Game 16, Twins at Mariners
King Felix vs. Phil Hughes, 7:10pm
Last season, King Felix finished 4th in baseball in pitcher WAR. Slotting in 5th was Phil Hughes, Yankee cast-off, budget signing, and a guy who’d never come all that close to 3 WAR in a season before 2014’s 5.7. He set an all-time record for K:BB ratio, got his home runs under control and was rewarded with a generous contract extension that’ll run through 2019. There were a number of keys to his breakout season, but the most obvious one was a determination – really a single-minded obsession – to stick to the strike zone. Hughes has always had solid control, but in 2014 he all but stopped throwing balls. Not only was his walk rate the lowest in baseball, but his zone%, the percentage of pitches thrown in the zone, led all qualified hurlers by a mile. These days, this really is a side contest between Hughes and Bartolo Colon, and Hughes took it handily last year (Colon leads in the early-going of 2015, however – game on). This is interesting, because Hughes’ big problem in New York was the long ball. It seems odd that one could cure a meatball problem by throwing more strikes, but it seemed to work for Hughes (as did moving out of new Yankee Stadium, of course). Now, as a legitimate rotation ace, Hughes is attempting to show that his adjustments can last, and that his 2014 wasn’t a fluke.
Ah, adjustments. If there’s one thing Hughes is known for, it’s that he can’t stop making adjustments. Jeff’s talked about it, I’ve talked about it, and it seems like there’s a story about some change Hughes is making to his pitch mix or his arm angle. Hughes reacts to the ways batters react to him – if a pitch isn’t working, he drops it and uses another. Traditionally, this has taken the form of swapping out a slider and cutter, or curve and slider. In general, I think this sort of a thing is laudable, and it speaks to why scouts remark on a prospect’s “coachability.” There’s a humility to it all that you’d think guys with 4+ ERAs would have, or anyone in baseball, really, but in general, humility isn’t correlated too well with succeeding at the upper levels of baseball. Hughes’ adaptability seemed like a good proof of concept for how to bring sabermetrics into player development, and not just GM development – if you’ve got a guy who’ll follow the data, and someone capable of making changes to his repertoire based on data (and do so quickly), that sounds pretty cool. Now, however, Hughes faces a very different challenge.
Is Phil Hughes physically capable of NOT changing? Hughes tinkered so much because he hadn’t found an approach that’s led to consistent success as a starting pitcher. Righties annihilated his curve ball in 2012, so he ditched it and went to the slider. So, in 2013, lefties torched him, hitting .294/.354/.509 off him. 2014 brought the focus on the strike zone and he swapped the slider out again, this time going with a cutter and a slightly harder curve. A 5.7 fWAR season resulted, and I’m sure Hughes – and the Twins – would love to see him maintain the same approach. So how’s that going? Not so well. So far in 2015, he’s still throwing strikes, but the curve is all but gone, as Hughes almost out-Colons Colon, throwing a mix of 60% four-seamers, 16% sinkers and 18% cutters – all have average velocities between 90 and 92.2mph. Moreover, he’s changed his arm angle *again*, releasing the ball closer to the 3rd base side than he did last season (but similar to his 2012 arm angle). I have no idea how much of this is intentional, but it’s the most Phil Hughes thing ever.
Thus far, this new and…uh…different Phil Hughes hasn’t been able to recapture last year’s form. In 18 2/3 innings on the young season, he’s given up 11 runs on *4* HRs. The walks are still low, but he’s a quarter of the way to his 2014 HR total already. Like last season, it’s actually *righties* who are doing the most damage, and like last year, his BABIP’s still on the high end of normal. FIP loved his K:BB ratio and low HRs last year, but his actual runs allowed came in quite a bit above his fielding-independent stats.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ackley, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: El Cartelua
Tacoma’s Jordan Pries looks to avoid the big inning today and put together his first really good outing of the year. He’ll face off against Albuquerue starter Leuris Gomez, a swingman who came up as a position player, then toiled away as a starter who got big K numbers, but couldn’t keep teams off the board, to an intermittently successful reliever to…this. Mike Montgomery (and the R’s bullpen) combined on a 3 hit shutout of the Isotopes yesterday, winning 3-0. Montgomery gave up 1 hit in 6 IP, with 5 Ks, and Chris Taylor hit his second HR. As you may have heard, the M’s signed ex-White Sox RF Carlos Quentin to a minor league deal, and he was in the line-up for Tacoma, going 0-3 in his first game. He’s going to DH mostly, but may play 1B a few times a week. Quentin was traded to Atlanta recently purely to even out salaries in the BJ Upton deal, but was released immediately. ZiPS has him projected for a .340 MLB wOBA in limited duty.
Jackson faces off against the Tennessee Smokies today with Dylan Unsworth taking the hill against former 2nd round pick Rob Zastryzny. Tyler Pike walked 6 in 3 2/3 yesterday, half the Generals total of 12 free passes. As you might imagine, it didn’t go well, with the Smokies winning 9-2. Ex-M’s relief prospect Matt Brazis made his debut for Tennessee yesterday – he’s the guy the M’s sent to Chicago in exchange for Justin Ruggiano. Speaking of M’s/Cubs stuff, the Rainiers signed pitcher Tony Zych, who played parts of three seasons with the Smokies, and he’s made two appearances out of the pen for Jackson, the last one coming against Tennessee.
Edwin Diaz starts tonight as Bakersfield takes on San Jose. Bakersfield nipped the Giants 3-2 yesterday, with Tyler Marlette’s HR tying the game in the 6th, and a walk, 2 wild pitches and a single producing a walk-off win for the Blaze. Trey Cochran-Gill pitched a grounder-filled inning in relief for the win. The righty has yielded 2 hits and 1 run in 11 2/3 IP thus far with 12 Ks. As a major-college guy, he’s probably in line for a call-up in a while.
Clinton beat Kane County 7-1 yesterday, with Lukas Schiraldi and Osmer Morales pitching well, and Alex Jackson tallying two hits. German native Markus Solbach took the loss. Today, Jeferson Medina faces off with Daniel Gossett – it’s a rematch of the game 5 days ago that Clinton won easily.