Game 7, Angels at Mariners – HOME OPENER
James Paxton vs. Hector Santiago, 7:10pm
I think the game on April 2nd between these two teams and these two starting pitchers was the most encouraging of the young season. The M’s won their opener, but they *always* win their opener, in large part due to Felix Hernandez. The problem has been filling in enough complementary pieces to make Felix matter. In years past, the offense was a disaster, so the M’s rightly put the focus on improving run scoring – signing Robby Cano, developing Brad Miller, etc. But once Hisashi Iwakuma went down, many of us were worried that the rotation simply wasn’t deep enough to carry the team if the offense struggled. Roenis Elias and Chris Young still have me a bit spooked, but the picture’s dramatically different if the team has another high-ceiling, high-talent arm in the rotation who’s capable of shutting down an opponent. James Paxton’s 7 inning masterwork was thus a very, very encouraging sign.
I know – we’ve seen great performances out of the middle of the rotation before. You may recall that last year’s home opener featured a very good game from Joe Saunders, who went the first 6 1/3 IP with a 5:1 K:BB ratio and no runs allowed in the M’s 3-0 win. Paxton’s game was less about getting a divisional win, and more about demonstrating that the M’s have the capability to be much better than projected.
Like I mentioned with Sonny Gray/Erasmo Ramirez, Paxton’s clearly still tinkering with his approach and offerings. It’s tough to say much definitively about a pitcher who, because we have so little data, seems to change markedly from start to start. On the 2nd, Paxton did a couple of really, really encouraging things. First, his velocity actually increased as the game went on. His first inning saw his fastball sit around 91-93, but by the 5th or so he was consistently 95-97. Scroll down to the pitch speed graph here – there’s a clear upward trend to his velocity, which puts the final nail in the coffin of the “starter or reliever?” debate. The second, and perhaps more interesting, is how often he used his new-ish cutter, and how well it worked. I mentioned it after seeing his last AAA appearance, but it wasn’t something he used a lot. Even this spring, he used it sparingly in his first few outings before taking the training wheels off a bit in late March. But against the Angels, he threw it 17 times – as often as his curve ball. He threw it in the zone 14 of those times, and the Angels only put three of them in play (all were outs). At least that day, he generally saved it for left-handers, and both Ibanez and Hamilton in particular looked flummoxed by it.
It’s interesting that he’d use it that way, as lefties haven’t really been Paxton’s problem (not that he’s really had MLB problems yet). Teams generally stack their line-ups with righties, who’ve seen the ball a bit better against him…though still haven’t quite figured out what to do with those pitches. A good FB, with a plus cutter and a curve, and Paxton could be death on a stick to left-handers. Platoon splits – even big ones -are fine as long as you utterly destroy one side (the Justin Masterson approach), and if that’s how Paxton develops for a bit, that’d be OK with me. But think of *why* pitchers use cutters – they often do it to attack opposite-handed hitters. They have lower platoon splits than standard four-seamers, while two-seams/sinkers have the largest splits.* That’s nice, but it may have another use. Last week, Paxton threw RHBs 9 change-ups, against only 8 curves and 2 cutters. His change is around 89-90mph, and has lots of arm-side run. His cutter’s around 89-90mph, with slight glove-side run. Any batter who saw a change-up last week might see a brand new pitch from Paxton that’s the exact same speed, but with very different movement.
One of those righties is Albert Pujols, and perhaps no Angel position player’s been a bigger disappointment than the big 1B. Dave mentioned on twitter that it’s kind of astonishing that Pujols could be *so bad* for a week and no one really notices or finds it remarkable. Slumps happen to all players, of course, but this one’s been especially hard on the Angels because Pujols is batting behind one of the greatest offensive players in recent memory. In the game against Paxton, Pujols came up with no out, runners on first and second, and no out, runner on second. The first time, he grounded into a double play. The second time, he struck out. He earned his way to the worst WPA in the game (by far). Mike Trout actually hit Paxton fairly well, but with Pujols behind him, the Angels couldn’t take advantage. This brings up the rather awkward situation of having to move Pujols down the order a bit, at least until he snaps out of this. Your reminder: Pujols has actually been fairly cheap for the Angels thus far. He made a total of $28 million for his first two years in LA (combined). This season, his annual pay jumped $7m to $23m, and it’ll rise by $1m each year through…:gulp: 2021.
Enough schadenfreude. Paxton’s potential emergence is one of the big reasons M’s fans are a bit more encouraged this year. The M’s have opened on the road each year since 2009 – and that was the last year the M’s came into Safeco with a winning record. They were 4-4 in 2012, but still ended April with a losing record. 2009 really was the last time there much excitement about the M’s, with that out-of-nowhere 85-win season. Here’s hoping this year’s team rewards our hope a bit better than that one.**
1: Almonte, CF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Hart, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Romero, RF
8: Ackley, LF
9: Zunino, C
Paxton’s the 1st rookie to start the M’s home opener, apparently.
Happy Birthday to Felix Hernandez, who turned 28 today. When Felix came up, Jamie Moyer and Shiggy Hasegawa were M’s, and Pat Borders was on the team. Wiki Gonzalez caught him. Jamie Bubela played CF behind him, and Mike Morse played SS. He faced Bernie Williams and Corey Koskie. He was outdueled by Randy Johnson in the first meeting of the two greatest pitchers in team history. HE IS JUST NOW, JUST TODAY, 28 YEARS OLD. He’s moving through life like it’s a slow walk off the mound after another 1-2-3 inning while I accelerate towards the grave, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jimmy Gilheeney starts tonight against the Chihuahuas of El Paso (looks pretty rainy right now, and it’s supposed to get worse by 7, but who knows). 2013 22nd-round pick Tommy Burns starts for Clinton. AA Jackson’s off tonight, but they’ll get Taijuan Walker’s next rehab start, perhaps tomorrow (as he pitched 4+ IP for High Desert on Friday).
* Though FB with a lot of “rise” and little horizontal movement have even lower splits than cutters. Paxton’s regular FB is built to be an equal-opportunity frustrater.
** The 2009 roster is nearly unrecognizable. The M’s went into their home opener at 5-2 that year, with the wins allocated to Jarrod Washburn, Roy Corcoran, Miguel Batista, Chris Jakubauskas…and Felix, of course. I know all of the players, it just seems like they played here a decade ago. How was that only five years? Jose Lopez! Wlad!