Game 2, Angels at Mariners
James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:10pm
The M’s needed opening day, and they came out with a win against an opposing starter who really did, in Jeff’s memorable phrase, look like “a righty Barry Zito with the flu.” But if beating Jered Weaver behind King Felix *in Seattle* seems like a game you really ought to win, so too does this contest. As we discussed, Wilson’s fallen off in recent years too, and he started lower, too. Wilson’s career K% is inflated a bit by his years as a reliever for Texas. As a starter, it’s fluctuated a bit, from 22.5% in his one truly excellent year in Arlington in 2011 down to 19.8% last year. There’s been more movement in his walk rate, which was only 8% in 2011, but was up over 11% in 2014. Wilson’s a lefty with an assortment of pitches who is no longer a big strikeout guy, and deals with serious control issues. What he’s done fairly effectively up until 2013 or so was control the contact he gave up.
That’s tough to do, particularly if you start your career in Texas, but Wilson was up to the challenge. He throws six different pitches routinely, allowing him to utilize four pitches against righties, and a slightly different four pitch mix to lefties. Looking at his walk rates, you might expect pitching coaches to tell him to simplify his arsenal and throw strikes instead of throwing the kitchen sink, but Wilson’s pitched around high walk totals his whole career. What he HAS done is limit his BABIP (something some lefties have been better than average at, for whatever reason) and limit his HRs allowed. Last year, though, his BABIP hit .306, its highest level ever, and just above his previous career high of .300 from 2013. Combining that with his career high walk rate, and it’s a wonder that his FIP was “only” 4.31. Last year, he was above replacement (well, the way Fangraphs calculates it) because he kept his HR rate under 1.00/9IP. It wasn’t exactly LOW, and at 0.87, it was the highest it had been since 2008, and the highest level ever as a starter, but it was better than average. The problem is that it was only low at home. On the road, Wilson was a total disaster.
So why can’t the M’s figure him out? If he’s so bad, why has he limited the M’s to a career .669 OPS *in Seattle* and and a .593 OPS last year despite his abysmal overall road stats? A big part of the reason is that he’s left-handed. As he’s aged, Wilson’s platoon splits have widened, and I’d assume part of the reason his walk rate is up is that he’s consciously or sub-consciously pitching around essentially every tough righty. Moreover, the M’s lefty-heavy line-up struggled against left-handed starters, putting up an OPS+ of 80 relative to the league (against righties, they were at 100) – that was actually worse than they struggled in 2013, when their OPS+ against lefty starters was 85 relative to average. The M’s have had serious platoon issues for a few years, and that’s one of the big reasons Nelson Cruz is here. Tonight’s the first test of that – can the M’s knock Wilson around the way everyone else has in recent years?
Interestingly, James Paxton reminds me a little bit Wilson. He’s tall, throws harder, and is Canadian and not prototypically Southern Californian, but both are lefties that rely less on strikeouts than managing contact. Paxton’s K rate in his abbreviated 2014 was a touch below Wilson’s, though of course Paxton’s walk rate was, while high, below Wilson’s level as well. When Paxton’s on, he’s running low BABIPs, the way CJ Wilson did back from 2010-2012. As Paxton throws much harder, in a good defensive park and behind a solid defensive club, his BABIP has been extremely low as opposed to just “better than average.” And thanks to a combination of high GB rates, velocity and Safeco, Paxton’s HR rate is also remarkably low, leading to a FIP that isn’t as high as you’d expect given the walks. The question is how well Paxton can keep this up. We’ve seen velocity fluctuations from him before, but we haven’t seen the command lapses that plagued him in the minor leagues. As we talked about, he’s an extremely hard guy to project since the things that make him so exceptional are the things that sabermetric orthodoxy would tell you aren’t as “true” as things like strikeouts. Still, velocity is about as true as it gets, and as long as Paxton’s four seamer continues to generate ground balls the way it has in his brief big league career, he can be an effective starter. Because Paxton’s throwing motion is so vertical, so over-the-top, he should also fare much better against righties than, say, CJ Wilson. That’s been true thus far, and if it continues, he’ll be a borderline all-star many times.
1: Weeks, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
A revamped line-up tonight, with five righties. Ideally, you’ve have another RHB or two, but it’s not too bad.
Jeff mentioned it in his post, but the Rangers nearly got no-hit by Sonny Gray in the opener yesterday in Oakland. Gray’s a great young starter, but to me, didn’t even look like he had his best stuff. Yovani Gallardo looked mediocre, and the Rangers line-up looked punchless. I think Prince Fielder will have a decent bounce-back, but his days as a preeminent power hitter are probably over.
One of the better pitching match-ups yesterday was the Astros/Indians game featuring Dallas Keuchel and last year’s CY Young winner Corey Kluber. Imagine what you’d think one year ago today if you were told that Keuchel/Kluber was an anticipated pitching match-up, and that Kluber and Carlos Carrasco just signed long extensions.
Speaking of extensions, the Red Sox inked Rick Porcello to a four-year, $82.5m deal running from 2016-2019. Porcello is very young (still), and has been remarkably steady in recent years, but hoooooly crap that’s big-time money for a guy with a career ERA and FIP over 4. Part of this is age, and a big part is just the inexorable inflation as cable tv money works its way through the arteries of baseball, but I also wonder if teams aren’t putting more of a premium on durability with the rash of TJ surgeries throughout baseball. Of course, this would mean reliably identifying traits that are linked to durability with enough confidence that would lead to contracts like this.
The M’s affiliates have all set (or just about set) their opening day line-ups. The full-season affiliates start their seasons this Thursday, April 8th. AA Jackson gets DJ Peterson and Gabby Guerrero to start the year, while class A Clinton will see Alex Jackson and Brazilian RHP Daniel Missaki. Patrick Kivlehan starts at AAA Tacoma, and High-A Bakersfield, the M’s new Cal League affiliate, gets the pitching prospects Edwin Diaz and Ryan Yarbrough.