Game 130, Rangers at Mariners
Joe Saunders vs. Travis Blackley, 7:10pm
A battle of lefty pitch-to-contact guys who have a striking inability to deal with right-handed hitters tonight. Thus, your first look at a game like this is to ask yourself which team has the superior right-handed bats. But that’s no fun, because the answer is as obvious as asking yourself “which of these two teams is better?” and then you find yourself tuning out or reading, or improving yourself in one of any number of ways. That’s not what we’re about, though – all of that perfectly sensible, good-for-you crap. I don’t think I have anything like a mission statement with these posts, because that’s a wee bit too business school for me and this is all supposed to be, well, no, not “fun.” I guess what I’m saying is that every once in a while we can put aside the fact that you can make a really good case to do literally anything else, and just wallow in the Mariners together.
Ok, here are the career splits for tonight’s starters:
That one guy, vs. lefties: .237/.288/.328
The other guy, vs. lefties: .228/.297/.374
That one guy, vs. righties: .287/.347/.485
The other guy, vs. righties: .262/.352/.494
Let’s be clear: those are not *identical* lines; they’re not as close as those plate discipline stats in Jeff’s post below. Other’s guy’s clearly got bigger problems with HRs, which drive up his ISOs, though to be fair, he yields fewer hits (thanks to more Ks; it’s not a pure BABIP thing). So there are differences here, but they’re relatively small. You’d think the two were more similar than not, if this was all you had to go by. Essentially, this small gap is one way to understand the gap between a respected veteran (and the myriad cliches that adhere to respected veterans – “knows how to pitch” “keeps you in the ballgame” etc.) and a guy who was just cut by the actual Houston Astros.
Blackley was always one of my favorite M’s prospects. His superficially dazzling line with San Antonio in 2003, the early run of success in Tacoma, and the big breaking yakker, all wrapped in an intensely competitive personality. His confidence must’ve taken a hit in his years in the baseball wilderness, capped by essentially sitting 2011 out, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from watching him last year. He was the swingman/spot-starter on the playoff A’s, getting plenty of action thanks to suspension and injuries, and he performed admirably for a 5th starter. It wasn’t a shock that the A’s let him go, and it was probably even less of a shock that the Astros saw him as an upgrade. But as Joe Saunders can tell you, it’s one thing to have “trouble” with right-handed hitters in Seattle or Anaheim, and a very different, uglier, thing to have “trouble” with righties in Houston and Arlington. They’re vanishingly small, but for laughs: Blackley’s batting line against *at home* this year is .292/.380/.672. His home FIP is 8.58. He’s given up a HR every 10 PAs in the state of Texas this year, and just one in 66 PAs anywhere else. Vs. Lefties, away from home, he looks like an OK 4th starter. At home, vs. righties, his numbers might make Fangraphs’ database gravely ill.
Think about how odd, at least on the surface, it is for Texas to claim Blackley from the Astros. The Rangers are in a playoff race with the Athletics. The Astros *were* in a contest with Miami to see which god-awful team was the worst, but that “race” is all but over. Sure, the Rangers have had injury woes in the rotation, same as every team; Blackley could be gone when Nick Tepesch returns, and that could be fairly soon. But it’s somewhat telling that the Rangers saw past the barrage of HRs and thought Blackley could hold down the fort for a little while. Blackley still throws a 90-91mph four- and two-seam fastball, a change-up, a cutter and the big, slow curve ball. In recent years, he’s used the cutter/slider much more frequently and the curve relatively less. That trend was magnified this season, as he’s used the cutter more than any other single pitch, and the curve makes only rare appearances. In his first start with Texas, covering four innings, he threw just one curve. The cutter’s been a perfectly successful pitch for him – his problem lies in setting it up with his fastball. 42 at-bats have ended on Blackey fastballs this year. He’s struck out three hitters, walked ten, and yielded seven homers.
Like many, he throws sinkers more often to righties, and throws more four-seamers to lefties, despite the fact that stat-nerds would argue the opposite. In the spacious confines of the Oakland Coliseum, his fly-ball tendencies didn’t hurt him, and he kept righties in the park, allowing him to use his other pitches. In Houston, that just didn’t work out, as batters both hit more balls in the air and turned more of those balls into home runs. Now, if you followed those pitch type platoon split links you might see that curves are great pitches to throw opposite-handed hitters. Not quite as effective as change-ups, but definitely not in the sinker/slider category either. That’s what makes Blackley’s shift from the curve to the cutter so odd. Not just because that defies a pattern that people have discovered amongst the entire population of pitchers, but because Blackley *has* a curve and used it often in 2012. It’s all the more mystifying when you consider that Blackley has given up zero career HRs on the curve ball. None. I’m going to repeat this more for myself than anyone, but here we go: a pitcher who is in danger of bombing out of MLB in large part due to a home run problem has a pitch that has never been hit for a home run, and he’s choosing (or being told) not to use it. Ok.
The M’s are pulling out, well, SOME of the stops in an effort to put together a RH-heavy line-up tonight. To that end, they’ve activated CF Franklin Gutierrez,* putting his LHP-killing splits up against Blackley’s RHB-enhancing splits. To do this, they’ve DFA’d Aaron Harang. Just last night, many talked about how it was unlikely the M’s would make a move today,** just a few days before rosters expand on Sept. 1. That says something about how interested the M’s were in playing out the string with Mr. Harang, as does their plan to fill his spot in the rotation (essentially, “uh, you know, some guys”). Nick Franklin moves to leadoff, too:
1: Franklin, 2B
2: Miller, SS
3: Gutierrez, RF
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morse, LF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Ackley, CF
9: Quintero, C
SP: Joe Saunders
Edwin Diaz headlines the affiliate starting pitchers tonight, with Blake Beavan (AAA), Trevor Miller (AA) and Thyago Viera (SS-A) also taking their turns.
* No Franklin Gutierrez-has-been-activated-or-DL’d story would be complete without a new diagnosis, and today’s is one I’ve never heard of. Apparently, we can add “Ankylosing Spondylitis” to Guti’s roster of maladies. AS is a type of spinal arthritis, apparently. It’s churlish to point to dollars owed or games lost or anything of the kind when dealing with someone’s health, but I sincerely wonder if Guti wouldn’t be better off retiring. I don’t believe he gets a new disease every time he falls awkwardly; I believe the more doctors examine him, the more they find.
** Credit to Rick Randall, who heard rumbling about this last night, and tweeted about it even though it seemed far-fetched. Good bit of reporting.