Game 86, Mariners at White Sox
Roenis Elias vs. Chris Sale, 4:10pm
Happy Fourth of July. I’ve been away for several weeks wandering through a baseball desert, trying to bring the good news of Felix Hernandez to those who have never heard of, let alone been redeemed by, the Change-up Celestial.* It’s tough, but like any journey worth its own cost and hassle, that’s OK. I’m returning to an M’s team that’s 9 games over .500 – a record they’ve not seen since the end of the 2007 season. There are familiar issues; the team is hitting better, but they still can’t, you know, HIT the way other teams can. They brought up and then sent down Jesus Montero. They’re still playing a lot of Endy Chavez. But they’re winning, and they look like a team that can stick around the playoff race this season, and while it’s actually pretty great to just wake up and hear that the M’s won again, I’ve missed watching this team play.
Today, the M’s head to Chicago to take on Chris Sale and the White Sox. Jeff had a great post at Fangraphs talking about Sale’s evolution following some injury scares (including a DL trip that cost him a month earlier this season): he’s throwing a lot more change-ups and fewer sliders. What’s interesting is just how little it’s mattered. He still strikes out plenty, still shows good control, and is still devilishly hard to square up. That Sale is still an elite pitcher can’t be a huge surprise, but it highlights something that we M’s fans have known for a while. Great pitchers can throw any number of pitches and be successful. Young Felix was at least partially defined by the Royal Curve, the inhuman bender that hitters couldn’t adjust to after watching 97mph four-seamers. After his injury scare in April 2007, Felix hasn’t thrown THAT curve, and he hasn’t thrown as many overall. It didn’t really matter. Likewise, that Sale’s still Sale despite fewer sliders shouldn’t be that surprising. He still throws very hard and from a strange release point. He still faces overwhelmingly-right-handed line-ups, so you could argue that such a shift is overdue.
One thing Jeff pointed out in that article was that Sale’s generating a lot more foul balls this season. This has helped him pitch from favorable counts more than he has in previous seasons, and thus it’s not surprising to see that he’s posting his lowest walk rate. An underrated aspect of this development has been his sinker. He’s throwing fewer sinkers than ever in 2014, and it was never his main fastball. He’s throwing his change-up more, and he’s also throwing it harder than he has in previous seasons, all while his four-seam fastball velocity drops slightly. At this point, his sinker and change-up have essentially identical movement – both have tons of horizontal movement and very little vertical rise. The only difference between the change and sinker is velocity, and while it’s still substantial, it’s no longer the 10-11mph it was in 2013. With batters now expecting more change-ups, Sale’s used his sinker as a get-ahead pitch, throwing it first-pitch much more often than he does in any other count. And it’s his sinker that’s seen the biggest increase in foul%, moving from 16% fouls last year to over 20% this year. That’s still a tiny sample considering Sale’s missed time this year, but it’s an interesting adjustment, and it’s one we’ve seen from a few pitchers this year (Hisashi Iwakuma among them).
Roenis Elias has made his own adjustments. The first time we saw him in Spring Training, the thing that jumped out was his variable release points, especially against lefties. Versus righties, he was almost traditional, with a 3/4 to high 3/4 delivery. Against lefties, he’d occasionally drop down to an almost Sale-esque low 3/4 release. At the time, the M’s talked about how they’d clean that up and have him use the same delivery to everyone…and then Elias ignored that and maintained a couple of discrete, identifiable deliveries against lefties. But over the last month, he’s looking more and more, uh, normal. The gap in vertical release to lefties and righties is all but gone, and while there’s still a gap in horizontal movement, that looks more like a shift on the rubber (ie. moving towards first base a bit vs. lefties) than a change in his motion. I’m not even going to speculate why he’d do it, but while repeatability and consistency are prized by scouts, I love seeing pitchers adapt and react. It seems to me like a separate skill or tool, and while you certainly don’t want a pitcher to overhaul his delivery or pick up a new pitch every time he has a so-so start, when guy like Felix or Sale have fundamentally altered their approach, it’s important to demonstrate the ability and willingness to evolve.
Finally, I’m not the only one returning today. DH Corey Hart’s all better now, and will probably think twice about attempting a stolen base the rest of the year. LF Cole Gillespie was DFA’d to make room on the 25-man roster.
Go M’s! Baseball! America!
1: Bloomquist, SS
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Hart, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Saunders, RF
9: Ackley, LF
Tacoma heads to Fresno for the 4th of July Game – Andrew Carraway starts tonight. Last night’s big fireworks show at Cheney Stadium was preceded by a brilliant start from Jordan Pries, who’s come out of nowhere to be an important prospect for the M’s. The Rainiers won 5-1, as Pries went 7IP giving up 1R with 7Ks.
Other starters tonight include Tyler Olson for Jackson, David Holman for High Desert and Jefferson Medina for Everett – Everett’s the only local team playing today, so if you want to push your intake of America to its fullest, check out the AquaSox.
* “Wait, so he plays in the city where DeAndre Yedlin plays? Right, so, uh, can we talk more about Yedlin again?”