Game 79, Pirates at Mariners
King Felix vs. Jeanmar Gomez, 12:40pm
Felix was brilliant against Pittsburgh a few months ago, and now he has the added motivation of trying to atone for his 5 IP 7 R meltdown against the Angels on the 20th. The M’s could use a good outing, as their bullpen’s still in some disarray after Carter Capps struggles, Tom Wilhelmsen’s fall from grace and the fact that the team now relies fairly heavily on Yoervis Medina in high-leverage situations.
Jeanmar Gomez, by fWAR, has been a below-replacement-level pitcher in 2013, with a FIP pushing 5, a lack of strikeouts and a few too many walks. By fielding-dependent measures, however, he’s been a great find – someone who’s solidified the back of the rotation and kept the Pirates in nearly every game he’s started. Like Jeff Locke, he’s throwing a few more balls than he has in previous seasons (when he toiled for Cleveland), and he’s also benefiting from tremendous defense behind him. The question is how these two things work together.
As I mentioned yesterday, the Pirates throw the fewest strikes of any team in baseball. You know what else the Pirates do? They allow – by far – the fewest hits on balls in play. The Pirates defense has been a huge asset to their pitching staff. Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen are outstanding in the OF, but with so many ground-ballers (the Pirates *also* lead the league in GB%), they’ve relied heavily on Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer at SS/2B, respectively, while Pedro Alvarez has been above average at 3rd. They’ve got solid defenders at key positions, so it’s not like this is ‘lucky’ per se, but their DER and park-adjusted defense numbers are off the charts. Tampa’s 2011 team is the best recent comp for what the Pirates are doing in 2013, but to find a team that was clearly, unambiguously better, you’ve got to go all the way back to the 2001 Mariners.
Clint Barmes and Andrew McCutchen can pick it, but to get to this level of DER while also employing Garret Jones, I wonder if something else is at work. Here’s a plot of where Gomez threw his pitches in 2012. Here’s the same graphic for 2013. Again, the shift is subtle, and the magnitude’s much lower than we saw with Locke, but quite a few pitches in the zone, particularly in the center of the zone, have been shifted to the edges – and actually off the outside edges of the plate. It’s not clear to me if the Pirates are getting more balls in play on out-of-zone pitches, but that would certainly account for a lower BABIP.
Beyond that rather speculative theory, this is another indication that there are many ways to succeed in MLB. The Pirates line-up, even with McCutchen and Marte, own a 95wRC+, pretty close to the M’s 93. The M’s came into the year determined to make a break with their approach of 2009-10, when they had defenders at SS/CF, and occasionally in the corner spots as well. Whatever you think of how those (crappy) M’s teams were put together, the Pirates are another example of a team actually succeeding with a blueprint the M’s helped to popularize and now disown: that assembling a team of great defenders can help your pitching staff outpitch their “true talent” and drive runs allowed way down. Obviously, that’s not the entire story. They’ve outplayed their pythagorean and 3rd order winning percentages thanks to timely hitting and a lock-down bullpen (Jason Grilli is putting together a historical, all-time great sort of season). They’ve got uber-talented, franchise-core types in McCutchen and Marte – two guys who would be the best position players on the M’s if they played for Seattle. But fundamentally, this club is the anti-Mariners – they field the ball, keep it close, and their bullpen’s amazing. They’re getting anti-Mariner results on the scoreboard, too.
4: Morales (DH)
SP: King Felix