Game 112, Blue Jays at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. R.A. Dickey, 7:10pm
Undervalued top-flight starter against formerly undervalued top-flight starter in Game 1 of a three-game set versus Toronto. The M’s come into the game with a better record than the Jays and Angels, two teams that were expected to compete for the ALCS this year. Dickey’s return to earth following his Cy Young-winning 2012 has less to do with the Jays misfortune than other things (Josh Johnson pitching like crap, Jose Reyes’ injury, Melky Cabrera turning back into a pumpkin, etc.) but it’s a concern given the Jays owe him $24m for 2014-15.
Early in the year, Dickey’s velocity was down a bit from where it’d been in 2012 (easily his best year as a big leaguer). There were signs in June that he’d recovered that missing mile-per-hour, but he gave it away again in July. Dickey certainly seemed to be a better pitcher with the extra oomph on his knuckleball, but it’s still not clear exactly why. Keeping the ball in the strikezone was one possibility, but he threw fewer strikes in 2012 than he had in any other year. His o-swing and contact rates were unbelievable in 2012, but he hasn’t been able to recapture that form, and thus his 2013 looks a lot like his 2009-2011 average. As Dave’s mentioned, that’s not bad – the Jays aren’t paying for a Cy Young winner, they’re paying for a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and Dickey *can* return some value to them. But he’s going to have to figure out why he’s losing so many grounders. Since learning the knuckler, he’s been a slight GB pitcher, peaking in 2010 with a 55% GB rate. That slipped in his next two seasons with the Mets, but it’s fallen through the floor this year, as his GB% is down to 41%. The knuckleball’s getting a few less grounders, but his fastball’s been a serious problem this year too. It used to look great on a rate basis, as it could surprise hitters whose timing was geared to a 76mph floater. For whatever reason, no one’s fooled this year, and Toronto’s a terrible place for fly-ball pitchers.
Many speculated about how Rogers Center would affect Dickey, with several believing the controlled environment would be conducive to a knuckler. Unfortunately, he’s been awful at home, with home/road splits like a Colorado Rockies hurler in 2000. Of course, the M’s aren’t playing in Toronto tonight, but a fly-ball heavy righty (Dickey’s had standard platoon splits for a few years) seems like a decent match-up.
I realize I spend an inordinate amount of time in these posts talking about opponents, so let’s shift focus to the M’s. Without looking, what pitches are swung most often? That is, what pitches generate the highest swinging percentage from opposing batters? It’s not fastballs, and it’s clearly not curves (which have high rates of “taken” strikes after freezing hitters). The slider is pretty close to the top, as those of us who’ve seen Adrian Beltre can attest. But the answer seems to be change-ups/splits. In fact, only two active pitches have induced swings more than Iwakuma’s splitter: Alex Cobb’s splitter and Tommy Milone’s change-up. This is somewhat remarkable, given that Iwakuma generally doesn’t leave his splitter in the strikezone - that is, only ~1/3 of Iwakuma’s splits are called balls despite the fact that less than 1/3 are thrown in the strike zone. Iwakuma keeps the ball down extraordinarily well, whcih allows him to generate huge GB% on it, all while racking up swinging strikes too. It hasn’t been untouchable this year, as the A’s recently hit three HRs off of it, but it’s still one of baseball’s better pitches.
So why doesn’t he throw it more often? Unlike, say, Steve Delabar’s, it’s effective against righties and lefties, and he’s given up HRs by the dozen on his fastballs. Iwakuma pitches up in the zone with fastballs much more than you’d expect from a guy 1) with a dinger problem and 2) with great command of his other pitches. It can’t be that Iwakuma’s trying his best to keep the ball low and missing repeatedly. Instead, I think he *needs* the fastball up to effectively disguise the splitter. If he threw four-seamers at the knees, the different shape of the split would be visible to batters much earlier, and his swing rate on them would presumably drop. If the fastball’s thrown in the zone and even above the belt, it’s going to look indistinguishable from the split at the time the batter decides to/begins his swing. So yes, Iwakuma’s fastball(s) don’t have great results, but they’re not really supposed to. They’re the sacrificial anode that protects his real weapon.
1: Miller, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, RF
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Saunders, CF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Ackley, 2B (!)
9: Quintero, C
Blake Beavan starts in Tacoma tonight as the Rainiers host Iowa. Hey, Hector Noesi turned in a brilliant outing the other day, so why can’t Beavan? Anthony Vasquez takes the hill for Jackson.
You’ve probably read more than you’d like to about the Biogenesis suspensions, but here’s a great piece from BP’s Colin Wyers about why MLB went after the Biogenesis 12 with such fervor and the need to take a step back from the edge here (“Constant hysteria is unsustainable”). We are constantly shocked – SHOCKED – to find that chemists have come up with a new, currently-untestable PED, despite the Tour de France sagas, despite Balco and despite Biogenesis. This isn’t going away.