Game 138, Mariners at Royals
Erasmo Ramirez vs. Bruce Chen, 5:10pm
I have a soft spot for Bruce Chen, as I think there’s just something cool about a Panamanian-Chinese lefty hanging on in MLB for 15 seasons and coming up on 400 games. No one has ever said, “No, I can’t do that – Chen’s pitching and I *need* to see this game,” but on the other hand, Chen’s never been out of work. He’s perfect as an exemplar of all manner of hoary old-school baseball cliches (“Knows how to pitch” “He’s been around a long time, and knows when to challenge” “He keeps you in the ballgame”), and he’s also a perfect example of DIPS theory or the role of luck: In 2011, he ran a 3.77 ERA thanks to low HR/FB and BABIP numbers. In 2012, his ERA was over 5 when he was unlucky in strand rate and HR/FB. If someone really, really believed that ERA was a better measure of pitching talent than, say, FIP, they’d be really troubled by Chen. Life’s too short to be troubled by Bruce Chen, so I have consciously chosen to be smitten by him.
Thanks to the Royals off-season pitching imports, Chen’s pitched mostly out of the bullpen this year, and his results have been superficially astounding, or at least, astounding given that we’re talking about Bruce Chen. Thanks in large part to a career-best strand rate, and thanks to some stellar work by the Royals bullpen behind him, he’s posted an extremely low RA. Sure, his FIP is much higher, but it’s still under 4, which for Chen is pretty remarkable. A big part of this is that he’s yielded fewer HRs than he did last year; his HR/9 is also a career-low this year, and that’s *despite* putting up a jaw-dropping 27% GB% mark. The reason he’s been so volatile, and the reason his GB% is so absurdly low, is simple: Chen likes to elevate his 80-something fastball. Against righties, Chen likes to keep his fastball at or above the center of the zone. Pitching coaches will tell you to pound the knees or “keep it down” and Chen, after 15 seasons, will continue to ignore them. This year, it’s even more extreme, as he’s thrown far more four-seamers up and out of the zone than he has anywhere in the lower third of the strike zone.
That explains the fly ball tendencies, but why would a guy who’s struggled with HRs want to do this? It may be that he’s realized how tempting, how sumptuous, a Bruce Chen fastball looks to a major league hitter. If they’re going to swing, because hey, *Bruce Chen* just threw you a high fastball, you may as way get hitters to climb the ladder. This is a tough game, because if you miss your spot by a few inches – leaving it in the zone instead of out – it could be hit a long way. But even MLB hitters struggle when they go and chase pitches out of the zone. Here’s some pitch fx data from Fangraphs for you, looking only at fastballs. Bruce Chen’s fastball is 86-87mph, remember.
Once more: Bruce Chen’s fastball is 86mph and it gets a swinging strike 11.1% of the time.
I have successfully compared Bruce Chen to Matt Harvey. My work here is done. :Slowly vanishes:
Something interesting to watch with Erasmo Ramirez: in recent games, he’s relied much more heavily on his slider than his change-up. When he first returned, his change-up was clearly rusty, as he struggled to keep it in the zone. Throughout much late July/mid-August, his command of the pitch improved, and he was once again using it as his two-strike pitch. In his last two starts, however, he’s thrown 53 sliders to just 18 cambios. His results haven’t been stellar with the pitch, and his change-up still has a great whiff rate associated with it, so we’ll have to see if this was a reaction to particular teams and hitters, or an effort to focus on a breaking pitch, especially to right-handers. Even if that’s the case, his curveball might be a better option, but I’m not going to second guess a young pitcher’s pitch mix when he’s returning from an extended bout of dead arm. I’m still just glad to see him in an M’s uniform.
1: Miller, 2B
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Ibanez, DH
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Chavez, LF
8: Almonte, CF
9: Ryan, SS
SP: Erasmo Ramirez
Four lefties in the line-up today, as the M’s get Guti and Ryan a start. Chen’s never had high platoon splits, so he’s in a somewhat different category than the lefties the M’s have seen recently. I’d assumed Ibanez got the start due to some prior success against Chen, but he’s 2-12 with 2 singles.
Taijuan Walker starts tomorrow, and James Paxton will make his debut for the M’s on the 7th, starting against the Rays. A six-man rotation down the stretch will help them manage the innings caps for Walker, Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma.
You know who’s four-seamer has an even lower contact rate than Harvey’s? Erasmo Ramirez, that’s who. Yes, yes, this comparison, like the Chen one, isn’t strictly “fair” in that Erasmo/Bruce have thrown many, many fewer fastballs than Harvey has on the year. But it’s still pretty surprising, and it’s an example of what guys like Trevor Bauer are talking about when they bemoan the “keep it down” dogma. Of course, as Chen (and Bauer too, perhaps) knows, the trade-off here is slugging percentage and home runs, but the upside is that Chen and his “fast”ball have been more-or-less-successful for a long time, and I’d guess a lot of that has to do with his unorthodox approach.
Rainiers hitting coach Howard Johnson will join the team for the final month.
Great stats article by our fearless leader here.
Go M’s, and go Erasmo!