Game 64, Yankees at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Vidal Nuno, 7:10pm
This is fun. The M’s are playing like a very good team at the moment, and they’ve completely dominated some good clubs in the process. They’re not simply beating up on the dregs of the big leagues – if anything, the dregs are proving stubbornly tough. But against the Angels/Yankees/Tigers, two teams they’ll compete with for the Wild Card, and one team that’s one of the elite squads in the AL, the M’s are a combined 11-4.
Today’s opponent, Vidal Nuno, is a lefty with a pretty good backstory. Drafted in the 48th round out of noted baseball powerhouse Baker College, he pitched in the Indians org for a year and a half before he was cut in 2011. He caught on with the indie league Washington WildThings, then moved into the Yankees system whereupon he shot through the ranks, posting excellent numbers at each level. He made his MLB debut last year in a handful of starts, and has bounced between the pen and the rotation with New York throughout 2014.
Physically, nothing really stands out about Nuno; you can see why he went in a draft round that no longer exists. He’s under 6′, and his fastball clocks in around 88-89mph. He throws a slider to righties and lefties alike, and also has a curve ball and a change which he’ll reserve for right-handers. None of these pitches generates a lot of whiffs, but the overall package isn’t completely awful – he’s barely below the league-average K rate at 18.5%, and his walk rate is just a touch below average as well. In the minors, he shut down lefties, striking out over 35% of them. In his miniscule big league sample, he’s struggled a bit. It may be due to his lack of deception and fastball velocity (lefties have done most of their damage off Nuno’s heater), and it may just be terrible luck – again, he nuked lefties in the minors, and has faced only 59 lefties in just over 300 career batters faced. Teams are aware of what he did in the minors, and they’re aware he’s primarily a FB/SL pitcher, and they’ve set their line-ups accordingly.
His approach seems to be to throw his two-seamer away to righties, and then throw his slider (and to a lesser extent his curve and change) down and in. He’ll aim his four-seam fastball a bit more ecumenically, and has thrown it up in the zone fairly often – a fact which helps explain his awful HR rate at the moment. It’s an interesting inversion of the old pitching coach wisdom of throwing hard stuff in and breaking stuff away, and quite frankly, the jury’s out on whether it makes sense for Nuno to blaze this particular trail, but you’d have to assume it’s a continuation of his approach in the minors – the approach that got him from the Frontier League to the bigs in about a year and a half.
Hisashi Iwakuma’s off to another great start in 2014, with just three unintentional walks and 36 strikeouts in over 50 innings pitched. His K rate’s down a bit, but it seems like an intentional change, as he’s thrown far more two-seamers this year, while throwing very few four-seamers. In his first season, about 6 of every 10 fastballs he threw were four-seamers. That was down to just over 5/10 last season. In 2014, it’s more like 2 of every 10 fastballs. This blizzard of sinkers has produced Iwakuma’s highest GB%, and while it hasn’t eliminated his HR problem, it certainly hasn’t exacerbated it. More interesting to me is that by featuring the two-seamer so much, he’s all but eliminated the velocity and horizontal movement gap between that pitch and his primary weapon, the splitter. His sinker comes in at 88-89, while the splitter’s at 85. This is the kind of thing standard baseball theory typically sees as a problem, but Iwakuma’s had an up-close look at what can happen when you ignore this old saw. Felix Hernandez has cut through the league by throwing a sinker and a change-up at essentially the same speed, and if anything, his change-up is *more* effective now than it’s ever been. Similarly, Iwakuma’s splitter’s been all but unhittable this year despite the gap. Interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that both of them have posted somewhat poor results on their sinker – batters are hitting .353 on Felix’s sinker, and they’re at .347 against Iwakuma’s. Sure, a lot of that has to do with the fact that both use the pitch when they’re behind; it’s their alternative to walking anyone.* Still, both pitchers have arguably never been more effective, and it’s great to see Iwakuma incorporating this lesson from Felix.
1: Bloomquist, 1B
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Gillespie, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Saunders, RF
8: Ackley, LF
9: Miller, SS
SIX lefties in the line-up today, though the M’s injury issues don’t leave them a whole lot of choice. It’s not the worst match-up in the world, especially if they look to get to Nuno early in the at-bat. He throws a lot of first-pitch fastballs, and lefties have seen that pitch better than righties – again, with the caveat that the sample size for lefties is vanishingly small.
The Rainiers are in Memphis today, with Matt Palmer on the hill against Zach Petrick. Clinton’s at home against Burlington with Jose Flores on the hill for the Lumberkings.
* This is actually an interesting strategic problem; what level of damage can you accept on one pitch if it makes another bullet-proof? I’d love to see the swing rates and whiff rates on change-ups/splitters immediately after a sinker as well.