Game 117, Blue Jays at Mariners
King Felix vs. Drew Hutchison, 7:10pm
Here it is, the biggest series of the M’s season, and thus the biggest series the M’s have played in several years. The Blue Jays can overtake the M’s in the WC race, or the M’s could do some serious damage to the Jays’ playoff hopes. It’s a match-up featuring the team with the best pitching against the team with the (second) best hitting, and it’s going to be fun to hear the Safeco crowd pulling for the M’s against Toronto for the first time in a while.
Today’s game in particular offers another interesting contrast: a team that’s presumably well-rested and one that’s exhausted and has no idea what time it is right now. The Jays flew across the country after a 19 inning game against Detroit, and two days after a 10 inning game. The Jays’ bullpen is essentially toast, as they threw nearly 16 innings last night. Starter Drew Hutchison averages about 5 2/3 IP per start, but the Jays really, really need him to get deeper than that tonight. In case he can’t, the Jays have called up swingman Brad Mills from the minors, optioning 2B Ryan Goins back to AAA.
Speaking of Hutchison, he’s an intriguing starter – a guy with a 92-93mph four-seamer, a slider and a change-up. With a “rising” FB, he’s definitely a fly ball pitcher, but he’s kept the HRs in check, at least, he’s allowed a decent number of them considering his home park’s pretty HR-friendly. His real problem concerns his change-up, and thus, his platoon splits. His change-up, which he throws often to lefties, gets respectable whiff numbers, but when batters hit it, they hit it hard. In a tiny sample, lefties are slugging .746 on the pitch this year, and thus he’s been weak against lefties. Like Brandon Maurer, this problem never really showed up in the minors; his MiLB FIPs are essentially dead even for RHB/LHBs. If you want to work in baseball, this’d be a great project to work on – what are the attributes of a successful big league change-up? Why do some work very well against minor leaguers but don’t fool major leaguers?
Hutchison originally came up in 2012, jumping from AA to the Jays rotation, but after 11 starts, he tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. In those 11 starts his change was better against lefties, though we’re now talking about a miniscule sample. Has he changed his delivery post-surgery, such that the pitch isn’t as deceptive now? Is it small-sample nothingness? Is he now familiar enough that hitters have learned his tendencies and pitch sequencing? I don’t know, and I’m not GOING to know, because I don’t cover the Blue Jays, and for the next few weeks/months, the Blue Jays are the enemy. Your change-up sucks, Drew Hutchison.
Let’s talk about Felix for a minute here. This morning, Ryan Divish of the Times tweeted the Baseball-Reference stats for Felix’s current 15-start run. The line contains multitudes, and I’m not sure what to focus on. The OBP of .208? The K:BB ratio of 126:20? It’s all just so, so beautiful, except for the part about the M’s suffering four losses during the streak. It made me think back to the last time we saw something like this – the summer of 2012, and Felix’s incredible run from mid-June to late-August. That streak spanned 14 starts and 109 innings, so it’s just about exactly as long as Felix’s current run (114 IP). There are some surface similarities, obviously. Felix gave up a higher OBP in the 2012 streak (thanks to four HBPs), but only two HRs, so his SLG% against is actually higher in the current streak. But the more I look at it, the more I think the current streak is actually more mind-blowing, and I saw that despite the fact Felix punctuated that 2012 run with a perfect %$#ing game. Felix’s 2012 streak featured fewer strikeouts and a very different batted-ball profile. In 2012, Felix paired his devilish change-up thingy with a four-seam fastball. He threw twice as many four- as two-seamers, and had a GB/FB ratio just under 1. This go-round, he’s thrown twice as many sinkers as four-seamers, and he’s actually throwing both of them harder than he did in 2012. After years of gradual velo decline, Felix has ticked up slightly this year, and that’s comparing a sample that started in mid-June to one that started in mid-May.
More than the change in his fastball usage, though, what really stands out is the change in his, uh, change usage. In 2012, he pitched off of his fastball, and was extremely effective in limiting hard contact (until September rolled around, and he gave up all sorts of hard contact). In 2014, he’s pitching *off of his change-up*, a pitch he’s thrown more often than any other, sinker included, and generating even weaker contact while also getting more strikeouts. In the 2012 streak, about 4% of his change-ups were hit for fly balls, which is remarkably low, but in the current streak, it’s just under 2%. 2%! As a result, his GB% is higher in the current streak, and while you can’t assume a hot streak = a player’s true talent, Felix has pretty clearly shifted how he pitches, and the way he pitches now looks fairly sustainable. He’s not always going to be nearly untouchable, but Felix can have a so-so night and still be very effective (I’d argue that’s what he did against Baltimore back on July 25th) with this approach.
So is it a good idea to throw the change-up so often? Is there a greater injury risk? I don’t know, but I’d tend to doubt it. Part of the problem is that looking at how change-up frequency correlates with injury wouldn’t tell us much we could apply to Felix. No one throws a change-up like Felix, and I hesitate to even call it one.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Chavez, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: King Felix
Good lefty line-up today; here’s hoping facing Hutchison can get Miller going again. Endy Chavez actually has a .301/.329/.411 slash line against RHPs this season, which explains why he’s still here. I wouldn’t want to bank on that going forward, but… I’m sorry, I can’t get over the fact that his SLG% starts with a 4, even if it is a platoon split. Endy Chavez has two HRs against righties this year! You should feel bad, Scott Carroll and Trevor Bauer! (Both HRs came on breaking balls, and neither was in a spot that you’d expect Endy Chavez to do some damage. Both were inside, of course, but Bauer threw a cutter that was arguably a ball, while Carroll hung a curve ball).
As you know, the M’s (and Jays) are currently chasing the KC Royals for the 2nd wild card. Jeff’s got a good post today explaining what it is the Royals do well – better than anyone, in fact.
Noted Royals fan Rany Jazayerli has a great post up on an even more noted Royals fan, at least for the past month or so. If you’re on twitter, you may have heard a bit about the story of Sun Woo Lee, and how the South Korean’s first trip to KC has kind of taken off and made the unassuming Kim (who became a fan of the Royals in the 1990s) a minor celebrity in the area. The Royals and several of their players have reached out to Lee, and they’re stepping it up by allowing Kim to throw out the first pitch of tonight’s game. Of note: the Royals haven’t lost since Lee came over. Damn you Royals, and your attempts to humanize yourself in the eyes of your bitter Grass Creek rivals!
In the minors, Taijuan Walker pitched his best game of the year last night, striking out 13 Fresno Grizzlies (and only walking one) in the Rainiers 2-1 win. As a team, the R’s struck out 17 and walked just the one batter. Today, though, they lost 4-3 after Jordan Pries had some control issues, walking 5 in 5 1/3 IP. Ramire Cleto starts for Everett as they host Spokane.