Game 14, Astros at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
The M’s had an improbable comeback to beat the Rangers on Sunday, and then missed a great opportunity to gain some ground last night. Asher Wojchiechowski was predictably mediocre, and the M’s lefties (and Cruz) made him pay, but some shaky bullpen work and a lack of timely hits resulted in a loss. Today, the pitching match-up appears to be against them, as struggling Taijuan Walker faces Collin McHugh, the AAAA reject turned all-star level starter.
McHugh announced his rebirth as a bona fide MLB pitcher almost exactly a year ago today (it was April 22nd, to be precise) at Safeco Field. The righty was called up from AAA to make a start around three weeks in to the season. At that point, he’d made a handful of unexceptional starts for Oklahoma City, and he was a few months passed getting waived by the Colorado Rockies org after putting up 19 sub-replacement level innings for the big club. That night in Seattle, however, McHugh struck out 12, walked no one, and went 6 2/3 scoreless innings, yielding only 3 hits. He had his ups and downs, but finished 2014 with 3.2 fWAR in just 154+ IP; by ERA-based WAR, he was even better, at 4 full wins above replacement.
As Neil Weinberg talked about at Fangraphs recently, McHugh looked like a new pitcher right from that first start, even if that was the low point for the 2014 M’s – they were mired in a losing streak and looked god awful. But down the stretch, he changed again and became even more effective. Somewhere during the 2nd half, something clicked for McHugh, and both his walk rate and his home run rate fell markedly. It’s still only 300 batters faced, but every single component is different/better. He’s been effective in two starts thus far, so McHugh’s doing all he can to show that last season wasn’t a fluke (Matt Shoemaker, on the other hand…).
The first big change McHugh made last year was to develop better fastball command. By keeping the ball away from lefties, he started finding some success against southpaws for the first time in his brief big league career. But down the stretch, McHugh changed again, and began featuring his slider much, much more. At this point, McHugh is throwing fastballs less than 1/3 of the time. The pitch he throws most is his slider, at 40%. He’s also got a curve ball he throws 1/4 of the time versus lefties and 1/5 of the time to righties, and a change-up that he’ll go to infrequently to lefties. McHugh is the anti-Ross Detwiler, but he’s nearly as extreme. His approach looks most similar to Madison Bumgarner, another pitcher who makes liberal use of a slider to opposite-handed hitters, but even Bumgarner still throws 50% FBs (if you combine 4- and 2-seamers). The three pitchers most similar to McHugh’s approach last year were Francisco Liriano in Pittsburgh, Hiroki Kuroda in New York and Kevin Correia in the Twin Cities. This isn’t about creating a list of comps, and it’s not to suggest that McHugh will bounce out of the bigs the way Correia has, or that this is a late-career move, or anything like that. This observation is merely descriptive: McHugh has been incredibly successful of late, and McHugh’s approach is pretty unlike that of most other MLB starters.
Taijuan Walker is also at one end of the results distribution, unfortunately. Walker’s been hit hard repeatedly, and that’s got a lot of fans looking to the minors for help. Roenis Elias is on the 40-man, but he’s been shaky thus far. Jordan Pries was a good candidate to show up eventually, but he’d require a 40-man move and he’s been worse than Elias. The pitching depth in the system hasn’t been able to develop just yet – Danny Hultzen’s still in instructs, and a 40-man move this early feels like an overreactive response. Walker may be best off in MLB with Rick Waits working on both his fastball command and his mental approach to yielding a few hits, but that doesn’t mean his starts are practice games. The AL West is still tightly bunched, unlike, say, the NL East. That alone buys the M’s a bit of time. But that also means that the division is still just as tight as the predictions thought it’d be, and other teams reinforcements are already moving in (Garrett Richards in Anaheim, Josh Reddick in Oakland). Walker has some time, but not a ton of it.
1: Ackley, LF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
Tacoma kicked the Chihuahuas last night by a score of 5-4. Roenis Elias still wasn’t sharp, going 5 IP with 7 hits and 4 runs allowed, but it was enough thanks to two 5th inning HRs, one from Chris Taylor and the other from Jesus Montero. Today, Sam Gaviglio gets the start against Carlos Hernandez of Albuquerque.
Jackson beat Tennessee 7-1 yesterday, as Misael Siverio was sharp over 5 2/3 IP, giving up 2 hits and 1 run (a HR by zaftig 1B prospect Dan Vogelbach). The Generals were held scoreless until the 7th, but they made up for lost time with Leon Landry notching 3 RBIs in his first game of the season. Stephen Landazuri makes his third start tonight; he’s yet to give up a run in 8 IP, though his last start was shortened to just 2 IP due to rain (they finished the game the next day).
Bakersfield started slow, but they’re on a bit of a roll now. They beat Stockton 5-1 yesterday behind prospect Ryan Yarbrough’s best start of the year – he went 6 scoreless, and didn’t walk anyone. That said, with just a single K, I’m starting to wonder about his bat-missing. It’s really early, of course, but Yarbrough shot up rankings by racking up 53 strikeouts (against just 4 walks!) in less than 39 IP for Everett. This year, he’s got 6 Ks (and 2 walks) in 16 IP. Something to watch, I suppose. And hey, Tyler O’Neill showed further signs of breaking out of an early slump with a triple, and Austin Wilson, who’d looked lost in the early going, went 2-4 with his first Cal League HR. Dan Altavila starts tonight against Stockton and their Aussie SP, Tim Atherton. Atherton was originally signed as an OF by Minnesota, and then released by both the Twins and Padres. He moved to the mound, and pitched well in the Australian league before the Twins signed him again, this time as a pitcher. Oakland then acquired him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
Daniel Missaki got hit fairly hard yesterday in Clinton’s loss to Beloit 7-5. Missaki K’d 7 in 5 IP, but also gave up 8 hits and 4 runs. Nick Kiel, of Everett’s Jackson HS and Bellevue College, pitched the final two frames in his first game action of 2015; Kiel was an 18th rounder last year and played in Peoria and Everett late in 2014. Today, Tyler Herb starts for Clinton against Kane County’s Jeferson Mejia, a D-Backs prospect who came from the Cubs org in the Miguel Montero deal. Mejia had a good year in the Arizona League last year, and while he got destroyed in his first class A start, he’s 6’7″, and probably bigger than his listed 195 – shades of Michael Pineda, a bit, or, for the pessimists, shades of Michael Ynoa.