Game 22, Rangers at Mariners
Roenis Elias vs. Robbie Ross, 7:10pm
The M’s faced Ross on April 14th, and the undersized lefty was brilliant, shutting the M’s out in 7 2/3 despite only two strikeouts (to the first two batters of the game). Ross’s approach, especially as a starter, is to let batters put the ball in play. To righties, Ross tries to keep his fastball in, which makes sense, but the striking thing is that he gets grounders no matter where his fastball ends up. In, away, even elevated fastballs still get pounded into the ground. Ross’ vertical movement looks like it should be hard to elevate, though it’s not dramatic. Especially given the platoon splits he’s shown (lefties don’t tend to hit that many grounders off of him), it’s clear that he’s got some deception: the ball isn’t moving like right-handers expect it to.
I’ve talked at length about Elias’ fly ball tendencies coming up through the minors. You look at his fastball, and you look at the way it moves, and you peg him for a 40% GB guy, which, unsurprisingly, is where he was in the minors. So what’s he doing with a ground ball rate over 50%? The key’s been his breaking ball. In the link above, I mentioned that I didn’t think his slow curve would generate a ton of whiffs. So far, it hasn’t. But what it HAS generated is a ton of weak contact, and much of that’s been topped. When batters make contact with Elias’ fastball, they tend to hit it in the air (FB/LD/pop up). But they hit his curve ball the way righties hit Robbie Ross’ fastball. This is an interesting pattern; it’s not intuitively surprising, but it’s odd it didn’t balance his minor league GB rates. Was this a case where minor leaguers swung through the slurve, and only put the fastball in play? Or did they adjust to the curve after a while and start to elevate it?
1: Almonte, CF
2: Bloomquist, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Hart, DH
5: Romero, RF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Seager, 3B
8: Gillespie, LF
The M’s stack their line-up with seven righties. Is Ackley being platooned officially? Bloomquist at SS? Don’t they know Robbie Ross’ career splits? Honestly, Hart has to be in there, as he hit the ball very hard off of Ross the last time, even if he wasn’t always rewarded for it. Beyond platoon splits, the M’s have been awful against ground-ballers. As the A’s know well, fly-ballers tend to hit ground-ball pitchers better than average, so it’s no surprise that Hart (a guy with an uppercut swing) has better career numbers against ground-ball guys than anyone else. Zunino should hit them better too, if he can make contact.
Jason Churchill’s got an interesting piece up on the struggles of Brad Miller and Kyle Seager. Using brooks baseball data, he shows how both lefties have been pounded away by opposing pitchers. He notes, though, that the approach was mostly the same last year as well. To Churchill, the problem is that Miller’s expanded his zone, and is swinging at more pitches off the plate, and making less contact. That’s plausible – he clearly IS making less contact, and that’s showing up in his K rate, which is now about DOUBLE is 2013 K%. It’s odd, especially since Miller was always a good contact hitter, never touching 20% in the minors.
My own theory, which may be complementary to Churchill’s, is that Miller and a few other hitters are guessing, or over-thinking their at-bats. At first, I thought Miller was ending up behind in the count a lot more, which can lead to more out-of-zone chases, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. His batted-ball profile shows more elevated contact and fewer grounders, which should help him if he ever gets his contact rate back where it was last year. Even last year – when he feasted on fastballs and change-ups – he had some issues with bendy pitches. This year, he’s seeing a few more sliders/curves, but not enough to matter. The problem’s his approach to fastballs. Last year, he didn’t miss many fastballs, in any count. This year, he’s making a bit less contact on them overall, but *dramatically* less contact with 2 strikes. Obviously, all of this comes with SSS caveats. It’s been a month, and we’re looking at splits against a particular pitch *with two strikes*. Noted. But it’s just odd, and it ties in to the problem he’s had getting any production from the times he HAS made contact. According to Statcorner, he’s pulling more fly balls than he did last year. But he’s slugging .435 when he pulls the ball overall, and has far below average production on fly balls in general. The strikeout rate is the most obvious sign of a problem, but Miller’s been poor even putting strikeouts aside. Unlike Ackley, there’s not a clear weak spot for him, and unlike Ackley, his batted ball profile didn’t go into the toilet after an encouraging half-season. Overall, he’s too good to hit this poorly, but given the struggles up and down the line-up, I wonder what the approach is. As a team, the M’s are struggling with two strikes (compared to the league average), but they’re hopeless when they’re *ahead* in the count. The whole club, but Miller in particular, seem to get fastballs when they’re expecting breaking balls and vice versa.
The arresting thing to me in Churchill’s article was the claim that pitchers have put only 41% of the pitches they’ve thrown to Miller in the strike zone. But Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers show over 50% of pitches have been in the zone, and that he’s seen slightly *more* strikes than he did in 2013. Statcorner’s numbers corroborate that. This isn’t about picking on a number, or on Churchill or anyone. It’s just that early in the season, it doesn’t take very many pitches called strikes or balls to generate really different averages. I talked about this the other day, as BIS numbers show James Paxton avoiding the zone at all costs, while the pitch fx data from MLBAM shows that he’s thrown MORE strikes than average. It’s confusing, and it’s going to happen a lot until the sheer number of pitches (hopefully) pushed the data sources closer together. And yes, I see the irony given I was just talking about zone% to Miller as well. But the best we can do is probably just be clear about what data we’re using, and, if we’re aware, if other data sources don’t agree.
Lots of roster moves recently. As you’ve already seen, Erasmo Ramirez and Nick Franklin were sent down, while the M’s have called up Cole Gillespie (making his M’s debut tonight) and LHP Lucas Luetge.