Game 96, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 18, 2014 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jered Weaver, 7:05pm

Ah, the All-Star Break. I know how much fans hate the interruption, the break in the routine of the 162-game schedule, but I’ve grown to really love it. Players talk about it, adoringly, as a chance to rest from the relentless grind of games, hotels and flights. It seems strange that a few days off could do so much, but then they’re the ones who don’t get a weekend for about nine months and I’m the one who just took a several-week vacation. The reasons a humble baseball blogger loves the break, then, are different. But, as is often the case, Jeff’s already pointed it out and summed it up perfectly. For me, the break is a respite from feeling like a fraud.

We look at numbers, we analyze pitch fx and we scour minor league box scores not out of some obsessive desire to know everything, but because at the macro level, they can inform us about the future. That minor league numbers, properly translated, tell us something about MLB success has been demonstrated many, many times, but that can’t doesn’t help when looking through the list of failed M’s prospects who hit in AA/AAA. It feels good to notice platoon splits in Jeff Samardzija’s batted ball profile, but you wonder about its probative value when he induces a flurry of grounders from the M’s lefty-dominated line-up. These macro- and micro-failures happen *all the damn time* and while it’s nice to understand that one game doesn’t change the pattern, or that the pattern that accurately describe the population may not work for every individual within it, they don’t always make it feel better. You know what does, though? Schadenfreude.

Jeff mentioned that the M’s still seem to be believers in Justin Smoak’s long-term potential, even though he’s no longer a long-term piece.* That MLB vets make similar errors – sometimes even bigger ones – actually does dull the pain. Along with booze-fueled All-Star Break evenings at home. The point of all this navel-gazing and self-flagellation (navel-flagellating?) is this: how bad did MLB whiff on Hisashi Iwakuma? Billy Beane is rightfully lauded for his accomplishments, but it’s not like his record’s spotless. Still, winning the rights to Iwakuma and then not getting a deal done? How about the next year when basically any team could’ve had him, but he came to Seattle at a yearly cost of $1.5m, or just about half what Willie Bloomquist will get this year, or about what John Buck and Stefen Romero cost.

It’s easy to see why, to apply the lessons we’ve learned and say confidently that you simply don’t sign a pitcher coming off of arm soreness. You can’t really *fault* MLB for it, but it’s nice that there’s egg on the faces of people much smarter about this stuff than I am. Can Iwakuma adapt to the MLB schedule and succeed? 2013 showed conclusively that he could. How will he deal with age and its attendant velocity loss? The answer this year is, “By getting better.” 2014 is shaping up as Iwakuma’s best on a rate basis; he may not hit the innings total he put up last year, but when he’s out there, he’s been astonishing. Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter got deserved praise when he was healthy, and his stuff really was a tick better than Hisashi’s, but Iwakuma is a poor man’s Tanaka only in the most literal sense – he’s paid far less.

This year, Iwakuma’s posted an almost invisible walk rate, and he’s done it by throwing more balls.** By pitch fx, he’s thrown less than 50% of his pitches in the zone, but he’s pitched from ahead in the count far more than the league average. How? Because Iwakuma’s first strike percentage is exceptional – by Fangraphs, he’s 5th in baseball in this metric. From there, his options open up. That first strike allows him to expan the hitter’s zone, which he can do both through fastball command and through his main weapon, his elite splitter. Pitching ahead means hitters are more likely to swing at balls, and his splitter means that when they do, they’re more likely to hit grounders. This gets us to another hidden reason for Iwakuma’s success – his BABIP. As you know, pitcher BABIP varies, and tends to regress to league-wide averages. There are exceptions, of course – guys like knuckleballers, and many lefthanders seem immune, for a number of reasons. Rany Jazayerli talked about one of them in this great Grantland piece on Mark Buehrle the other day. But Iwakuma shouldn’t be an exception. He’s a righty, of course, and his BABIP success isn’t the result of getting fly outs (fly balls are converted into outs more often than grounders) like Jarrod Washburn or current Mariner Chris Young. How can a righty ground baller run a career BABIP of .268 thus far? Because hitters are putting pitcher’s pitches in play. Over a third of Iwakuma’s grounders have come on balls. Batters’ BABIP when they swing at balls is awful. Iwakuma gets ahead of hitters and then gives them the choice of swinging over the splitter or tapping it gently to Kyle Seager.

Lloyd McClendon was asked on the radio (probably Matt Pitman on the pre-game show) what made Iwakuma so effective, and the first answer he gave was fastball command. At the time, I thought the answer was clearly, *clearly* his 70-grade split and not the 50-FB, but the more you look at it, the more you see what McClendon is getting at. Batters have swung at his splitter a lot, and they don’t have a lot to show for it. They don’t WANT to swing at it, but if they’re behind in the count, they kind of have to. Iwakuma’s fastball, which he throws on around 65% of first-pitches, allows the rest of his arsenal to play up. It’s not just Iwakuma. Look at this list of the pitchers with the *lowest* zone% in baseball, and while there are the occasional control-challenged projects, it’s peppered with the best pitchers in the game. There’s Felix, Sonny Gray, Tanaka, the surprising Tyson Ross. For some of them, the key is pure stuff – Ross’s slider and Yu Darvish’s…everything allow them to get outs on balls. Tanaka/Felix/Iwakuma and Dallas Keuchel, they’re relying on getting ahead first, and then allowing batters to get themselves out.***

Hisashi Iwakuma is awesome.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Iwakuma

* Justin Smoak’s contract’s up after this year. He has a team option for 2015 that’s pretty cheap, but you’d have to imagine that people above McClendon’s pay grade are looking at that $150,000 buy-out longingly. Smoak’s option would’ve become guaranteed if he had 525 PAs this season. That month-long rehab stint is going to make that all but impossible to hit.

** I mentioned this regarding James Paxton once, but here again we have data sources that disagree. I’m picking one that I think is the best and that happens to fit the argument I’m making. I hate it when people do this without owning up to it, so I’m owning up to it. You could argue that he’s throwing more strikes, as BIS and Statcorner thinks he is. All of these sources have their fans, and you could certainly argue for one over another, but just FYI, I’m going with pitch fx here. To make matters worse, I’ve used the BIS measure for first-strikes. I shouldn’t mix up the sources, but Fangraphs doesn’t have a pitch fx-based metric for that. Caution! Or hey, it’s a baseball post, yay!

*** Yet more full disclosure – Felix and Ross are running suprising BABIP numbers this year, and both have very high GB rates, but neither put up great BABIPs before, and it’s not like they’ve really changed their approach. Keuchel fits this theory *perfectly* but for the fact that his BABIP is completely average this year; I tend to think that’s because he’s pitching in front of an experiment, and not a real baseball team, but I may be making too much of the pitchers-limit-BABIP-by-letting-hitters-hit-out-of-zone-pitches thing.


175 Responses to “Game 96, Mariners at Angels”

  1. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:16 am

    Good this is mercifully coming to an end.

  2. Grayfox3d on July 19th, 2014 12:16 am

    Looks like this could be it!

  3. Eastside Suds on July 19th, 2014 12:16 am

    Walk Pujols

  4. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:19 am

    Good idea! Pitch to Pujols! What could possibly go wrong?

  5. taylor.mariner on July 19th, 2014 12:19 am

    Yeah, I think pitching to Pujols is a bad idea…

  6. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:20 am

    wow..thank our lucky stars. Come on Josh, join Seager and Zunino in the 0-7 club

  7. Eastside Suds on July 19th, 2014 12:20 am

    Walk Hamilton!!

  8. Grayfox3d on July 19th, 2014 12:20 am

    how lucky was that… still have Hamilton to deal with.

  9. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:20 am

    Yay they’re walking Hamilton!

  10. JMB on July 19th, 2014 12:21 am

    “You finally got on base tonight!” Classic.

  11. Eastside Suds on July 19th, 2014 12:21 am

    Gotta love those guys behind home plate. Hilarious.

  12. taylor.mariner on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am

    AHHHH HAHAHA love the Angels fan that yelled out to hambone, “you finally got on base tonight!” NOOOOOOO!

  13. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am

    And if you didn’t see that coming, you haven’t followed the Mariners for long.

  14. JMB on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am

    Boom goes the dynamite.

  15. Eastside Suds on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am

    Elvis has left the building. Goodnight everybody!

  16. Grayfox3d on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am

    hahaha walking Hamilton worked out great!

  17. djw on July 19th, 2014 12:22 am


  18. Grayfox3d on July 19th, 2014 12:24 am

    Romero gets sent back down and Luetge comes back up in the AM.

  19. californiamariner on July 19th, 2014 12:24 am

    That was a marvelous 5 and a half hours.

  20. Jake on July 19th, 2014 12:25 am

    Couldn’t do that; call ups have to stay up for 10 days, unless someone went on the DL with an “injury”, then Luetge could come back up.

  21. Westside guy on July 19th, 2014 12:26 am

    Well there you go.

  22. JMB on July 19th, 2014 12:41 am

    Happy Felix Day!

  23. msfanmike on July 19th, 2014 7:39 am

    Call ups don’t have a Minimum amount of time for having to stay up. The ten day rule applies to players who are sent down and the “injury” rule applies to whether or not that specific player can be recalled.

    Luetge was only up with the big club for one game before the all star break – as a recent example of a player who was not up with the big club for 10 days.

  24. Paul B on July 19th, 2014 11:38 am

    So, is the game over yet?

  25. dc24 on July 19th, 2014 2:52 pm

    Terrible way to lose, but I felt like the baseball gods didn’t want us to win that one. Have an out at the plate and Zunino can’t hold on to the ball. Cano’s lead off double turns into an out, could have led to the winning run (even though that’s no sure thing with this team). Miller lines what looks to be the game winning hit up the middle only to have Salas snag it out of the air. Unfortunate, but it was still a winnable game, even with Seager not doing anything all night. Love the bullpen’s effort, might should have let Iwakuma in longer though. He might could have gone 10 the way he was pitching. But hopefully we can get today’s game. Good news is that the Royals and Blue Jays both lost.

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