Game 15, Astros at Mariners
JA Happ vs. Roberto Hernandez, 7:10pm
Last night’s loss was probably the toughest to take of the M’s young season – a young season that’s already produced more than its share of painful defeats. For the first time this year, Taijuan Walker managed to pitch out of trouble, and generate actual whiffs/strikeouts. His fastball velocity looked OK, and he was able to use all of his pitches, even though his command still hasn’t been good, and his results were skewed a bit by CB Bucknor impressionistic umpiring. Despite what is now the highest walk rate of any starting pitcher with at least 10 IP, Walker isn’t missing the zone too often – the percentage of his pitches that are in the pitch fx strike zone is far higher than Felix’s, for example. Walker’s been done in by command lapses and an awful BABIP. I thought about that last night as fly ball after fly ball fell in front of Austin Jackson, and what could’ve been a critical double play ball off the bat of Marwin Gonzalez seemingly crossed up Robbie Cano, scooting into right and kick-starting the Astros big rally. To date, the M’s rank poorly both by DRS and regular old defensive efficiency despite any clear defensive black holes – especially last night, with Nelson Cruz DHing. It’s way too early to prove, but I’m going to be watching the M’s positioning going forward. None of this gives Walker a pass, as his FIP is still plenty awful thanks to that walk rate. But it may be a factor, and getting Walker from “tire fire” back to “OK 5th starter” would really help the M’s right now.
In the course of researching the above, I found it kind of odd that zone% – the percentage of pitches thrown in the zone – and walk rate don’t correlate better. Sure, the guys at the very very top of that ranking – Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes, etc. – never walk anyone. But Felix has one of the league’s lowest zone%, and he’s not exactly walking the world. Zack Greinke and Scott Kazmir are in the top (er, bottom?) 20 and they have low walk rates. There are command-challenged walk machines in there too, but by and large it’s not an iron clad lock that a poor zone% = a poor BB%. You just have to do something *else* to compensate. Felix and Greinke get plenty of swings on out-of-the-zone pitches, for example. Jason Vargas generates tons of contact, and tries hard to entice hitters to make contact on balls, but if that doesn’t work, he’ll give you a strike to hit. That’s essentially the approach Roberto Hernandez takes, and he comes in to tonight’s game with the lowest zone% amongst all starting pitchers in baseball. A bit more than 1/3 of his pitches are in the zone – one THIRD. He’s never been a low BB% guy, but that still strikes me as an absurdly low percentage. What he does is generate ground balls. Back in 2007-2010, when he was known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez posted GB% over 60%, and with a 94mph fastball, a change and slider, he got a solid number of Ks to go with them. His ability to create so many grounders mitigated the walk rate, as all they did was create double play opportunities.
Unfortunately for Hernandez, the velocity’s not what it was, and injuries and swings in BABIP and HRs have made him one of the least consistent pitchers you’ll find; this should probably not be a shock given that he was not able to maintain a consistent legal identity over his career. At this stage, he throws an 89-90mph sinker without quite as much drop as it once had, and he’s moving away from his slider. Instead, he’s throwing his change-up a bit more, including to righties. At 83-84, it’s pretty firm, and looks more like a splitter by pitch FX – it has a bit less horizontal break than his sinker, but it drops more. As Hisashi Iwakuma knows, a splitter (or any change-up, really) is a great pitch for getting swings on balls not in the zone. Good arm action disguises the pitch, and it *looks* like a strike right until it dives below the knees. It’s a good pitch to use on opposite-handed hitters, but it hasn’t prevented Hernadez from showing some pretty standard platoon splits. Lefties have fared much better against him in his career, as he’s simply not able to strike them out. They may top his change, but they’re not whiffing on it.
At 34, Hernandez isn’t a world beater. He’s just hanging on, though it’s worth pointing out that he can go through some pretty effective stretches every now and again – he had one in April last year, in fact. He’s a stop-gap, and paired with a good IF defense, he can be a decent one. He’s had mixed results in his two starts this year, but the M’s need to be patient and wait for him to elevate a sinker. The M’s have been baaaad against ground ball pitchers in recent years, but they’ve been slightly better thus far thanks largely to Nelson Cruz.
1: Smith, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
The Rainiers dropped the first game of their series against Albuquerque 8-6 after Sam Gaviglio turned in his first dud of a start. The teams face off again tonight with Mike Kickham facing Chad Bettis.
Jackson beat Tennessee in comeback fashion, 5-3; the Generals scored 4 runs over the final two innings to win. Stephen Landazuri gave up 3 runs, but James Gilheeney and Matt Anderson combined to allow just two singles and no walks over the final 3 1/3IP. Tonight, Scott DeCecco gets the ball for Jackson.
Bakersfield stayed hot, beating Stockton 5-1 behind solid pitching from Dan Altavila (6 IP, 1R, 7Ks), Nick Valenza (2 IP, 0R , 3Ks) and Trey Cochran-Gill (1IP, 0R 1K). Austin Wilson is showing further signs of life, going 2-4 with a double. That made up for Tyler O’Neill and Tyler Marlette going 0-8. O’Neill had 4Ks, too, and now has 21 Ks to 1 BB on the year. It’s early. Carlos Misell faces off against Kyle Finnegan, a one-time college teammate of Carson Smith.
Clinton dropped a 5-2 contest to Kane County. Gianfranco Wawoe, the splendidly-named 2B from Curacao, extended his hitting streak to 8 games. And, since the L-Kings have already played – and won – today, I can report that Wawoe now has a 9-game streak, going 13-32 with 2 HRs over that span. Pat Peterson started today’s 2-1 win, but the bullpen came up big, with Ryan Horstman again looking sharp, with 2 Ks and 0 hits in 1 1/3IP, after coming in with a man on 3rd.