Cactus League Game 11, Brewers at Mariners
JA Happ vs. Mike Fiers, 1:05pm, Root TV/MLB Network/KIRO radio
The M’s welcome the Brewers to Peoria in a Ferrell-free Friday contest between lefty JA Happ and right-handed over-achiever Mike Fiers. Fiers’ velocity increased last year (it kind of seems like everyone’s did with the exception of Jered Weaver who is rapidly approaching Moyer-esque velocity at this point), but that just nudged it over 90mph. And yet Fiers rode that 90mph straight fastball to a great K% of 27.7% and a FIP and ERA under 3 in limited duty last year. Does he throw some trick pitch, or have an amazing change-up or something? Eh, not really. His best pitch is that 90mph four-seamer. In fact, Fiers cracked the top 10 in MLB last year for whiff rate on his fastball, placing 8th – he was a bit behind Yordano Ventura, David Price and Jacob de Grom, but ahead of Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. Fiers is able to combine a large amount of vertical movement with location to confuse hitters who would normally eat 90mph fastballs for breakfast. Here’s where he threw his FB last year – he uses the top of the zone and above, and he tries to bust right-handers inside. He targets the same spot to lefties, so that puts it high and away to LHBs. It’s a useful approach only if his command is good enough to keep the ball where he wants it; a high, centered fastball is a very different animal, and it’s also one that’s familiar to M’s fans: this is the blueprint Chris Young used for Seattle last season. One of the benefits of a rising, over-the-top fastball and the top-of-the-zone approach should be reduced platoon splits, and that’s exactly what we see from Fiers.
JA Happ came up as a (mostly) three-pitch lefty – he used a four-seam fastball, a cutter and a change-up, and while he didn’t have a sparkly K:BB, he had some success. But as a flyball pitcher, he had some issues with HRs, and then after a trade to Houston, he added a sinker to the mix and started throwing more of his curve ball. For the next several years, he’s mixed in a number of sinkers while keeping the four-seam as his primary fastball. Interestingly, he uses it primarily against *right* handed batters, despite the fact that sinkers typically have greater than average platoon splits – they should be easier for righties to hit than lefties. By and large, that’s what we’ve seen. It’s not that Happ’s four-seamer is a great pitch, though it’s certainly better at 93 than it was at 90. And it’s not like he should never use a sinker – if he needs a ground ball, it’s a nice option to have. However, it seems clear that the sinker approach he’s used since 2010 isn’t really working. It’s not that righties are teeing off against it, but that it provides them comfortable ABs. His K:BB ratio on sinkers is 1.4:1, and righties have a high BABIP and thus average on it despite the fact that Happ uses the pitch *less* when he’s behind in the count. He uses it more in even counts, and most to sneak a first-pitch strike. In his career, Happ’s been below average in even counts.
I’d be suspicious of a sinker-heavy approach to righties anyway, but given Happ’s skillset, it makes even less sense now that he’s a Mariner. Happ’s K:BB ration has risen in recent years, but he’s still been troubled by long balls. Moving from Toronto to Seattle means the run value of any fly ball he allows goes down – perhaps dramatically. I mentioned it before, but if Tony Blengino’s park factors are accurate, Happ’s moving from a park that inflates left-field fly ball run values by 30% to one that suppresses them by 36%. If you want to best match park and repertoire, you don’t necessarily want Happ to avoid fly balls. To extract the maximum benefit from not just his own home park but Oakland’s and Anaheim’s, he needs to stick to the four-seamer. Back in 2009, righties hit fly balls nearly 44% of the time, and saw 10% of their batted balls popped up. Last year, those numbers were down to just under 40% and 6.5%. The difference isn’t huge, but it can matter, especially given the parks. This could be something of an adjustment for a guy who’s spent most of his career in hitters’ parks, but I think seeing the first few well-struck fly balls die in the early-April marine layer will prove persuasive.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Taylor, 2B
Robinson Cano, who missed the past six contests after his grandfather passed away, has rejoined the team, though he’s not in the starting line-up today.