Game 3, Angels at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:10pm
Yesterday’s game was the kind of soul-sucking mess that I’d like to just avoid talking about, but this is a baseball blog and it was baseball. Kind of. CJ Wilson’s game plan looked a bit different than last year’s. Instead of nibbling around, trying to entice a bad swing or whiff, Wilson just pumped strike after strike pretty much down the middle and dared the Mariners to hit it. They didn’t.
It’s not that every single out was on a pitch middle-middle, but you look at this graph of the location of every at-bat-ending pitch, and you don’t see a pitcher working the edges. You see a cluster of centered pitches getting beat into the ground or popped up on the IF. There may be pitchers who can survive like this, at least a while, but Wilson wasn’t one last year, and I’m not sure he’s one now. More importantly, you can’t win many ballgames if you get 90mph pitches thrown pretty much exactly where you’d like them and turn them into outs. Just ugly to watch, and I’m resentful that they turned my well-argued preview on its head – Wilson actually DID manage contact, while Paxton’s HR-avoiding mojo gave out, albeit only once.
Now the M’s get another shot at a series win behind Hisashi Iwakuma, the guy who’s posted back to back 3 fWAR seasons, and whose actual RA is even better than that. As you know, Iwakuma’s FB is just barely touching 90 at this point, and he’s vacillated between throwing mostly four-seamers (which may disguise his splitter better) and two-seamers (to help manage his HRs-allowed). He’s got a slider that he seems fond of, but which hasn’t been a great pitch, and then he has an absolute beast of a splitter. Overall, Iwakuma gets swings on 60% of his splitters, despite throwing it in the zone less frequently than his fastballs. With 1 strike, batters swing 55% of the time, and then with 2 strikes and batters protecting the zone, they swing over 70% of the time. Meanwhile, almost none of these 2-strike splitters are in the zone – batters can’t stop swinging, but they have nearly zero chance of a positive outcome. This is part of the reason why Iwakuma’s career BABIP is just .271, and why his walk rate and strand rates are also better than average. He still gives up too many HRs, especially for someone pitching in Safeco, but his approach (and command) allow him to run sparkling ERA/RAs despite the dingers. After a healthy spring, expectations are high for the 34-in-a-few-days Iwakuma. Maybe he can share something with Masahiro Tanaka about succeeding without a big fastball (please don’t actually do this – this was cliched writing, not a suggestion).
The Angels counter with one of the better out-of-nowhere stories of last year. Undrafted righty Matt Shoemaker was known in the minors mostly for his neatly-trimmed Billy Mays-style beard (his AA team had Matt Shoemaker beard giveaways once). He pitched in the PCL in pieces of four separate seasons and couldn’t figure it out in any of them. He gave up plenty of HRs, but was just incredibly easy to hit (BABIPs in the .350 range), and without plus stuff, that rendered his pretty-good control moot. Injuries gave him an opportunity, first in 2013 when he shut out the M’s over 5, and then last year where he twirled 136 innings with a 23% K rate and a walk rate of just 4.4%. Behind a meh four-seamer and a splitter, Shoemaker turned in a more-Iwakuma-than-Iwakuma season that gave the Angels staff a much-needed boost. Shoemaker relies a lot less on the ground ball, which helps explain his high road HR rate, but it also helps explain his own above-average results on balls in play and strand rate.
How “real” that was, and how much of that level of performance Shoemaker can shield from the regression gods will go a long way towards sorting out the AL West this year. I mentioned that Shoemaker wasn’t great on the road last year, but Safeco’s a good park for a fly-balling control artist. On the other hand, after a poor showing against their first lefty starter of the year, the M’s may enjoy seeing another RHP.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
One of the most notable performances last night occurred in the Rangers 3-1 win in Oakland, where new A’s 3B Brett Lawrie went 0-4 with four K’s. *On 12 pitches*. I caught the second half of the game, and saw him strike out twice on six consecutive breaking balls. As it turned out, he saw a first pitch fastball in his first AB, and then saw eleven consecutive sliders and curves. Jeff’s article at Fangraphs notes that something similar happened to Mike Schmidt in 1983, but he got yet another AB and hit a game winning HR. Good, even GREAT hitters have terrible games every now and again, and we all remember Iwakuma striking out Albert Pujols three times in a game, the first pitcher to ever do that to the great Angels 1B. But this looked like something else – a clear and purposeful approach to dealing with the aggressive Lawrie. He took called breaking balls, swung through breaking balls in the zone and out, and continued to look frustrated and confused each time. Not sure if that was part of the plan with the hyper-intense Lawrie, or if it was just as simple as “we’re going to throw sliders until he hits one,” but it was remarkable. Seattle-product Keone Kela made his big league debut for Texas, and it says something about the status of the Rangers ballclub that they gave him the ball up 2 in the late innings. After a sharp single from Billy Butler, Kela walked Ike Davis, bringing Lawrie to the plate with no outs and the tying runs aboard. To that point, every one of Kela’s pitches had been fastballs. The Rangers left Kela in, and three pitches later, he notched his first out with a swinging K. That, much more than Lawrie’s final K against Neftali Felix, was the key at-bat of the game. A reeling rookie reliever against a guy with borderline all-star projections, and Kela came out ahead.
Lawrie’s going to come out of this at some point – he’s a good player, and “just throw sliders” seems a little light to be a game plan (although Lawrie will have to prove that). But the comparison I thought of last night wasn’t Mike Schmidt, it was Brett Wallace in 2013. Wallace was a 1st round draft pick who sailed through the minors in a few different organizations, including Toronto and Oakland, like Lawrie. He’d had so-so stints in the majors before that, but came into 2013 as the Astros 1B by default. He’d had some K problems in his cups of coffee, but it seemed to be getting better, and his minor league K rates were under 20%, albeit barely. Then April 2013 happened. The ‘stros started against Texas, then played Oakland and then Seattle. After his sixth game, against the M’s in Seattle, Wallace was 1 for 21 in 22 plate appearances…with 17 strikeouts. That game against the M’s was a particular low point – it was his first golden sombrero, and it came in a game in which his teammates couldn’t stop hitting. That game was Brandon Maurer’s home debut, and he went 2/3 of an inning, giving up six first-inning runs. He did, however, strike out Brett Wallace swinging. Maurer gave way to Kameron Loe, so you basically know how that went. Loe gave up another 5 runs on three HRs in just 2 IP, but he, too, struck out Brett Wallace swinging. Charlie Furbush relieved Loe, and he struck out Brett Wallace swinging in the fourth, then struck him out swinging in the fifth on his way to a comparatively tidy 2IP with only 1 run allowed. It was just the 5th inning, and the Astros were up 13-0, and Brett Wallace had four swinging strikeouts. The Astros mercifully replaced Wallace with Brandon Barnes, who promptly doubled and came around to score on a Marwin Gonzalez single. This isn’t a fun game to remember, but I hadn’t seen someone look as lost as Lawrie did since April of 2013. Wallace went 0-4 in his next game (but without any Ks!) and was sent down to the minors for a few months. He hasn’t played a big league game since that 2013 season.