Game 105, Orioles at Mariners
Roenis Elias vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 1:10pm
There’s a balance in writing these game preview posts between highlighting what makes individual pitchers distinct and/or unusual, and re-affirming and pointing out the ubiquity and importance of regression. What often pops out on a pitcher’s fangraphs page or in their pitch fx data *looks* bizarre, but over time, regression tends to smooth out these small-sample differences. We can talk about those differences and the likelihood that they’re “real” versus an interesting but ultimately meaningless expression of randomness; when you look at so many data points, it’s easy to find *something* that looks counter-intuitive and cool. It’s a balance between interesting stories of pitchers and individual skills that break off from sabermetric orthodoxy and the importance of reminding people why that orthodoxy developed and why it’s useful.
That’s why pitchers like Chris Young and today’s O’s starter Miguel Gonzalez are so fun. On the surface, they make no sense. Their raw stuff isn’t good enough to get strikeouts. They don’t get ground balls, and as a result, give up their fair share of HRs. Their control is average, maybe a touch better, but it’s nowhere near Iwakuma-class. Their entire career has been based on eliciting a certain kind of fly-ball contact from batters. This is the kind of thing that looks like a fluke, and at least in Gonzalez’s case, it technically could be. But while it’s important to remember that FIP predicts next year’s ERA better than ERA, it’s also important to try to learn why certain pitchers consistently post ERAs below their FIP.
If you look at the list of pitchers whose ERA is significantly better than their FIP, you’ll find Chris Young at the top, but Gonzalez ranks 5th. He wasn’t in the top 10 the year before, but the gap was still significant. Go back to 2012, and there’s Gonzalez again, at #3. So he’s demonstrated this, uh, “skill” or pattern in each of his three MLB seasons. Like Chris Young, he’s a fly baller, and thus, like Young, one reason for his ability to post great strand rates and low BABIP numbers is his ability get pop-ups. Gonzalez leads baseball (min. 80 IP) in pop-up rate this season; Young’s in 3rd.
Young’s incredibly, almost impossibly, low ground ball rate means that, to be effective, he has to limit his HR/FB ratio. Gonzalez hasn’t shown much of an ability to do this, as his HR/FB has risen in each of the past two years, and is now above the MLB average. Thus, while both give up HRs, Gonzalez’s HR rate is now edging into dangerous territory. And while his BABIP allowed was just .260 in his first two seasons, it’s creeping towards the average now at .291. An increase in HRs and an increase in BABIP should spell the end of Gonzalez’s run as an OK back of the rotation starter, but while it’s higher than it’s been, his RA9 is still near 4, meaning he’s got an RA9 WAR of 1.2, putting him on pace for a season right around 2 again. That’s not amazing, and obviously it pales in comparison to Chris Young’s RA9 wizardry this season, but it’s pretty good for a 4th starter in the AL East.
Part of what makes Young so crazy is his LACK of a repertoire. He throws 86mph straightballs and batters hit them 300 feet, just not 350 feet. Gonzalez is more of the classic junkballer, and he’s made adjustments this season. He throws a four-seam fastball at 92, a sinker around 91, a change/splitter, a slider and a curve. In his first few seasons, the slider was his primary breaking ball, but he’s throwing more curves this year. Thanks in large part to his underwhelming slider, Gonzalez has actually had a much tougher time with righties than lefties. This isn’t a BABIP thing; his career FIP is over one full run worse against same-handed hitters. Not only has his K rate been better against lefties, but righties have hit for far more power. He’s faced a few more lefties than righties in his career, but righties have hit 34 HRs to lefties’ 20. The slider wasn’t generating whiffs, and it was generating hard-hit contact – he’s given up more XBHs to righties on the pitch than strikeouts.
As an aside, Gonzalez looks like a pitcher who’d benefit by changing his fastball approach. Righties have teed off on his four-seam fastball, which he throws them about 4X more than his sinker. They’ve got 20 HRs on the pitch, good for a .527 SLG%. They haven’t seen as many sinkers, but their results have been pretty poor. They may make adjustments if he threw it more, but we know that sinkers/two-seamers have much larger platoon splits than the comparatively straight four-seamer. Thus, it’s probably not a shock that lefties have feasted on the sinker and battled his four-seamer to a draw. The K rate’s better, the BABIP’s better, and his sinker’s hasn’t actually generated many GBs to lefties (while it’s actually effective as a GB pitch to righties). The results we can look at make this look like an easy call, and while it’s undoubtedly not that simple, I’m genuinely curious what would happen. The counter, of course, is that he made need more four-seamers to disguise his curve ball a bit more. But even there, he’s throwing his curve ball more often to lefties, as he still like to throw the slider to righties. Using more four-seamers to lefties might actually improve his curve.
In any event, this is the kind of game where stacking the line-up with left-handers could be counter-productive. Lefties have hit him well, so it’s not like a by-the-book line-up would be disastrous.
1: Jones, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
Nicely done, Mr. McClendon. The line-up’s lefty-dominated at the top, then more balanced at the bottom, and Gonzalez is a good match-up for Hart and Zunino specifically. Sure, sure, the OF defense figures to be worse, and that’s an issue with Elias out there, but even after yesterday’s win, I think M’s fans will trade some defense/BABIP for the chance at some more runs. For that trade to work, of course, Corey Hart needs to stop being useless, so, uh, any time you’re ready, Corey.
No word on today’s starter in Tacoma, but as Mike Curto notes, this is a crucial stretch if Tacoma’s wants to remain on the outskirts of the playoff race. The Rainiers have called up OF Julio Morban from AA Jackson, but they’ve lost their most consistent pitcher, Matt Palmer, to the DL. RP/CL Logan Bawcom’s also back, and SS Gabriel Noriega joins Palmer on the DL. Morban had a great spring training in 2013, but his career’s been sidetracked by injuries. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s missed most of 2014 due to…sigh…injury, and while he’s got talent, the lack of consistent at-bats has really stunted his progress.