Game 139, Mariners at Royals
Taijuan Walker vs. Ervin Santana, 5:10pm
This should be interesting. Taijuan Walker’s MLB debut was excellent, and the poise he showed in pitching around some serious Mariner defending can’t be overstated. But, many have pointed out, it’s a lot easier to pitch around Raul-being-Raul when you’re dealing with the Astros. And that’s true: the Astros have a team wRC+ of just 88, and they have the lowest contact rate (by far) in MLB. Today’s opponent comes in at #1 in all of baseball in contact rate, which means more might be asked of Mariner defenders – a group Walker’s probably not all that confident in right now. But what level of production have the Royals gotten from that best-in-baseball contact rate? Their wRC+ is, er, 88. The Royals hit everything, but they hit everything poorly. The Royals have some actual hitters, so I’m not going to say that this is an identical test, especially as the Royals can review tape and prepare for Walker a bit more than the Astros could. But this is not a fundamentally more difficult test, it’s just fundamentally different. It’ll be interesting to see how he approaches this start.
Ervin Santana could come home with the Comeback Player of the Year award in the AL this year, as he’s posting a lovely RA/FIP for the Royals – the team lambasted for picking up his salary this offseason. Santana’s always had HR problems, and while he’s not exactly eliminated them, it’s instructive to see what can happen when a player takes a peripheral from “lol” to “OK” or “decent.” Santana has always essentially been a three pitch pitcher, with a four-seamer, a slider and an occasional change. He occasionally worked on a sinker, but not terribly often. His slider’s his bread and butter pitch; he throws it to RHB and LHBs alike, and he’ll throw it in any count. Over his career, it’s consistently gotten low batting-average-on-contact as well as whiffs, but that many sliders mean a lot of opportunities for hangers. As such, he’s given up a number of HRs on it. That’s actually not a huge problem; he’s given up *10* HRs on sliders this year, which is kind of astonishing, but as I mentioned, his overall HR rate is OK. His problem has come in years when his *fastball* gets annihilated. Last year, he gave up 22 HRs on his four-seamer. This year, he’s at 8.
Is it a change in approach, a change in luck? I can’t see much change in how he uses it, but the one thing that jumps off his BrooksBaseball pitcher card is the use of a sinker. Last year, the manually-reclassed pitch type system Dan/Harry use picked up no sinkers. This year, he’s using it for over 20% of his pitches. Is it a great pitch? No, not really, but it’s another look for hitters. This is pure speculation, but this would seem to be a much more important factor in Santana’s improvement than the ballyhooed return of some velocity; Santana’s four-seam velo is up less than 1mph from 2012 to 2013. Santana was just extremely predictable in 2012, using a four-seamer to lefties over 70% of his first pitches and over 70% of the time the batter was ahead in the count. To righties, it was a fairly consistent 60:40 split in those situations. With the re-introduction of a sinker, it’s a lot harder for a batter to guess fastball. This may help his HR rates, and his GB% is up this season as well, which lends some credence to the idea that he’s throwing a lot more sinkers.
All of that said, having the kind of bullpen the Royals have can’t help but make their starters look a bit better than they are. The M’s saw it on Labor Day, when Will Smith came in to strike out Kyle Seager in a key situation, and then stuck around for another 4 innings of dominant relief. As such, it’d be lovely if the M’s got to Santana early. The M’s have faced lefty starters in the past four games, and seven of the past nine, and as you know, the M’s are terrible against lefties. So much of the hand-wringing about situational hitting, or the lack of offense, etc. can be explained by this run of lefty starters. Of course, knowing what’s causing the problem and having a solution are two different things. The M’s are very left-handed right now, and until they acquire actual right handed threats, they’ll be vulnerable to teams rejiggering their rotations to give the Travis Blackleys and Bruce Chens of the world a spot start or two.
1: Miller, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Franklin, 2B
SP: Taijuan Walker wooooooo
As you may have seen on TV, twitter, or however it is that you access noteworthy baseball feats these days, A’s 3B Josh Donaldson made a sublime catch of a foul pop-up last night against Texas. The debate about whether baseball itself or certain baseballing acts rise to the level of art is ultimately unresolvable, but I can now point to this poem by Seattle’s own Patrick Dubuque as proof that baseballing acts can inspire art.
The Royals have been staring at the contact rate leaderboard too, it would appear. Today, they called up Carlos Pena from AAA Omaha – the man who was a little bit too three-true-outcomes for even the Houston Astros has arrived to shake things up and get his teammates to live a little, much in the manner of an 80s teen comedy. The article notes that Omaha qualified for the playoffs with a 70-74 record, while the solidly-above-.500 Rainiers’ season is done. Even in the minors, division strength is a huge influence on playoff odds. (hat-tip: Divish).