Game 30, Mariners at A’s
Chris Young vs. Scott Kazmir, 7:05pm
This game’s as important as any early-May contest, I suppose, but I think a lot of northwest fans might be interested to note that top prospect Noah Syndergaard’s starting tonight against the Rainiers in Tacoma. Catch Chris Taylor face actual MLB-level pitching, and plus velocity from the right side. The M’s couldn’t really find a spot for Nick Franklin, who started off the 2014 season on a hot streak, but Chris Taylor is making things even more complicated.
Ok, ok, back to the big league game for a bit. Scott Kazmir was famously difficult to forecast this off-season. He was a lackluster member of the Sugar Land Skeeters recently, and the fact that he’d made the Indians roster came as a shock to most. He looked OK, but had mediocre results in the first half, like teammate and fellow comeback story Ubaldo Jimenez. In the second half, he was an effective #3. So: forecasting him going forward, or forecasting what he’d make on the free agent market, how do you weight his performance record? What do you DO with the fact that his career was *over* 18 months ago? It was a slightly more extreme version of the questions regarding the top of the free agent pitching market, namely Ervin Santana (who was abysmal in 2012) and Jimenez (who was replacement level in 2012 too). It’s tough to tease out how much the ambiguous nature of their recent performances played into their contracts, and how much of it was due to the draft pick compensation attached to signing Jimenez/Santana. Santana’s been absolutely brilliant and stands to make more money next year while Jimenez looks pretty much exactly like he did in 2012 again. Meanwhile, Kazmir’s been among the best bargains of the off-season.
He had fairly neutral GB/FB ratios and he’d had home run problems off and on since 2008, so he looked like a good candidate to pitch well in Oakland. But since joining the A’s, his GB% is up dramatically, from the low 40s to the mid 50s. Small sample weirdness? Maybe, but a pitcher’s ground ball rate stabilizes early on; Russell Carleton found it stabilized (r=.7) at around 150 batters faced. Kazmir’s faced 151 thus far. An updated version of Carleton’s work by Derek Carty, using a slightly different methodology, found that GB rate stabilize after 105 balls in play. Kazmir looks to be around 106.
There’s nothing that stands out as an explanation for this change in the pitch fx data. He’s not using a different pitch, or targeting a different part of the zone. He’s still the same sinker/slider/change that he was last year, and he’s throwing just as hard. He always showed fairly dramatic platoon splits for grounders – with lefties pounding the ball into the ground while righties elevated it. But he’s faced four times as many righties this year as he has lefties, so that’s not it. The other dramatic difference in his stat line is his walk rate, which is under 5% for the first time in his career. Even when he was at his best, from 2005-07, he had so-so command, and a walk rate over those three years near 10%.
Chris Young is having perhaps his most Chris Young season, which is saying something. Coming into the year, he was known for being 1) tall, 2) an extreme fly-ball guy but who could 3) generate lower BABIPs due to all of those fly outs without 4) giving up tons of HRs somehow, no one really knows why, but it all adds up to 5) a guy with actual runs allowed coming in lower than the fielding-independent metrics would assume. So far, he remains exceedingly tall; his GB rate is just 24%, below his own absurd career average of 27%; his BABIP is .211, below his own absurd career average of .253; he’s given up HRs on 6.7% of fly balls, below his low-but-not-absurd average of 8%; and he’s got an ERA of 3.04 and a FIP of 5.46 and a whatever’s-beyond-absurd xFIP of 6.27. I know allusions to animated series are the lifeblood of baseball blogging, so to put it in old internet meme terms:
Phase 1: Throw 85mph
fast straightballs up in the zone.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit.*
1: Saunders, CF
2: Romero, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Hart, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gillespie, LF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
As you’ve no doubt heard, the M’s have sent down CF Abraham Almonte and recalled CF James Jones. Jones was off to a solid start in Tacoma, but so’s just about everyone. He’s fast, he’s got a howitzer of an arm, but he’s a lefty. In theory, Almonte’s switch hitting helped balance the line-up against lefties like Kazmir. In practice, of course, Almonte just didn’t hit. Defensively, I don’t know that I’m qualified to say if this is an upgrade or not. I thought Almonte was a solid to plus fielding CORNER OF, but I think his range was better than I’d predicted in the big leagues. On the other hand, whether it was concentration lapses or positioning, he made more unforced errors too. When I’ve seen Jones, it’s mostly been in the corners too – the R’s have Endy Chavez and Xavier Avery to rotate through the OF positions – and he’s looked solid. He had some nice starts in the spring as well, but it’s tough to know how it all adds up. Best of luck to Jones, who obviously was up for a brief call-up earlier. That he’s made it this far shows some solid work by the M’s much-maligned player development system, considering nearly everyone saw Jones as a pitcher coming out of LIU.
I’ll be in Tacoma to check out the Syndergaard, one of the Mets top prospects, and one of the top righties in the minors. Andrew Carraway gets the start for Tacoma. Jake Zokan, Jimmy Gillheeney and Eddie Campbell start in the minors as well. OF Austin Wilson, the M’s 2013 draft pick, was named the Midwest League Player of the Week last week, collecting six XBHs and nine total hits in seven games.
* The M’s are only 2-2 in his starts, despite the lack of runs allowed, and they lost in his only relief appearance. None of this is Young’s fault, of course, but that’s a pretty fielding-independent way of looking at things for a guy who famously cannot be evaluated by fielding independent means.