Game 127, Mariners at Red Sox
King Felix vs. Joe Kelly, 4:10pm
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 41.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 40.6%
That series in Philadelphia was neither entertaining nor helpful. Now, the M’s head to Fenway, where they’ve lost nine consecutive games. Ahhh, but we’ve got Felix and you’ve got…Joe (checks again) uh, Kelly. The guy with the…(checks) sinker? A guy with a sinker.
So yes, Mr. Kelly, who came over from St. Louis in the John Lackey deal, throws a very hard sinker, a curve, and a change-up. When he first came up in 2012, his primary breaking ball was a slider, but after working on his curve (and looking at his wide platoon splits), he evidently decided to go with the hook instead. And it’s been a good pitch for him – unlike many curve balls, he gets an extraordinary amount of ground ball contact with it. According to BrooksBaseball, his curve’s GB/balls-in-play ratio is over three standard deviations from the mean, which is good, considering his sinker is pretty standard. So he gets over 50% of ground balls, and almost no one can elevate the curve. Is he a great pitcher? Well, no.
In 2013, Kelly posted a brilliant ERA in over 100 innings despite a poor FIP that resulted from his low K% and poor BB%. The grounders helped him avoid HRs (for the most part), but as Dave and others pointed out, what was driving that sparkly ERA wasn’t HRs, it was BABIP, or more accurately, BABIP in certain situations. Everyone talked about the Cardinals’ offense, and their incredible hitting with runners in scoring position. Kelly was the pitching version of Allen Craig last year, running a .224 BABIP with RISP, and thus generating a strand rate over 82%. Just as Craig’s RISP numbers tumbled this season, Kelly’s BABIP with RISP this year is .304, and that’s helped knock his strand rate down to just over 70%. That’s not the ONLY thing that’s changed with Kelly, but it’s another example of why it’s usually a good idea to be skeptical that a small-sample performance is predictive. A year after posting an ERA well over a full run lower than his FIP, his ERA’s now OVER his FIP, and he’s been essentially replacement level on the year.
In his career, he’s yielded a .350 wOBA to lefties and a .295 wOBA to righties. By FIP, it’s about one run higher to lefties than righties. This is a sinkerballer, after all, so it’s not terribly shocking. And he’s faced more RHBs than lefties in his career – another perk of pitching for St. Louis in the NL Central. Since moving to Boston, he’s actually faced two NL Central teams (including, famously, the Cardinals – in his first start in a Boston uniform) and the Astros. This is a pitcher with real problems against lefties, and for whatever reason, those problems weren’t as evident in 2013 thanks to BABIP and all of that. But they’re just as real in 2014 as they were in 2012, and this is a good opportunity for the M’s to use their lefty-heavy line-up to gain a significant advantage…er, even more of an advantage than they had by just starting King Felix.
Kelly’s sinker is a lively one, averaging around 95mph, and that’s something of a worry. The M’s platoon splits against lefties have been discussed quite a bit, and by picking up Jackson/Denorfia, the M’s have tried to address the issue. But their splits against ground-ball pitchers are actually worse. Henderson Alvarez comes to mind, as does Kyle Gibson. Those two had much better control, however. One way for the M’s to avoid 4-3’ing their way to a loss is to be a lot more patient. Kelly’s thrown a below-average percentage of strikes throughout his career, and it’s been quite low this year. He’s not been able to get batters to chase, either, as his slider – the pitch he doesn’t throw much anymore – was the pitch that got him a lot of out-of-zone swings.
Some might wonder if Kelly was always going to struggle after leaving the Cardinals thanks to their incredible pitch-framer Yadier Molina. Catchers adept at picking up the low strike can be extremely beneficial to sinkerballers, and obviously Molina’s adept at essentially every aspect of catching. It’s probably true that a portion of Kelly’s brilliant 2013 shouldn’t be called “luck” – it should be called “Molina.” But there’s a new catcher in the league who’s among the very best pitch framers we’ve yet seen. I…ok, yes, that description might work for Mike Zunino, but I’m talking about Red Sox backstop Christian Vasquez. Jeff’s article at Fangraphs is a good introduction. If you’re in a hurry, 1) why are you reading this game preview (thank you!), and 2) just go to the second gif in that article. If someone doesn’t understand the concept of pitch framing, or what it is that a catcher’s supposed to DO to get a strike call, have them watch that. Maybe part of it is an artifact of the gif itself, but it looks a bit like magic. Vasquez has caught Kelly twice – two games, two wins, two solid-ish performances for a guy without good control or a swing-and-miss pitch. Kelly’s one awful game for Boston came against Houston, and was caught by Daniel Butler. Am I saying…no, I’m not saying anything, I’m just…look at that gif again, would you?
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Chavez, RF
9: Miller, SS
The big story of the baseball world today is the signing of Cuban OF Rusney Castillo by the Red Sox. Boston beat out a number of teams, including the Tigers and M’s, to ink Castillo to a 6-year, $72m contract. It’s back-loaded, so Castillo will make something like the $500,000 this year. Castillo’s contract beats out the $68m the White Sox gave Jose Abreu in the offseason in a deal that’s worked out pretty nicely. The rapidly rising prices paid for international free agents has a few causes – from the quicker-than-expected impact from guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Masahiro Tanaka and Abreu, to the dampening of bonuses paid both to draft-eligible players and the July 2nd international signings. International signings are still discounted, of course, because we’re still not quite sure how they’ll fare in the US (I’m shaking my head at all of the unnamed scouts/executives who questioned Abreu’s batspeed this offseason), but they’re able to produce right away, giving teams bidding on their services more information about their own place on the win curve. Thanks in part to the nearly-instant success of Puig/Abreu, some talked about Castillo moving right into the Boston line-up. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, especially given that Boston’s out of the race in 2014, but he’s probably not long for the minors.
Here’s your basic Sam Miller article auto-link: Has Replay Killed Lying in Baseball? It’s Sam Miller, it’s gifs of attempted subterfuge…just click it.
Tacoma’s final homestand of the season continues tonight at 7:05 against Omaha. The red-hot Rainiers send Jimmy Gilheeney to the mound against Aussie control-pitcher/HR-maven Liam Hendriks. Lefty Tyler Pike starts for Jackson. There are always ups and downs as prospects move up the ladder, but I have to say I’ve been especially dismayed by Pike’s 2014. He struggled in High Desert, and that’s understandable, but the walk rate has been absurd. In hindsight, it never really matched up to the “plus pitchability” scouting reports, but it’s gone haywire this year. Pike is talented, and in AA before he can legally drink, so don’t take this as me writing him off. It’s just a statistical line that I would never have guessed we’d see from him.
Speaking of prospects, RP Carson Smith – a guy I thought could make an impact in MLB this season – is locked in for Tacoma right now. He suffered an injury early in the season, and had a very poor April, but in his last 26 innings, going back to June 6th, he’s given up three runs, struck out 29 and walked 7. In the process, he’s knocked his ERA down from 6.00 to 2.93.