Game 156, Mariners at Blue Jays
James Paxton vs. JA Happ, 4:07pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 17.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 20.7%
Ouch. *Ouch*. The M’s playoff odds were cut in half yesterday, when another poor start from Hisashi Iwakuma coincided with the A’s finally winning a game and the Royals holding off the Tigers. This syzygy of woe has the M’s in dangerous territory with only a week to go. As if things couldn’t get worse, a new team has entered the periphery of the chase: the red-hot Cleveland Indians. While the Yankees and the Jays graciously dropped out of the race around a month ago, the Indians have been buoyed by an incredible run by their starters, including Corey Kluber, coming off his second consecutive game of 14Ks, and Carlos Carrasco who has laid waste to the AL since moving back into the rotation a few months back. Given that the Tribe is playing the Royals the next three days, and given the short amount of time, they’re probably not going to pass the Royals, M’s and A’s for a Wild Card spot. But it shows that even if the Royals, say, completely collapse, the M’s wouldn’t necessarily be the beneficiary.*
Thus, the M’s find themselves in a must-win game, on the road, with rookie starter. All of that said, I think most M’s fans are pretty happy that Paxton’s taking the ball today. The Canadian lefty’s been excellent – when healthy – all year, and is coming off of five consecutive quality starts. As I mentioned last time, his unique fastball has been the key to his success – both in generating ground balls and in disguising/setting up his curve ball. There’s basically no way a four-seam fastball should do what Paxton’s is doing, but when the team absolutely has to have a win, I don’t much care. I just care that he gets 12 ground outs and a handful of Ks and the M’s walk out of Rogers Centre victorious.
Opposing him is JA Happ. The last time the M’s faced him, we talked about his resurgence with the Jays, and how he’d suddenly started throwing harder this year. He also came into that game on a hot streak, striking out 12 Orioles in his previous start, and on a K:BB tear that the heretofore command-impaired Happ wouldn’t have dreamed of in previous years. That all ended in Safeco, as the M’s knocked him around a bit, and Happ hasn’t been able to regain the form he showed in July and early August. That said, he’s been a half-decent middle of the rotation guy for the Jays this year, and he’s been OK each year since 2012. Sure, his RA/9 hasn’t always reflected that thanks to HR problems and problems stranding runners, but his FIP has hinted that he’s had the ability to be a run-of-the-mill #4 starter.
Happ’s bread and butter is a 93-mph fastball. He throws four- and two-seam varieties, and those two combine for about 70% of his total pitches. His primary breaking ball is a curve that he’s started throwing at the expense of his slider/cutter, especially against righties. He’s also got a change-up that he’ll throw to righties, but as you can tell from his fastball usage, it’s not a great one. It generates fewer whiffs and grounders than a league-average change, and as someone who faces overwhelmingly right-handed line-ups, you understand why he’s now throwing more curves instead. In his career he’s got normal platoon splits, but they’ve gone backwards in 2014 (and 2013 too, actually). It’s probably just noise, especially when you see just how few lefties he’s faced; this year, only about 20% of the opposing hitters have batted lefty against him.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: James Paxton
That fastball, man. Paxton’s velocity, movement and deception team up to wreak havoc with hitters’ timing, and the result is a low BABIP. Paxton was the beneficiary of an absurd .203 BABIP in his call-up in 2013, and saber-fans noted that it’d regress. It has, actually. To .254. Normally, this is something that would be concerning – he still hasn’t pitched a full MLB season, and there’s no way to say that his true-talent is anywhere close to that .254 figure (to say nothing of .203). But Paxton’s pretty much sui generis; I have no idea what mean I should regress Paxton towards, given that I really can’t think of many pitchers like him. The Paxton we’ve gotten is so, so different – and so much better – than the Paxton many of us were following on his way up the chain. In the minors, Paxton had velo and that great curve, and thus got a good number of strikeouts. Unfortunately, the raw results were generally worse than you’d expect because his minor league BABIPs were uniformly terrible. The projection systems like ZiPS and Steamer that use minor league data can’t figure him out, because in the minors he walked tons and was incredibly hittable for a guy with a 95mph fastball. I figured he’d eventually improve his control, and that his curve would help him miss big-league bats, but his fastball command has changed to such a degree that he’s unrecognizable from the James Paxton that toiled in the M’s affiliates. I should point out that even this year, in his 10 rehab innings in Tacoma, Paxton gave up a .393 BABIP. The PCL is a hell of a drug.
Speaking of the PCL, the league’s going to look a bit different next year thanks to a raft of affiliation changes. Some long-standing agreements are no more – the A’s have left Sacramento to the Giants, and instead entered into an agreement with Nashville. That meant the Brewers needed a new affiliate, and they picked up Colorado Springs, ending the Rockies 21-year agreement with the Sky Sox. Mike Curto has you covered on who’s going where. Thankfully, the M’s aren’t one of the teams moving affiliations; the Rainiers/M’s partnership’s been a good one since 1995.
One M’s affiliate will be changing, though: the M’s agreement with High-A High Desert is no more. The M’s will move to a slightly less insane offensive environment in 2015 when they start playing in Bakersfield, which had been the Reds affiliate. The M’s had been in High Desert for the past eight seasons after their previous affiliate, Inland Empire, signed a deal with the LA Dodgers (they’re now affiliated with the Angels). Again, Curto’s got some information on a (possible) new home park for the Bakersfield team and why home games often start 15-minutes late at the current park.
* As an aside, I think this season has gone a long ways towards making me feel better about the introduction of the second wild card. I’m still squeamish about anything that appears to diminish baseball’s regular season, but the introduction of the play-in game arguably restores the importance of winning a division, while the 2nd wild card race has captivated baseball fans for months even when the first wild card seemed locked-up, first by the Angels, then the A’s (lolololol).