture ideas we thought we knew: high fastballs get swings and misses, and a “good” fastball has tons of vertical rise thanks to super high spin. The physics matched up with what we saw in the data at the time. But it’s the “at the time” bit that turned out to be the most important part of the statement.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lopes, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: White, 1B
7: Long, 2B
8: Moore, RF
9: Gordon, LF
SP: Dunn

Kendall Graveman’s sore neck has landed him on the 10-day IL. Also, reliever Zac Grotz has been optioned to the alternative site in Tacoma. They’ll be replaced by relievers Taylor Guilbeau, who’s already made an appearance, and Joey Gerber, who has yet to pitch above AA, but got plenty of action in the intrasquad games in the summer camp.

It’s Uber-prospect Jo Adell’s big league debut tonight. I got to see the athletic OF last year in Tacoma; he hit 2 HRs in two PAs before the game was cancelled by a sudden/heavy downpour. This guy is good.

Game 11, A’s at Mariners

marc w · August 3, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Frankie Montas, 6:10pm

After castigating the M’s starting pitching a few days back, the starting pitching has been remarkably good. Annnny time you’re ready to do something Evan White and Dan Vogelbach, we’re ready for it. I joke, but it really is hard to tell what’s going on in such a short season, with this weird, even-more-imbalanced schedule. Are the A’s just not as good of an offense as we thought? Are the Angels just really good at the plate? Did the M’s fix something on the quick? Is this all just meaningless variance? Let’s hope they found something.

One of the things I like best about baseball is watching a pitcher at the top of their game. I’ve essentially blogged through the peak of the Felix Hernandez era, and there’s a reason we all got so giddy watching him. No matter the opponent, no matter the line-up, a great pitcher is one of the most compellingly watchable things in sport. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been excited to see baseball come back despite all of the problems involved with trying to restart a sport during a pandemic. Watching Gerrit Cole, or Jacob de Grom, or Clayton Kershaw, or Shane Bieber, or so many more, transcends rooting interest (ok, I don’t particularly care for watching them carve up the M’s), and seems like an amazing cocktail of physics, competition, training, athleticism, and more. Jacob de Grom just tossed a 94 MPH *slider* tonight. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

And because 2020 sucks *so much*, it’s the kind of thing that’s imperiled now. Shohei Ohtani, just back from TJ surgery, was clearly not himself in two abbreviated starts this year. He walked 8 in 1 2/3 IP, and threw 40+ awful pitches in the second inning yesterday, walking *5* before being lifted. He’s now out with a forearm strain that may keep him from DHing in Seattle tomorrow. When healthy, I’m not sure there’s a more compelling player to watch, and he simply hasn’t been healthy. While writing this, Mike Soroka of Atlanta went down with what may be an achilles injury, and left the field without putting any pressure on his leg. Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber are already down. I’m starting to wonder how many more might follow them.*

I’m not sure what could’ve been done differently, but it’s starting to look like the weird attempt at a second spring training – the “summer camps” – may not have been long enough to get pitchers’ prepared for a real season. Yes, every year pitchers go down with injury, and yes, we don’t yet know if this spate of injuries is worse. But given everything from timing to incentives, I’m not sure that teams have done a lot to prioritize player health or to reduce injury risk. I think the players themselves were probably so eager to get back to games that they may have cut corners on their own processes and routines, too. Playing in 2020 was never going to be easy, and the top 10-20 best ways of doing things simply weren’t possible. But this is getting tough. I’m glad the M’s have a 6-man rotation, and I’m really hoping their youth protects them to a degree, but we have to hope Dunn/Sheffield/Gilbert etc. stay healthy.

Frankie Montas looked like he was breaking out as an ace pitcher for Oakland last year when he tested positive for a banned substance and lost 80 games. The sinkerballer always had really good velocity – he averages 96+ with his fastball – but struggled to put batters away as a starter in 2018, as he didn’t really have a pitch to throw to lefties. His slider was fine, and his fastball not bad, but it didn’t really add up to a lot of strikeouts. Last year, he added a splitter, and was off to the races. In a year, he *doubled* his K rate to lefties, and started striking out over a batter per inning despite a fastball that’s still not exactly a putaway pitch.

There’s so much talk these days (and I’ve done some of it myself) about the importance of high fastballs at generating whiffs, and “high spin” fourseamers with vertical movement. But guys like Montas highlight another way of being really effective: ground balls and strikeouts are a hell of a combo, even if they’re tough to find together. When batters suddenly started elevating low fastballs, baseball started prioritizing high fastballs. But it’s not clear that high fastballs are any sort of way to prevent damage, even if they DO get put in play less often.

That’s why it’s so interesting to watch Justus Sheffield’s development this year. His weird low-spin four-seam wasn’t a great pitch last year, and making it sink *more* won’t turn him into Brandon Wood or Frankie Montas overnight. But trying to shove the round peg of Sheffield’s fastball into the round hole of “elevate the four-seam” wasn’t working, and I’m glad to see the M’s change course. Of course, not all changes will work from the drop, and Sheffield’s sinker wasn’t exactly great in his first outing. The thing that jumps out is that no one swung at it. His command wasn’t quite there, but it has to be odd to adjust to slightly new movement so early in one’s big league career. The move to a sinker has led to a lot more armside movement, for example, along with more sink.

His slider’s still a thing, and he didn’t throw enough change-ups to know much about that, but I hope he has more of an opportunity to showcase the changes he’s made tonight.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Long, 2B
3: Lewis, Cf
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: White, 1B
8: Marmolejos, LF
9: Smith, RF
SP: Sheffield

Evan White’s been a revelation, and JP Crawford has started well, so at least a few of the young M’s should leave their lackluster projections in the dust. But Evan White’s swinging through quite a few fastballs, and Dan Vogelbach’s striking out and hitting a ton of ground balls. Dan: K’s and grounders are good for pitchers, not you. Mallex Smith looks like he’s in his head again, and I’m not sure how long the M’s can wait for him, now that they have their CF of the future in place. It’s the same sort of thing for Vogelbach – with White at 1B, a poor start or poor year leaves his future with this club in doubt. Hope to see some signs of life from both, but both now play positions that prioritize offense, meaning that they can’t really be league-average bats – and being league-average bats would be a shocking improvement at this point.

* James Paxton’s plummeting velocity makes me very, very worried.

Game 8, A’s at Mariners

marc w · July 31, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Sean Manaea, 6:40pm

Well, here we are. The strangest home opener any of us have experienced. The M’s host the 3-3 Athletics, who have played Anaheim and Colorado. The A’s have stumbled a bit at the plate; after a tough series against the Rockies, they’re sporting a sub-.300 OBP.

In recent years, they’ve had a good offense, but have benefitted from some great pitching performances. They’ve needed them, given how injury prone they’ve been. One of their top pitching prospects missed almost of 2019, and is hurt again now. Tonight’s starter had TJ surgery a few years back, interrupting his development. But despite these setbacks, they’ve gotten good-enough (or better!) pitching from their depth starters like Chris Bassitt and Daniel Mengden.

Sean Manaea’s an ex-phenom, I suppose. After a dominant Cape Cod league performance, he was the favorite to go #1 overall in the 2013 draft. But his junior year at Indiana State was plagued with inconsistency and minor arm trouble, and he fell to the competitive balance round. For years now in the majors, there’s still the sense that you don’t know which Manaea you’ll see. Far from the mid-90s he sat at in college and flashed in the minors, he’s been around 90-92 in the bigs. He averaged 90 last year after coming back from surgery, but sat at just 88 last week.

He has a weird, Justus Sheffield-like sinking four seam fastball, a slider (for years his best pitch), and a so-so change. He’s mixing in a curve now, though it’s still a work in progress, and lacks real depth. The lefty has been ok against righties, as his slider has been very effective against them. His fastball has been less effective, so the M’s will probably look to jump on fastball counts.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lopes, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: White, 1B
6: Nola, C
7: Long, 2B
8: Moore, RF
9: Gordon, LF
SP: Walker

Welcome back Austin Nola! The catching crew was a bit suspect with both Tom Murphy and Nola out. Crawford’s started the season on fire, which is great to see; I was losing hope he could be a league—average bat. It’s early, but he and Kyle Lewis are propelling what’s been a surprisingly good line-up. Obligatory small sample caveats, of course.

Game 7, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 30, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Dylan Bundt, 6:40 pm

So, the M’s have made one complete cycle of their six starting pitchers. As a group, they’ve given up 28 runs in 21 1/3 IP. Putting aside Graveman and Walker, the young core of Gonzales/Sheffield/Kikuchi/Dunn allowed 12 walks against 10 Ks. They’ve shown flashes of promise, but have been brutal at stranding runners. They simply need to get better – a lot better.

That’s why today’s game is an interesting barometer. The Angels wanted to revamp their pitching instruction, too. They picked up ex-Indians pitching coach Mickey Calloway and took a flyer on one-time Uber-prospect and Orioles flame-out, Dylan Bundy. The righty had been brilliant back in spring training four months and seven lifetimes ago, but we all know spring stats don’t mean much.

In his first start, Bundy flummoxed the A’s by essentially becoming a junkballer. He threw more breaking balls and change-ups than 91-mph fastballs, and was able to keep a good line-up off balance. For all the talk about fastball velocity, or working the top of the zone, the first few games of 2020 have been all about bendy pitches. Shane Bieber’s dominant start (14 K’s in 6 IP) produced no swinging strikes off of fastballs. Likewise, Bundy recorded no whiffs on 40+ FBs against the A’s, but K’d 7 to just 1 walk and 3 hits in 6 2/3 IP. To put it plainly, if the Angels are better at teaching pitching than the M’s, this rebuild is in trouble. Seattle can’t just use their own prior development record as a point of reference or baseline. Being better than they used to be is not enough.

Despite Cleveland and Cincinnati’s starting pitchers looking great, Seattle has some company: lots of teams starting pitcher numbers are brutal right now. It’s interesting to me, because while there’s zero precedent for playing a season like this one, the owners’ lock-out in 1990 was a recent-ish example of teams not having a real spring training, and then hurrying through an abbreviated/late version of it. And in that case, pitchers entered the year *miles* ahead of the hitters.

Almost immediately, Mark Langston (and Mike Witt) tossed a no-hitter in his first time playing against Seattle. Later that month, Brian Holman came within an out of a perfect game for Seattle, and months later, Randy Johnson got the franchise’s first no-no. Randy’s was the first of four in the month of June, with two occurring on the same day.

This year, walks are up and HRs continue to fly out of parks. BABIP and average are down, though. I guess the season seems bifurcated, with the M’s unable to stop teams from scoring while Cleveland continues to strike out everyone. The M’s and Mets have hit well, while four teams are still below the Mendoza line.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lopes, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Marmolejos, 1B
6: Long, 2B
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Smith, RF
9: Hudson, C
SP: Gonzales

If you want to read more about the Mariners’ player development philosophy, check out this interview with Andy McKay at Fangraphs.

Game 5, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 28, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Patrick Sandoval, 6:40pm

The M’s escape Houston bloodied but unbowed at 1-3, and face the Angels. All 1-3 records are not created equal, and the Angels may be a bit more concerned about their opening series. It’s all weird, and given the chaos in Philly with now fully 1/2 of the Marlins roster positive for COVID, it feels churlish to laugh at a bad first series by the Angels, as comforting as that is.

So, the M’s big reclamation projects have all had a turn in the rotation – all but today’s starter, Justus Sheffield. Tai Walker, Kendall Graveman, and Yusei Kikuchi all struggled, so the hope is that Sheffield’s new fastball will help him succeed where the others failed. It’s just tougher to be optimistic given the M’s pitching woes. We all thought the line-up would be a problem, but it’s been solid overall. Just need to keep the runs allowed down to 5-6, which has been a problem.

Patrick Sandoval’s a lefty the Angels got after some time in Houston’s system. He’s a fastball-change guy, but has a slider and curve in his repertoire. He scuffled last year in his initial 40 or so MLB innings, in part due to wildness, and in part due to HR:FB ratio awfulness. He did benefit from seeing a heavily right-handed slate of hitters, and thanks to his change – by far his best pitch – he did well against them. Lefties were more of a problem. We’ll see if that was small sample weirdness or if the change makes him more likely to run reverse splits long term.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lopes, DH
6: Crawford, SS
7: Moore, LF
8: Smith, RF
9: Odom, C (Nola a late scratch; he’d been in the line up, batting 6th. Instead, it’ll be the first MLB start for Joe Odom)
SP: Sheffield

Game 4, Mariners at Astros

marc w · July 27, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Kendall Graveman vs. Joshua James, 4:10pm

The M’s got their first win yesterday, coming back against the Astros after a poor start from Yusei Kikuchi. Taylor Williams, Washington native, got the save with the tying run on 2nd. Today’s game is a great match-up between Kendall Graveman, who seemed to be on the upswing before suffering a UCL tear and missing two years, and Josh James, the one-time phenom who had a rough season out of the Houston bullpen. Will Graveman flourish with Seattle? Will James take a step forward and secure a rotation spot with his power arsenal?

I don’t know, and the news out of baseball has been so ugly that it’s harder to care. Nearly half of the Marlins tested positive for COVID-19, necessitating two games being canceled today. This came a day after Justin Verlander’s elbow injury knocked him out for the season. We haven’t made it a week, and MLB’s viability is kind of teetering and we’ve lost at least one star player. Fun.

1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seaver, 3B
4: Lewis, CF
5: White, 1B
6: Marmolejos, DH
7: Nola, C
8: Lopes, RF
9: Gordon, LF
SP: Graveman

Game 2, Mariners at Astros

marc w · July 25, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Lance McCullers, 1:10pm

Lance McCullers last threw a pitch in a big league game in September of 2018. He tore his UCL in August, but apparently decided to pitch through it, notching some playoff innings for the eventual champs. But in November, he went under the knife, missing all of 2019. It was a big blow for the righty who’s had several injury scares in his career. In fact, McCullers thinks the elbow injury actually stemmed from a shoulder problem that took away half of his 2016 season. He’s been very good when healthy, but seldom healthy.

Taijuan Walker’s nearly got McCullers beat. Aside from a couple of throwaway innings in September of last year, Walker’s last start came in *April* of 2018. After a solid 2017 that heralded his transition from prospect to middle-of-the-rotation workhorse, he too tore his UCL and required surgery. Given the timing of the diagnosis and rehab, it essentially cost him two full years.

Today these two rehab warriors face off in Houston. Walker was a great low-risk pick-up for a club that could use a veteran presence, especially one that has a modicum of upside. I was always a big Walker fan as he came up through the M’s system years ago (debuting in Houston, of all places, a bit over 7 years ago), so I’m hoping Walker can stay healthy and flash some of the promise he had. Walker used to throw a four-seamer at 94 with average-ish movement given his fairly high release point, and he’d mix in a sinker, slider, curve, and split/change. That last pitch was always one to dream on, especially after he struggled to command his curve. The split wasn’t great for him in Seattle, and it was no help in limiting the HRs that sunk his 2016 campaign, his final one in Seattle. In Arizona, though, his HR problems eased (which is amazing, considering the HR explosion of 2017 and the fact that his home park was *Arizona*), but it wasn’t so much his command of his split or breaking balls – it was his four-seam. He gave up 16 HRs on the heater his last year in Seattle, but just 9 in his Arizona tenure, despite throwing more of them. Let’s hope he learned something in Arizona he can bring with him into 2020.

Lance McCullers famously threw 50% of his death-dealing slurve, and used it to rack up strikeouts and grounders. In his career, batters are hitting just .174 off of the slurve, and that’s over 3,600+ pitches, with hundreds of balls in play. He’s used it more than his four-seam and sinker combined, and why not? Despite its tilt, it’s been extremely effective against lefties as well as righties. The only reason to ease up on it may be his injury history. I don’t really know if the old pitching coach truism is actually accurate that a ton of breaking balls are harder on the arm, but McCullers arm certainly has not responded well.

Yesterday’s game features abysmal defense (someone get Perry Hill on a Zoom call) and equally poor relief work, but I didn’t feel too bad about thanks to Kyle Lewis moon shot off of Justin Verlander. I think we’re going to get pretty used to focusing on individual players or even plays when we attempt to take joy and entertainment from a season like that, but that’s ok. As M’s fans, we’ve been doing that off and on for decades.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, CF
5: Nola, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Gordon, LF
8: Crawford, SS
9: Smith, RF
SP: Walker, woooooo

Mmmm, Mallex Smith and Dee Gordon starting in OF corners together. Can’t say I like/understand that, but the M’s did say they’d be showing this look a lot.

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