Pitching staff moves, philosophies

marc w · April 27, 2010 at 1:52 am · Filed Under Mariners 

According to Larry LaRue at the News Tribune, the M’s are indeed sending Ian Snell to the bullpen, sending Jesus Colome to Tacoma, and freeing up a spot for Cliff Lee in the M’s rotation. That makes sense given the early season – Snell’s struggled, while Jason Vargas and Doug Fister have pitched well.

The decision doesn’t surprise me in light of the results so far – both Vargas and Fister have been surprising to date. They run together for me as fringy rotation starters who saw significant time with Tacoma in 2009. Both are primarily FB/Change-up pitchers, with fastballs in the 87-89 range (Fister’s got a touch more velocity, but Vargas is a lefty). Through four starts, both have made big changes to their pitch mix. With samples this small, it may not mean anything, but it’s interesting to ponder.

Doug Fister’s fastball got poor results in 2009 according to Fangraphs‘ pitch type linear weights. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone, given that he’s a righty with an 88 MPH ‘heater.’ He generated well below-average swinging strike rates in AAA and MLB last year as a result. His change-up, however, generated more swinging strikes and better results. So what’s changed in 2010? To date, he’s throwing a lot more… fastballs. And it’s working! Intentionally giving up swinging strikes in favor of batted balls isn’t generally a smart play, but with this defense, it’s *almost* understandable. He appears to be trading swinging strikes/K rate for fewer walks. The cost of this shift is an awful lot of balls in play, which, with this defense, sort of makes sense.

The results look odd: Doug Fister’s FB fools exactly no one. His sub 2% whiff rate with the pitch is almost unheard of, as is his FB frequency: a league-leading 80%. So far, so good – his results on the pitch are quite good, though the pitch results with a sample like this essentially act as a proxy for his BABIP, which is an absurdly low .241. More encouragingly, he’s getting a few more swings outside the strike zone (O-swing%), which typically result in poor contact (the best result you can hope for if you’ve given up trying to generate swinging strikes). That’s all well and good, but a glance at pitchers with sub 5% swinging strike rates doesn’t inspire confidence. Essentially, you’ve got high-GB pitchers like Joel Pineiro (who was still above 5% last year), and guys like John Lannan and Livan Hernandez. These days, if Livan Hernadez shows up as a comparable pitcher, you’re doing something wrong. This approach doesn’t make sense, but it IS familiar.

Last year, Sean White threw FBs about 75% of the time (for reference, his FB% in 2007 was under 60%), and got similar results: 3.7% swinging strikes on a pitch he threw almost exclusively. So far in 2010, he’s purged a few more swinging strikes with his FB. David Aardsma found success for the first time in his career by increasing his FB percentage significantly last year, and so far in 2010, he’s essentially trying to make people forget he even has offspeed pitches. This is interesting given that these three pitchers don’t resemble one another in any way. If this is something Rick Adair preaches, what’s the idea? White and Aardsma throw hard, but Fister doesn’t. White and Aardsma have battled some control issues, but Fister was always a control artist. White was a ground-ball guy, while Fister and Aardsma have yielded more fly-balls.

So what about Vargas? The other FB/Change-up pitcher with no velocity had decent results on his change last year, and, pace Fister, has increased his change-up frequency by nearly 10 percentage points in 2010. He’s also generated more swinging strikes and a higher O-swing percentage. Why the stark differences in approach by Fister and Vargas? Some may point to their catchers; Fister’s FB-dominance has coincided with his last three starts with Rob Johnson catching, while Vargas has had Adam Moore behind the plate for his starts. Another possibility is that the M’s think certain pitches (technically, certain FBs) have lower average HR/FB rates, and essentially punt Ks to get more balls in play. If you don’t walk anyone (like White and Fister) and don’t yield HRs, this makes sense, but it runs counter to sabermetric wisdom that HR/FB rates regress towards the mean. That’d be a fascinating result, given not only the amount of data we have on HR/FB variability but also Fister’s so-so HR/FB rates in 2009. That said, I’m not aware of many studies on HR/FB by pitch type – and our current pitch types may be too broad in any event (See this interesting study on pitch-type platoon splits by Max Marchi).

Does anybody have any alternate theories of why Vargas and Fister’s approach would diverge like this? Why would the M’s look at Fister’s 2009 results by pitch and instruct him to throw fewer change-ups? Why would they do so while telling Vargas to throw *more* change-ups? Vargas has faced more opposite-handed hitters, so that’s probably a factor, but one noticeable change from last year is Varas’ willingness to use his change (and not his slider) to lefties. He threw change ups to lefties fewer than 4% of the time last year, and now it’s about 15%. What do you think is going on here? Are the M’s actually harming Fister’s chances of sticking in a major league rotation with this pitch mix strategy, or have the M’s using a novel approach that might make Fister serviceable at this level? Given the sample sizes we’re looking at, there are no definitive answers – but what do you think’s going on here?

(Edited to add Vargas change-up % by handedness and correct weird error about throwing change-ups to same-handed hitters. It was late.)


28 Responses to “Pitching staff moves, philosophies”

  1. spankystout on April 27th, 2010 3:00 am

    Maybe they are taking that cliche ‘the best pitch in baseball is a well located fastball’ approach to the extreme. It would be beneficial to at least show an occasional offspeed pitch. Craig Glasser has a couple good articles over at Hardball Times on pitch sequence that are really interesting.

  2. bookbook on April 27th, 2010 3:17 am

    Perhaps Vargas simply has a better change than Fister, so they’re working with what they perceive as the individuals’ strengths?

    The best teachers can teach to the idiosyncracies of each child….

  3. New England Fan on April 27th, 2010 6:28 am

    Could the be the baseball equivalent of contrarian investing? Go against conventional wisdom, because everybody expects you to follow conventional wisdom, and thus they don’t adjust for the changes that you make. The changes that you make are exactly the opposite of the ones that hitters might intuitively expect. We’ll see.

  4. Chris_From_Bothell on April 27th, 2010 7:16 am

    Insightful, but shouldn’t we wait to see how they fare against good teams first? Beyond issues of small sample size, the competition in April so far hasn’t been great. E.g. is Vargas going to continue to have a higher swinging strike % or OSwing % after facing Tampa Bay or New York?

    Also when division rivals like Oakland or Texas see these guys a second time, it will be interesting to see how those batters adjust.

  5. Carson on April 27th, 2010 7:27 am

    Marc, your link is to Larue’s piece on DH woes.

  6. auldguy on April 27th, 2010 7:52 am

    Don’t know if you can quantify it or not, but a factor to consider is Fister’s over-the-top delivery / later release point / arm angle. It gives his FB a little more apparent velocity. And while I haven seen Vargas for an extended period this year, hasn’t he been changing his arm angle more than he did previously? Both small factors but significant to an opposing hitter.

  7. gnaztee on April 27th, 2010 8:16 am

    There are several possible explanations, a couple have already been brought up. Here are some more:

    *Don’t know how deep into counts Fister is working, but if they’re putting the FB in play that often, he may not have had as much opportunity to go to the changeup (i.e., tries, conventionally, to get ahead with FB but ball is put in play for outs before he gets to changeup)

    *”Conventional Wisdom” of LHs being “crafty” might play into this…Vargas is LH so must change speeds, Fister is RH so not viewed the same way.

    *I read the articles by Glaser at HBT, and he’s only really scratching the surface of what he’s getting into. If it’s possible for you guys to get your hands on Perry Husband’s “Effective Velocity” work, I recommend you do it. To the point…fastball command (not balls and strikes, but in/out/up/down) paired with sensible sequencing can have the same effect as a decent changeup in missing the barrel (not the bat altogether, but avoiding solid contact). I can explain this further if it doesn’t make sense to anybody. “auldguy” is nearing this explanation when he mentions “apparent velocity,” but focusing on something different (what the pitcher is doing physically). Instead think about pitch location and the timing required by the hitter to get the barrel to those different locations in order to square the ball up.

    *The problem with trying to get swings and misses early in the count is that it weighs heavily on pitch totals, especially if the opposing lineup is selective. Another approach is to pitch to contact early in counts and only fish for swinging strikes once the count is 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 (if the pitcher has excellent command of the FB)

    *While we may see the value of strikeouts because of BABIP and other metrics, that is not a baseball-wide belief (M’s may not believe it…M’s may believe it but Wak and Adair don’t…M’s, Wak and Adair may believe it, but Fister/Johnson don’t…etc., etc.) I know for a fact that Dave Duncan with the Cards is trying to institute an approach throughout the organization to make pitchers sinker-ballers, even if they’re hard/high FB strikeout pitchers.

    Anyway, sorry for being long-winded, but you asked for possible explanations. There have already been a couple listed, and I’m sure there will be other good ones.

  8. gnaztee on April 27th, 2010 8:48 am

    Just read your update and wanted to throw this in too: changeups thrown inside to same-handed hitters can be extremely effective, but they don’t seem to be widely used in MLB (I haven’t seen numbers on this, so I could be wrong, but changeups in and changeups to same-handed hitters are often discouraged by “conventional wisdom”). They are most effective against good fastball hitters trying to turn on FBs inside…change in looks like FB in so hitter triggers swing early only to find the ball not there. Against hitters who aren’t handling FBs in very well, change ups in get killed.

    M’s may be preaching this a bit with Vargas vs LH hitters, or he may have figured it out on his own. Interesting.

  9. Klatz on April 27th, 2010 9:06 am

    Given the small sample size, it looks from the pitch f/x data that Fister is focusing more on locating the fastball on the outside bottom corner of the strike zone.



    Bottom graph showing the location of the four seamers from 2009 and 2010. If you have a browser with tabs it’s easy to see the shift by flipping back and forth.

    Looking at the GB% it’s gone up from 41% to 49% from 2009 to 2010. It could just be noise and thing will regress. But perhaps he’s trying to locate locate locate. And getting more ground balls as a result.

  10. Skim on April 27th, 2010 9:18 am

    Am I correct in thinking that we’re talking about two different things with the abbreviation FB (fastballs and flyballs)? HR/FB refers to Home Runs per Fly Ball, yes? Or is there indeed a stat looking at Home Runs (Allowed) per Fastballs (thrown)?

    Another possibility is that the M’s think certain pitches (technically, certain FBs) have lower average HR/FB rates, and essentially punt Ks to get more balls in play. If you don’t walk anyone (like White and Fister) and don’t yield HRs, this makes sense, but it runs counter to sabermetric wisdom that HR/FB rates regress towards the mean. That’d be a fascinating result, given not only the amount of data we have on HR/FB variability but also Fister’s so-so HR/FB rates in 2009. That said, I’m not aware of many studies on HR/FB by pitch type – and our current pitch types may be too broad in any event

  11. Diehard on April 27th, 2010 9:34 am

    It’s all about command of their pitches and in Vargas’ case a very good changeup that makes up for his below average fastball.

  12. Rboyle0628 on April 27th, 2010 9:44 am

    Maybe, Vargas bought the “Jamie Moyer Handbook on how to pitch for 50 years”.

    In all seriousness though, I believe completely in what Gnaztee is saying about the pitch location causing the hitters to have problems squaring up the barrel.

    Insightful, but shouldn’t we wait to see how they fare against good teams first? Beyond issues of small sample size, the competition in April so far hasn’t been great.

    Chris_From_Bothell, I understand bad teams are bad teams, but they are also MLB hitters. A batting practice fastball is going to get hit like a batting practice fastball sooner than later. Unless, the pitchers are doing something to avoid contact. I love the fact that it looks as though Fister is pitching to the low outside corner. It’s smart on his part, especially considering his height. The ball is going to seem to get to the hitters a bit quicker and he can hide the ball longer. IF Fister can take advantage of this trait and be consistent, he might have a pretty good season.

  13. marc w on April 27th, 2010 9:45 am


    That’s interesting, but the release point appears unchanged from last year, and in any event, I can’t see why it would influence pitch *mix*. His release point’s the same for all of his pitches. And it’s not THAT high. It’s virtually identical to… Sean White’s release point.

    I’d understand if he was now throwing a hard sinker and getting a ton of GBs, but he’s always been a fly-ball pitcher, and even with his GB spike this year, he’s just sort of average in terms of GB rate. The M’s don’t seem to care that he’s getting neither swinging strikes/strikeouts OR grounders.

    The crafty lefty explanation works pretty well, but the M’s have allowed Mark Lowe to throw more sliders this year, and have kept Felix from throwing too many FBs as well. It’s like a sign at an amusement park: your off-speed pitch must be at least this good to use. If not, stick to the fastball.

    As for the theory about pitch counts, his pitches-per-batter-faced is identical to what it was last year: between 3.7-3.8.

    If this was one player, I could see it – maybe it’s a trade that makes sense for this specific player. But the M’s have done this repeatedly in the past year (with Chris Jakubauskas as well as White/Aardsma).

  14. Shanfan on April 27th, 2010 10:14 am

    I’ll throw out a possibility that I believe mimics what gnatzee is saying in one of his points. Johnny Podres used to say that the best change-up is one that is 18 inches behind your fastball. I haven’t done the math on the physics of it and don’t know how it’s measured or accounted for by pitch f/x, but if Fister throws a sequence (locations may vary) of 88, 88, 88, and 86, then the 86 mph fastball is his change-up – taking just enough off to throw off the hitters timing, not ‘fooling him’ into a weak swing or not swinging at all. I don’t know if this is how Fister is sequencing his pitches, but would pitch f/x call this a change-up or just another fastball?

  15. gnaztee on April 27th, 2010 10:21 am

    Strong points, of course. A couple of other things to think about:

    While avg pitches per batter can be relatively identical, that doesn’t mean the ABs are playing out the same way (especially, as you mentioned, with an early-season small sample size). For instance, say his deep counts so far have been unusually deep, but he’s gotten hitters out on two pitches more often than last year…with SSS this could make the numbers look similar. I’m not saying this is what is happening, but again, “possible” explanations.

    Another thing to consider: you’re discounting autonomy quite a bit (i.e., wondering why coaches are instructing pitchers as to what pitches they’ll throw). At that level, a lot of managers/coaches expect the players to develop a game plan and then adjust it as needed as the game progresses. They don’t call the pitches for them. They may or may not suggest that pitchers use a certain pitch more, but ultimately the pitcher needs to be comfortable with what he’s throwing and has the final say. If Fister likes his fastball and is comfortable with his command of it, he may choose to throw it much more often in places where a changeup would work as well or better. Since Fister has been pitching effectively, I doubt they’re even looking at areas for him to change at this point.

    Honestly, if I had to put money on an explanation, this would be it: Fister isn’t actively/consciously limiting his changeups, and since he’s been effective with fastballs nobody is looking to make changes to his approach right now.

    My bit on effective velocity was less about explaining why Fister would throw more fastballs and more about how he can be successful doing so.

  16. JerBear on April 27th, 2010 10:44 am

    My guess is that the team isn’t the one prompting these divergent approaches… I’m sure there is some coaching on the matter, but I’m betting for the most part it’s a matter of Vargas and Mister Fister figuring it out, and the team would be hard-pressed to argue with the results.

    Fister has described himself as a pitch-to-contact guy and has said he wants to take advantage of the defense. Vargas has always had better K rates, and has probably recognized the value and gained more confidence in his changeup, allowing him to buy into the “crafty lefty” style.

    I don’t know, that’s just a guess. But I can’t imagine that Adair and company are instructing Fister to throw his 88mph fastball more… he’s just finding a way to make it work and they can’t really argue with it.

  17. thehemogoblin on April 27th, 2010 10:51 am

    Another pitcher to consider in this is Brandon League. According to Fangraphs, his nigh-unhittable splitter has been nigh-invisible this year.

    Instead of throwing it approximately 33% of the time, as he did last year, he is throwing it about 10% of the time. In its stead, he has thrown a few more sliders (he’s still at about 5%) and has had a 20% increase in fastballs.

    This seems to be blatant mismanagement of his talents somewhere in the organization, and, judging by his performances in Toronto, it doesn’t have to do with League’s selection itself.

    I think that using pitchers who have recently come from outside the organization gives a better perspective on whether or not it is an organizational choice, which it appears to be.

  18. gnaztee on April 27th, 2010 10:55 am

    Okay, I want to be careful that I don’t dominate the comments section here, but the topic is in my wheelhouse, so to speak…so if I say too much somebody please just tell me to shut up!

    Shanfan, you’re close to what I was saying, but let me add a brief summary of Effective Velocity (EV):

    A hitter’s timing is significantly altered by location. For an 88 mph fastball right down the middle of the strike zone, the hitter’s timing needs to be on an 88 mph pitch. The further in the pitch moves the earlier the hitter needs to be to get the barrel to the ball (the barrel has to travel farther), essentially making the pitch an effective 92 or so (based on research, not my opinion). The further away the pitch is located, the shorter the distance to get the barrel there…the hitter must swing later to square the ball up (like for 84 or so). So just on moving the fastball in and out on the same horizontal plane, the hitter has an effective 8 mph of difference to try to hit. Move the ball up, the pitch becomes effectively faster (because it’s quicker to “drop” the hands to get to a pitch than swing level or up). Move the ball down, and the pitch becomes effectively slower because the barrel gets there quicker.

    This is why “hard in, soft away” works. Now, this concept is pretty set-in-stone true, but hitters are human and so get to look for different pitches. If a hitter is looking FB away and swings at FB in, he gets himself out, and vice versa. If a hitter is looking for an 88mph away and gets it, he can kill it, but it’s still hard to hit a baseball. The key for the pitcher is to assess what pitch the hitter has his attention on and avoid it.

    Keep in mind, this is all just looking at fastballs. Mix in changeup/breaking ball (btw, I completely agree that Fister should be throwing more offspeed pitches), and a hitter MUST guess on pitches, because there’s a possible 25-30 effective mph difference in pitch speeds. This is also why you can watch hitters take a FB down the middle and think “why the heck didn’t he swing at that?” The hitter was most likely looking for something else and knows that if he did swing at it he would have gotten himself out.

    One more thing…in an earlier comment thread, I brought up RRS and throwing breaking balls to RH Oakland hitters that resulted in very hard hit balls. The reason those breaking balls didn’t work in those situations is because of this concept. The ball started away, which made the hitters’ bats early, but because the ball broke into the hitter, the pitch effectively “ran into” the bat. This is called EV “crossover”. When harder pitches are thrown away and softer pitches in, the EV becomes essentially the same, meaning the hitter can guess wrong but still be on time to the pitch (i.e., hitter looks for fastball away but gets breaking ball in…pitches require same swing timing for solid contact).

    Makes you wonder why pitchers are so praised for throwing 96mph away on the black…they’re actually doing the hitter a favor by giving them a chance to catch up.

    Anyway, all of this is to suggest that it’s not simply the % of fastballs one throws, but how and where they’re thrown. Pitchers can certainly have stretches of success with primarily fastballs if the command is excellent and they can accurately assess where hitters are directing their attention.

    Holy crap, sorry for novel…

  19. luckyscrubs on April 27th, 2010 11:09 am

    Speaking of League, Shannon Drayer discussed his lack of splitter in a blog piece earlier today.

    Click here to read

    My reaction: New mechanics are great if they can make him a more complete pitcher, but if they screw with his ability to throw the best pitch in baseball is it really worth it?

  20. marc w on April 27th, 2010 11:11 am

    I was just going to post that – League too. It’s much, much harder to understand with League.
    With Fister, you could theoretically increase his K rate at a potential cost in BB rate or whatever, but given that he’s never going to be strikeout pitcher anyway, maybe that’s a change worth making.

    League actually IS a strikeout pitcher, and the split is his (and the AL’s) best pitch.

  21. marc w on April 27th, 2010 11:39 am

    “But I can’t imagine that Adair and company are instructing Fister to throw his 88mph fastball more”

    Again, if it was JUST Fister, then yeah, I guess so. But you’ve got quite a few guys doing this. It would be quite a coincidence if all of them just figured that they’d be pitch to contact guys and throw their FBs all the time (and why would Aardsma/League think of themselves as pitch-to-contact guys?).

  22. Shanfan on April 27th, 2010 11:55 am

    gnaztee, Don’t apologize for the length of the posts, they’re very informative. Keep them coming, and I agree with what you’re saying. Does it also apply that if a hitter is looking for 88 mph away (because he’s seen 88 away) but gets 86 mph away it can be effective enough to disrupt solid contact? I think that’s what Podres was getting at. The 86 is a made up number, but it’s something close to the fastball that pitch f/x may not differentiate into a change-up. I guess it still is a fastball, same everything about it with just a little speed scrubbed off. And Podres didn’t say “eighteen inches”, he said “this far behind your fastball” and held up his hands about yay far apart.

    P.S. Sorry for calling you a gnatzee in my original post. 🙂

  23. Alex on April 27th, 2010 12:11 pm

    It makes some sense to me that Vargas to throwing more changeups and Fister throwing so many fastballs, because that plays into both pitchers strengths.

    For Vargas, his Changeup is his best pitch and he gets good results from it. He needs to throw it a lot, but not so much that it loses its effectiveness.

    For Fister, he is an ok pitcher purely due to his low walk rate. Throwing lots of fastballs probably plays a part in that. He is out there to walk no one, induce contact, and let the defense bail him out.

    Both benefit a great deal from Safeco Field and the Mariners defense (the Washburn formula). They’re both simply playing to their biggest strength.

  24. SonOfZavaras on April 27th, 2010 12:39 pm

    Feel free to disagree with me on this one, anybody…but I’m thinking that one of the main reasons Fister’s had some success so far this season is : He’s guessing along with hitters better than anyone else on the staff right now, and he’s been throwing both the pitch and to the zone that the batter doesn’t expect. I also think he’s varying his patterns well.

    I see batters face him, and it’s like they’re caught in-between what they expect and what they see, a lot of the time. Not that Fister’s stuff is in any way overwhelming, and they can hit it even if “fooled”….but they don’t seem ready enough to just mash it into orbit.

  25. Shanfan on April 27th, 2010 12:50 pm

    Fister and the catcher are outguessing the hitters right now, very possible. One only needs to remember Jamie Moyer to realize what keeping hitters “off-balance” can mean to a pitcher’s effectiveness.

  26. gnaztee on April 27th, 2010 6:48 pm

    Shanfan, no worries on the nickname variations!

    86 off of 88 can surely work, assuming the pitches are in almost identical locations. That’s not much of a difference for margin of error, but it’s effective. If the pitcher throws 88 on the outer black, then 86 that splits the outer half, the EV will be indistinguishable. But, what you’re talking about can generally be referred to as a “Batting Practice,” or “Cut-nothing” fastball, and is used effectively by pitchers often.

    In fact, for those old enough to remember Bosio’s no-no for Seattle, I believe his last pitch was to Mike Greenwell for a groundout and Bosio (I think) was quoted in the paper as saying they threw a BP Fastball to him. So yeah, best velo minus 2-4 mph can be really effective for getting rollover grounders…BUT, they can’t crossover (90 mph away, 86 mph inside) or the hitter is on time with both.

    With our team, we throw our best fastballs in and almost all of our fastballs away are minus 2-4 mph to try to get the rollover. Only when we want to force the hitter to hit into our oppo-field defense do we throw hard out there.

    Also, it IS a type of changeup. It’s easy to get in the habit of clearly defining pitch-types when they’re simply at different places on the continuum. The BP fastball you’re talking about is on the way to a change up…pitchers can turn the fastball over a little bit to get some more sink and take 2-4 mph off. Or they can change the grip a bit, really turn the ball over and take several mph off and get more movement. Conversely, curve balls and sliders are the same pitch on different points of the continuum…the more the palm is turned in when throwing the pitch the more vertical the break gets, and more speed the pitch loses.

    SonOfZavaras: I think barring more sample size for Fister, I would agree with you

  27. Trauser on April 27th, 2010 7:08 pm

    Not sure how much this has to do with anything, but Fister’s two-seamer has some pretty nice Hz movement – averaging -10.5 Aug/Sept 2009 and over -11.0 April 2010. His four-seamer moves pretty well horizontally too; -7 to -8 in both time periods. It’s a small sample, but he does seem to be throwing the two-seamer more this year.



    His two-seamer actually has more movement that Felix’s sinker/two-seamer (though of course it’s 5-6mph slower):


    Maybe it really is as simple as locating the fastball to induce (hopefully) weak contact and having a good defense behind him; his strike % is up with all his pitches and the in-play % is up on all his pitches except the curve. At the same time, the groundout % is much higher than last year, flyout rate is down.

    At the risk of underthinking it, maybe the coaching staff just told him to throw the FB more, keep it down in the zone, and trust the defense. So far, it seems to be working.

  28. mikeyb12 on April 28th, 2010 12:15 am

    One has a fastball with good movement and the other’s arm speed is the same whether he’s throwing the fastball or the changeup thereby causing the batter to miss-read the pitch.
    (location is always helpful. as in the hotel business it is the three primary rules, location, location, location.)

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