Game 146, Athletics at Mariners
James Paxton vs. Jason Hammel, 7:10pm (If you’re going, please note the Sounders have their own late-season really-important game tonight as well. Pioneer Square/SoDo is going to be jammed tonight, which is great, but something you should probably plan for if you’re driving to the game).
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.5% Baseballprospectus.com: 35.4%
It’s been a little over ten days since the last time the M’s and A’s faced off, and, at least for the M’s, almost nothing’s changed. They were coming off a disappointing series loss (to the Nationals, in that case), and saw their playoff odds in the low-40% range. They faced Jason Hammel, who was pitching much better in recent games, but who couldn’t stop the A’s from losing. Today, the M’s are again coming off a disappointing series loss, have similar playoff odds, and face Jason Hammel again. The M’s have essentially treaded water for 10 days, while the A’s continue to sink. Some portion of the M’s lower playoff odds (considering they picked up a game on the Royals without playing yesterday) is due to the easier schedule the AL Central teams have down the stretch, which we talked about the other day. It’s in that context that makes this series so important. If the Tigers/Royals feast on the likes of the Twins/White Sox, then the M’s may be better off focusing on the reeling Athletics.
I’m still completely befuddled by their collapse. Through July, this team was one of the most complete, one of the most dangerous, we’d seen in a while. The M’s played them tough, but they annihilated everyone else, and their run differential was off the charts. That incredible run differential’s (mostly) intact, as the A’s have turned to losing one-run games instead. Their last SEVEN losses have been one-run affairs, and 10 of their last 30 games in total have been one-run losses. This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not after the team jettisoned closer-turned-disaster Jim Johnson. The A’s bullpen has the third-best ERA in baseball (the M’s are #1), and have a solid FIP as well. But shift from context-neutral to context-dependent stats like WPA and they fall to the middle of the pack. Why? The A’s relievers have, for whatever reason, given up their runs at the absolute worst possible times. The “meltdown” stat counts games in which a reliever drops his team’s win probability by 6% – this is a more expansive, less arbitrary version of the blown save. Like blown saves, a team should have at least twice as many games in which a reliever ADDS 6% to WPA than those in which they give away 6%. The M’s have the 3rd fewest meltdowns in baseball behind the Padres (who rank 2nd in ERA, and have been excellent all year) and the Royals, who feature one of the most well-known and successful groups of relievers in baseball. The A’s are in 7th, with 9 more meltdowns than the M’s. But focus on the 2nd half, and it gets worse. In the 2nd half, the M’s have a nearly 3:1 ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns, while the A’s are nearly even (21:17). Their bullpen is 26th in win probability added, while the M’s are up in 5th. The A’s offensive struggles get a lot of attention, and in many ways their bullpen numbers overall still look OK, but the pen’s clearly a major part of the A’s slide.*
Their starting pitching was solid, and it’s been even better recently with Jason Hammel’s resurgence. Back on the 1st, he was showing signs of coming out of the slump he’d been in since coming over from Chicago. After a good start against Seattle, he had another versus Houston, bringing his Oakland ERA under 5. That said, he’s still giving up too many HRs, so his FIP remains terrible. I wanted to see if he’s done anything differently in recent weeks, and a few things look like possibilities. First, he’s simplified his pitch mix. Earlier in the year, he threw a four- and two-seam fastball, a slider, a change-up and the occasional curve. In the past month, he’s essentially throwing only fastballs and the slider. That seems like it’d make him vulnerable to lefties, but his splits don’t look too wide, and in fact, they’re pretty normal for his career. The bigger change was that his control got a bit better. He was missing with too many fastballs in July, and that led to bad counts, and that led to extra-base hits. He’s around the zone a bit more now, and while he’s still giving up his share of HRs, his BABIP and OBP-allowed have come down.
I mentioned before that Hammel’s career year came when he switched to a sinker instead of being a four-seam pitcher. In the years since then, he’s steadily gone back to the four-seamer, and thus his GB% has dropped markedly since 2012. A career 44% ground ball guy, his rate topped 52% in 2012, before dropping to under 40% this year. Given his home park – and the park he’s in today – that’s understandable, I suppose, but the M’s need to look for fastballs they can drive. Only five of his 21 HRs overall -and only one of his last nine- have come off of breaking balls/offspeed pitches.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Saunders, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Miller, SS
Yesterday’s MLB schedule was marred by a serious injury to the Marlins superstar OF Giancarlo Stanton, who turned into a Mike Fiers fastball and took it on the cheek/mouth. Stanton suffered, “lacerations, facial fractures, dental damage” but has already stated he’d like to return before the end of the season. Dave had just speculated about what kind of contract he might be in the market for should the Marlins lock him up, or if he tests the open market after 2016. Here’s hoping he comes back healthy and effective.
Also at FG, Tony Blengino talked about where the M’s excellent pen ranks with other historically good groups. From that list, it’s extremely hard to stay as hot as the M’s have been for multiple years, though the 2002-2004 Angels managed to stay very good for three years, and the Royals look like they’re on their way to something similar (even if they haven’t been quite as dominant as they were last year).
Welcome back, Dustin Ackley. It was nice to be in the position of wanting Ackley’s bat in the line-up down the stretch, though Saunders’ return meant the M’s didn’t miss too much. Still, this team needs its best line-up on the field in September, and with Ackley healthy, they can do that.
* The A’s are activating their closer, Sean Doolittle, from the DL for today’s game. They can blame injuries for the slide, but even guys with great numbers – like Luke Gregerson – have struggled of late in the closing role.