Game 133, Nationals at Mariners
King Felix vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 7:10pm (Fireworks following the game)
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 46.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 42.4%
Happy Felix Day.
The M’s kick off a series against the NL East leading Nationals tonight, a contest between the teams that lead their respective leagues in ERA. The Nats actually lead baseball in FIP; the M’s would argue that FIP can never fully understand the glorious mysteries of Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma, while the Nats would simply point to their walk rate, by far the lowest in baseball. Beyond control, though, the story of the Nationals’ 2014 staff is that they haven’t been hurt by home runs. Unlike the Yankees, who pound the zone and sometimes pay the price for it, the Nationals get the benefits of fewer baserunners AND fewer long balls. Tonight’s starter, Jordan Zimmermann, is a microcosm of the Nationals’ staff as a whole.
Zimmermann pitches off of his fastball. By pitch fx, no qualified starter throws a higher percentage of four-seam fastballs (or two-seamers, for that matter) than Zimmermann – about 70%. Combining all types of FBs, a few hurlers have a higher percentage of “hard’ pitches, led by Bartolo Colon. Zimmermann’s still in the top 10, though – no matter how you slice it up, Zimmermann’s extremely fond of his four-seamer. As Zimmermann probably knows, a four-seamer has lower platoon splits than sinkers, and indeed, Zimmermann’s overall platoon splits are pretty narrow despite the fact that his primary breaking ball is a slider.
He throws a change-up, but at less than 4% of his pitches, it’s something he’ll throw very rarely, and pretty much exclusively to lefties. Righties get sliders about 1/3 of the time, meaning they see fewer fastballs than lefties, who get high heat on about 3/4 of all pitches. Zimmerman’s fastball isn’t particularly noteworthy by pitch fx – it’s pretty hard, at 94mph, but it doesn’t have noteworthy movement the way James Paxton, Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver or Clayton Kershaw’s does. Everything about it, including velocity, is within a standard deviation of the league-wide mean. So why is it effective? A lot of it has to do with Zimmermann’s command. With a walk rate of just 3.7%, Zimmermann’s clearly able to control his pitches. But it’s more than that; Zimmermann’s overall zone percentage is quite good, but it’s not eye-popping. What IS somewhat eyepopping is his chase rate, the percentage of balls out of the zone that batters swing at. Zimmermann’s opponent tonight leads all of baseball in oSW% at 36.7% (Iwakuma’s #2!), but there’s Zimmermann at #6. Think about how odd it is for a guy who throws a ton of fastballs to be well-above average in pitches chased. Felix and Iwakuma have freakish change-up/splitter pitches to get batters to chase. Clayton Kershaw is not human. Zimmermann is…curious.
Unlike many pitchers, and unlike most pitchers with good HR rates, Zimmermann loves to pitch up in the zone. He’s able to hit the spots just above the zone, which helps that oSW% and also helps generate pop-ups. It also may help disguise his slider, which is an effective pitch to righties and lefties despite not having elite break or velocity. His command may also be a big part of the reason he’s able to get so many foul balls. Fouls are generally a good thing for pitchers for pretty obvious reasons – they’re strikes that can’t hurt you. Zimmermann’s pitching ahead most of the time, and foul balls may be part of the reason why. As he gets ahead, batters swing at more close pitches, helping explain the oSW% and making his fastball play up even more. All in all, it’s a great pitching match-up tonight, and a critical game as the M’s look to shake off an ugly loss against the Rangers.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Chavez, RF
SP: King Felix
Speaking of the Rangers, they made a couple of roster moves today, bringing back Derek Holland (who’s missed the entire year) and calling up Ryan Rua. That brings their total number of players used to 60, a new big league record. Their 38 pitchers used ties the record of the 2008 Padres, and rosters haven’t expanded yet (hat tip: Stefan Stevenson). As we saw, the Rangers are currently DH’ing Elvis Andrus, and their line-up includes Tomas Telis, Ryan Rua and Daniel Robertson. I think even most Ranger fans wouldn’t have been able to ID those three in March. Only Rua was on their top 20 prospect list, and he was 19th.
The M’s signed Dominican SS Christopher Torres for $375,000 – a nice get for the M’s, after Torres was linked to the Yankees for most of the year. Ah, but like the Montero ice-cream sandwich issue and the fabled rescue by USC CB Josh Shaw, there’s a lot more to the story. Torres’ trainer swears he’d made a deal with the Yankees that would’ve given Torres $2.1 million, and then the Yankees took him off the showcase circuit to avoid injury. After gaining weight and losing skill, the Yankees then backed out of the deal, a charge the Yankees strenuously deny. The M’s pounced and signed him for a fraction of what it looked like he’d cost, but there are now a lot more questions about Torres and his ultimate ceiling. Read Ben Badler’s typically great post about the Torres/Yankee saga here. An interesting bit of context to this year’s international signing crop is the Yankees open intention to flout the bonus pool caps by signing many/most of the top players. Despite a bonus pool cap of a bit over $2 million, the Yankees splurged by spending $12 million on the first day of the signing period. This came as no big shock; people like Kiley McDaniel were writing about the Yankees’ plans since at least December of 2013. They’ll forfeit the ability to sign players for a couple of years, but once those penalties trigger, there’s no incentive to stop spending….unless one of the guys you’ve targeted gains weight when you tell him to stop playing and hang out at home and eat ice-cream sandwi…whoa, whoa, too soon.