Game 33, Tigers at Mariners
Vargas vs. Smyly, 7:10pm
Marc and I both put up game threads, so I’m just copying the contents of mine over here. His contents are below.
All season long, we’ve been advocating for Eric Wedge to deploy John Jaso more often. We hailed his contact rate and ability to hit from the left side as positives that the team needed from the catching position, and we pointed out that Jaso’s on base skills actually convinced Joe Maddon to use him in the leadoff spot while he was in Tampa Bay. As he’s gotten more playing time since Olivo’s injury, Jaso has continued to show that he can be a useful offensive piece.
So, I’m thrilled to see Eric Wedge promote Jaso to the leadoff spot for tonight’s game, acknowledging that on base skills should trump speed at the top of the line-up. I want to applaud him from the rooftops and tell the world what a great thing he’s done.
There’s only one small problem – the Tigers starting pitcher tonight is Drew Smyly. Drew Smyly is left-handed. John Jaso is also left-handed, and he’s been pretty awful against southpaws during his big league career. While 101 plate appearances isn’t a huge sample, Jaso’s .183/.320/.268 line against lefties isn’t exactly encouraging, and his primary skill against RHPs – contact ability – hasn’t been present against lefties, as he’s struck out in 19.8% of his PAs against LHPs. He’s managed to draw 17 walks, so he hasn’t been totally helpless, but he’s not a guy who is likely to have much success against quality left-handed pitching.
So, hooray for Jaso hitting leadoff. I just hope that if Jaso looks awful in that spot tonight against a lefty, it won’t preclude him from hitting near the top of the order against a right-hander in the future, since that’s the role where Jaso is actually capable of providing real value.
You may remember the name Drew Smyly, as he was one of a few potential “players to be named later” to complete the Doug Fister trade. As it turned out, Chance Ruffin headed west, and Smyly resumed rocketing through the Tigers minor league system. The 6’3″ lefty made his MLB debut on April 12th, and he’s reeled off four quality starts in a row from 4/17 to 5/4. His primary pitches are a four-seam fastball at about 92mph, a cutter at around 87 and a slider at 80. He’s got a change-up, but he hasn’t used it all that often. Thus far in his month-long MLB career, he’s been excellent, with a K% over 25% and a walk rate of just over 7%. At this point, it’s probably better to just say that he’s got 29 Ks to 8 free passes. Given his arsenal, it’s probably not a big surprise that he’s tough on lefties. He’s struck out 10 of the 31 lefties to face him and hasn’t walked any of them (though he plunked one). He’s been surprisingly tough on righties, though, thanks to a better-than-average strikeout rate. Some look at his shiny ERA and ridiculous strand rate (94%!) and see a guy who’s lucked his way into the rotation. But while he’s certainly benefited from luck, he’s been a very effective pitcher from the moment he got to Detroit.
The most interesting thing about him isn’t his arsenal – it’s the way his pitches move. As we all remember from hearing the M’s (and, briefly, the Yankees) discuss Michael Pineda, baseball folks think it’s important to have pitches that move in on same-handed hitters as well as pitches that move away from same-handed hitters. Pineda had a great slider, and the M’s wanted him to develop a change-up with arm-side run that could move away from lefties. His slider was great against righties, but the M’s worried about left-handers teeing off on the pitch. Jason Vargas is a classic example – he came up with a good slider, but then worked on his change-up so much that it’s now his best pitch, and so his K:BB ratio is as good or better versus righties. Developing pitches with very different horizontal movement is so ingrained, so routine, that it seems like a truism. The only exceptions have been guys with nuclear-grade stuff – the young Randy Johnson who used a 100mph fastball and a slider so good, to complain about the fact that it broke in on right-handers was to miss the point entirely. But even RJ developed a splitter/change-up later on (and he became one of the greatest pitchers in history). Pineda was successful last year despite not having an MLB-quality change-up, but many thought the lack of the pitch would hamper his development.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Here’s Smyly’s horizontal movement graphed against velocity, thanks to Brooks Baseball:
Compare that to his opponent tonight, Jason Vargas:
Vargas’s horizontal movement stretches quite far, from pitches like his curve that break away from lefties to his change-up that break surprisingly far from righties. Compare that to Smyly’s movement; nearly all of the variation in Smyly’s graph is in velocity. Both pitchers throw a cutter, but while Vargas uses the pitch to get a different break from his fastball (the horizontal movement is 8″ different), Smyly’s cutter’s movement is indistinguishable from his fastball. It’s a bit slower and has different vertical movement, but fundamentally, he throws a cut-less cutter. Lucas Apostoleris brought this up on twitter and it touched off an interesting conversation.
My question is still: why? Is there an advantage in this approach (everything looks the same until after batter’s begun his swing?), or is it purely the result of his delivery? Looking for comparable pitchers, Harry Pavlidis of Brooks Baseball came up with another guy with an over-the-top delivery, Josh Collmenter. Collmenter throws a curve ball, which is so different from a cutter that there’s no way he’d get similar horizontal break on a curve and his fastball, but I’d guess that if he threw a cutter, it’d move like Smyly’s. Collmenter was one of the better stories of 2011 for Arizona, coming out of nowhere to win the #5 starter job and putting up a sub-4.0 FIP and over 2 wins. This year, he’s been crushed and he’s lost his starting job already. A “different” delivery is often effective for a pitcher – until the league learns how to read it. Smyly’s been great, and he’ll probably have a successful season, but he’s probably already working to improve his change-up in preparation for next year. Funky delivery mirage or intriguing prospect who gets more out of his talent than most, I just wish the M’s got him last year.
The line-up features several interesting twists – not only has Wedge “freed” John Jaso, he’s batting him lead-off. In addition, with the M’s throwing out their RH line-up, Ackley gets the day off with Seager at 2B and Alex Liddi at 3B. Chone Figgins gets a spot start in CF and Mike Saunders had the day off.
1: Jaso (C)
2: Ryan (SS)
3: Ichiro (RF)
4: Montero (DH)
5: Seager (2B)
6: Smoak (1B)
7: Liddi (3B)
8: Wells (LF)
9: Figgins (CF)
Taijuan Walker had a shortened, somewhat mixed outing today, going 4 IP and giving up 2 R and 2 BB against 4 Ks. Jackson lost to Huntsville, 4-2.
The Rainiers were undone by long balls today in their game against Albuquerque, but Forrest Snow still had one of his better starts of the young season, getting 8 Ks in 6+. Chance Ruffin still doesn’t look quite right, giving up 2 runs in the 7th and picking up the loss in a 9-7 defeat. Vinnie Catricala showed some tentative signs of life on the R’s recent road trip, but went 1-5 with a single and a GIDP. Still only 6 XBH on the season.