Game 106, Mariners at Indians
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Trevor Bauer, 4:05pm
The M’s trouble scoring has brought their on-again, off-again pursuit of the second wild card to a head. According to BP’s metric, their playoff odds have dropped by 25 percentage points over the past week. Speaking of playoff odds, the Indians’ are now just a bit ahead of the Mariners’ by the Fangraphs/Coolstandings metric (though not by BP’s playoff odds) thanks to a better schedule down the stretch. That the Indians are in the race isn’t a shock; they won a WC berth last year, after all. What *IS* interesting is that they’ve got the 6th-best offense in baseball despite the implosion of several players they were counting on as middle-of-the-order threats. Nick Swisher has collapsed to a 72wRC+, and as his defensive ratings have collapsed as well, he’s been one of the least valuable players in baseball. Asdrubal Cabrera didn’t bounce back from a subpar 2013, and 2B Jason Kipnis – the breakout start who posted a 128 wRC+ last year – has slumped to a 95 wRC+; he’s gone from adding over 23 batting runs in 2013 to less than two this year. The big reason for their team-wide success has been the continued effectiveness of catcher Yan Gomes as well as the incredible emergence of Michael Brantley, son of ex-M’s CF Mickey Brantley. Brantley’s WAR places him in between Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, and looking solely at batting runs, he’s firmly in the top 10 in all of baseball, ahead of luminaries like Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera.
Cleveland’s pitching has been surprisingly good, especially considering Danny Salazar’s faceplant. The Indians’ rotation’s put up a 3.69 FIP, slightly ahead of the M’s 3.82. To be fair, they’ve actually allowed more runs than that, so on TV as opposed to spreadsheetland, you might not come away with the impression that the M’s and Indians were all that close. But the rotation that lost two of its best starters last year is keeping them in contention, and that’s at least a minor surprise. Trevor Bauer hasn’t been the biggest contributor – that’d be Corey Kluber by quite a margin – but he’s a key reason why the Indians survived the loss of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez. Bauer is pitching like the top prospect he once was, and he’s rewarding the Indians for their patience.
Bauer was drafted #3 overall in 2011 and shot through the Arizona system. At every level, he posted eye-popping strikeout rates, but he paired them with elevated walk rates as well. When you’re striking out 30% of opposing batters, a high walk rate is tolerable, but he also had some HR trouble at times. By the time he hit AAA, the HRs became more of an issue, and his velocity was more above-average than exceptional. He threw six or seven pitches, but frequently had trouble commanding most of them. In a brief call-up with Arizona, he was a mess – the walk rate became unbearably high, he had HR problems as well, and then got into a very public tiff with his catcher, leading the team to just-as-publicly disparage him and all but hang a “for sale” sign around his neck. Cleveland picked him up in the Shin-Soo Choo deal, and he rewarded their faith by getting even worse in 2013. It was just 17 IP, but he gave up 17 free passes to just 11 strikeouts. His average fastball velocity was 92, just 43% of his pitches hit the strikezone, and essentially no one was fooled – his o-swing rate of 20% makes Chris Young look like Yu Darvish. The kid who was so analytical about his own approach was at risk of bouncing out of the league.
His career at a crossroads, Bauer overhauled his mechanics at home and locally with the help of Kyle Boddy of Driveline baseball in Puyallup. The Indians noticed, and after bringing him up in mid-May (after tearing through the IL), he’s rewarded them with 80 solidly above-average innings. The first thing you notice is that he’s halved his walk rate. After double-digit walk rates in his MLB call-ups AND at every step of the minors, Bauer’s dropped to 8% (and 7% at AAA Columbus) in 2014. Has he done so by dropping three or four of his eclectic, almost experimental, pitches? No, he’s throwing more pitches this year according to BrooksBaseball. Is he taking something off the fastball to locate it better? No, his fastball velocity is UP about 1.5mph.
To learn more about how and why Bauer was able to transform his mechanics and his results, I talked to Kyle Boddy. What does HE think about the old saw that you can essentially trade some velocity for control? “If anything, there is a weak positive correlation between the two (though obviously if you throw slower, you probably don’t want to hit the strike zone that much).” Is Bauer actually throwing more different pitches this year, or is that just the pitch-type algorithms learning more about him? “I’d say [he is throwing more pitches]. He doesn’t throw all of them every game, and he does try to change some of his pitches’ profiles as well. The slider he throws now is slightly different than the one he started throwing. As you can guess, PITCHf/x neural nets have a hell of a time classifying them, as I’m sure Pavlidis does as well.” As Kyle mentioned, Bauer’s slider has actually slowed down as his FB’s gained a step, and if anything, the slider looks much more like a curveball. His curve’s at 79mph, while the slider’s down at 81mph. However, thanks to spin deflection, their vertical movement is quite different. To have a pitch that functions more like a hard slider, Bauer throws a cutter around 87-88.
Another part of Bauer’s new delivery is his position on the mound. Last year, he shifted his position on the rubber depending on the handedness of the hitter. This year, he’s sticking to the first-base side of the rubber regardless of who’s at the plate. Was that a conscious decision, or just something that felt comfortable. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Bauer/Boddy, it was definitely not based on gut feel: “Yes, he did [move on the rubber in 2013], and now he does not. It was a conscious change to throw off the 1b side of the rubber only for tactical reasons. He felt his pitches profiled better off that side of the rubber, and I agreed.” Despite his success in bringing down his walk rate, he’s still giving up some home runs. As a fly-ball pitcher and someone who’s publicly questioned the mania for keeping the ball down, it’s perhaps that’s not a surprise. So I asked Boddy if there’s a balance Bauer needs to watch between throwing FBs high in the zone to get whiffs and pop-ups on the one hand and giving up extra-base hits and dingers on the other. “Actually his RAA/100 is very, very good in the top part of the zone if you look at the data. On all pitches thrown in the upper quartile of the zone, Trevor is not giving up XBH and HR and BB at a detrimental rate, and in fact balls down in the zone have a worse run value than ones up. I think a major current failing of the sabermetric community at large is to rely on relatively old DIPS theories as if they were locked in stone, while remaining ignorant of the fact that there are significant advanced in analytics caused by HITf/x and Trackman data – neither of which is public. Batted ball exit velocity and trajectory are pretty important variables that few people actually pay attention to. Trevor’s LD% is very high which is probably somewhat luck, but not entirely. His main problem is a low percentage of first pitch strikes – in fact, he is well below-average there. That has been correlated with increased bat exit speed as hitters take more confident swings and do more damage when they are ahead (obviously).”
Interesting stuff. I’ll end this with a comparison – here’s a heatmap showing where Bauer throws his four-seam fastball. It’s nearly all up; mostly up and in. Here’s Hisashi Iwakuma’s since the beginning of 2013. I’m not going to say they’re mirror images; they’re not. Iwakuma’s fastball is more centered in the zone rather than scraping the top. He’s also kept it out and over the plate as opposed to up and in. The point is that in Bauer and Iwakuma you’ve got two completely different pitchers who approach their task in very different ways, and yet both tend to ignore both sabermetric and traditional advice when it comes to their fastball. Iwakuma pounds the bottom of the zone with his sinker and (especially) his splitter. As a result, he gets tons of ground balls and because he gets ahead, his walk rate is a rounding error from zero. Bauer pitches up, and even his slider/cutter typically result in elevated contact. He’s brought his walk rate down, but it’s still not low, and as Kyle mentioned, he’s often had to pitch from behind (Statcorner’s data agrees with this). But that doesn’t mean he’s interested in throwing his four-seamer at the knees. Both Iwakuma and Bauer have moderate HR problems, and while Iwakuma’s clearly a star in spite of them, it’s possible Bauer could join him.
Bauer’s platoon splits are a bit odd, but ultimately, lefties have had a better time than righties. Thus, the M’s have a lefty-heavy line-up today:
1: Ackley, LF
2: Taylor, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Hart, RF
9: Jones, CF
No Miller, but Taylor certainly needs some playing time. Ackley moves up to leadoff, as Bob Dutton talked about a few days ago.
Speaking of Dutton, he mentioned today that the M’s will hold a private workout with Cuban defector Rusney Castillo on Sunday. The big OF has been working out for several teams; no word on his timing to sign a deal. The M’s *have* signed one of the top-5 International “July 2” talents in Brayan Hernandez, a switch-hitting OF seen by some as the top Venezuelan in this year’s market.
The Rainiers face Salt Lake today, and nearly-ex-Mariner Randy Wolf, on his third team since being let go at the end of spring training. The M’s went with Chris Young instead, a move that sounded like insanity to me at the time and :phtooo:, what the :wipes face: hell? Where did all of these eggs come from?