Game 144, Astros at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Jarred Cosart, 7:10pm
A late-season game between two bottom-dwellers, long since eliminated from contention, both with goals that go beyond – and may even conflict with – trying to put themselves in the best position to win *this* game, in early September of 2013. That game begins as the first Monday Night Football (just about any NFL-related term or phrase just begs to have a trademark associated with it, and I say that as a fan of the game) contest of the year ends, and the second begins. Even for those of us who actually care about the M’s and Astros – how do we resist the biggest brand in US sports, not to mention the spectacle of a Seattle franchise that’s, you know, good, and good now, and not in some nebulous future? You may not care about whoever’s playing on MNF, but isn’t there something odd about expending mental energy on a baseball game that’s much more like a scrimmage or a practice than something that changes or illuminates our understanding of the teams and the game?* Isn’t that what we sometimes mock – the weird way that the media will send 50 people to practice fields and intone seriously about what it means that the Coach mentioned X before mentioning Y?
This pitching match-up is the antidote to all of that woe-is-us apathy, a clear, concise rejection of the idea that this specific game is meaningless and without merit. It could be great TV, pleasingly devoid of the over-the-top theatrics, the stentorian voices and million-selling singers patting you on the back for watching.** This is game exudes potential, and that’s important for fans of the M’s and Astros. The match-up involves two of the top 100 prospects in baseball dueling for the first time – two prospects whose rise to the big leagues seemed inevitable, and whose arrival atones, partially, for the god-awful seasons their clubs have played to date. We’re learning about players who could be franchise cornerstones, and that’s enough. Tomorrow night, uh….huh. Give me a minute.
Jarred Cosart came to the Astros in the Hunter Pence deal in 2011. Blessed with an upper-90s fastball, a curve and a change, he was a classic tools prospect. He was the big prize in the Pence deal despite fair-to-middling statistics – the big fastball and decent secondaries limited hits, but he couldn’t keep runs off the board and his strikeout totals never matched the pure stuff. He got grounders, was solid against lefties, and yet on the whole, Cosart was judged a disappointment. After a social promotion to the PCL, though, something may have clicked. His GB% was through the roof, and his strikeout rate ticked up, despite the fact he was facing better competition. Promoted in July, he took a no-hitter into the 7th, and he’s been an intriguing member of the Astros rotation since.
By fielding-independent measures, Cosart’s been freakishly lucky, and not all that good. He’s never had great control, so his walk rate hovering in the teens is disappointing to Astros fans, if not terribly surprising. But his K% has been bad as well, at just over 13%. This is not a finished product, but the raw material is top-grade. It’s going to be interesting to see how he finishes the year, and what adaptations he’ll develop. I’d guess he’ll work on a slider at some point, as he’s struggled against *righties* this year, both in Houston and in the PCL.
Beyond its velocity, Cosart’s fastball is an odd duck in terms of movement. It comes in with essentially zero horizontal movement. In his MLB games to date, it exhibits a slight glove-side movement, akin to the true over-the-top delivery guys like Yovani Gallardo and Clayton Kershaw, but he doesn’t have a delivery like those two. Most with very little horizontal movement tend to generate plenty of vertical movement (like Kershaw, Chris Tillman, etc.), but Cosart’s is normal, perhaps even a touch below; this probably helps him post great GB% numbers, though it shouldn’t do much for whiffs/strikeouts. We’ll see if the M’s are able to elevate the ball tonight.
Tai Walker’s through 10 mostly excellent innings, but like Cosart, has fewer strikeouts than anyone armed with a mid-90s fastball and big breaking curveball should have. His walk rate is and has been solid, but he doesn’t yet have pinpoint command of his fastball. Again, he’s freakishly young, and like Cosart, he hasn’t been hit hard so far, and I’m still a big believer in his ceiling. This is as good a match-up of guys with bad K% as you’ll see.
1: Miller, SS
2: Almonte, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Franklin, 2B
SP: Tai Walker
Sad I missed James Paxton’s successful MLB debut while I was out in the woods, but I’ve been looking over the pitch fx stats. We’ve still got Safeco’s weird/anomalous readings on vertical movement to contend with, but there’s an awful lot to like. First of all, the velocity’s all the way back. I got a taste of this in his last Tacoma appearance, but to sustain that velo over six innings and not two is a great sign from a guy who’s battled durability concerns since college. Second, if you take his vertical movement numbers and double them, it’s still below what he showed in the AFL and in his truly lousy spring training. I don’t want to oversell this, as it’s comparing one data point with some known measurement problems to a baseline in another park with some known measurement problems. The gap isn’t as big as it looks. Still, Paxton’s fastball came in with extremely low vertical movement for someone with an over-the-top delivery. In the AFL last year, his FB was 94mph and had the movement you’d expect from his delivery – low horizontal movement, and tons of backspin providing “rise.” In the spring, he was clearly tired, as his average velocity was just a hair over 90mph, though its movement was basically the same as it was in the AFL. In Seattle, his fastball was not only faster than it was in the AFL, it had sink. Paxton racked up grounders in his last AAA month, but if his vertical movement is around 8-9″ going forward, that’s still an interesting adjustment he’s made over the course of the season. It’s an odd thing, as his delivery makes you reach for Kershaw-type comps, whereas the movement looks more like, well, Jarred Cosart’s, actually.
Like Walker, he didn’t get many whiffs, and I’m quite surprised he didn’t go to his cutter at all, but I’m glad he’s got another offering to use on unsuspecting big league hitters in his next go-round. Between Paxton, Walker’s innings ceiling, Iwakuma’s ceiling/shoulder history and now Felix’s back, the six-man rotation is just perfect for the M’s right now. They haven’t had the depth for it this year, but they should seriously look into keeping it in 2014.
Glad to see Erasmo Ramirez put in another great start too, despite the control problems. I’m still a bit puzzled by his reliance on the slider, but he’s had some success, so I can’t be too concerned by it. Part of it may be the specific line-ups he’s faced, but he’s seeing more lefties this year (as a proportion of total batters faced), so it’s not like teams are starting righties to take the change-up away. Still, he threw the change to righties last year, and he’s not doing so in 2013.
* As an M’s blogger for a few especially barren years, this line of argument makes me uncomfortable.
** In commercials involving the NFL, literally every person is always on the verge of losing their feces. It’s bizarre. Whether at the game, or at a well-attended viewing party, everyone has food and drink in their hands just so they’ll have something to fling when the next unbelievable thing happens. In commercials involving baseball, there are a lot of children dressed in club gear by their parents. I don’t know what this means, but it’s interesting. I love football, but sometimes feel the culture is telling me I’m doing it wrong.