Game 22, Mariners at Astros
James Paxton vs. Scott Feldman, 5:10pm
That certainly feels better, and it’s hard not to come away from the Texas series with the impression that the pitching staff is rounding into form a bit. The related, but much less encouraging, observation is hooooly crap, the Rangers are awful. The M’s swept the Rangers in Arlington, behind an out-of-sorts Tai Walker (who at least looked much better than he had), JA Happ (ok, Happ looked pretty good), and a King Felix pretty obviously cruising along at about 70% of maximum efficiency.
Today, the M’s head to Houston to face the division-leading Astros. As I mentioned yesterday, the division is no longer a two- or three-team race. The Astros weren’t supposed to be, you know, GOOD, but they’ve got 14 wins thus far that can’t be retracted. That’s pushed them from the fringes of the race right into the thick of it, as BP now has their odds at winning the division identical to the M’s. The projected final records are off by a fraction of a win. Fangraphs’ odds still show the M’s as the clear favorite, but the picture’s similar – the Astros have essentially eliminated the gap between themselves and the Angels, and have already left the Athletics in the dust. Is this luck? A hot streak? Or signs of a rebuild coming together?
Even in the preseason, the Astros looked incredibly balanced. They lacked big-time stars, but they seemed to have very few of the sinkhole positions that’ve killed recent M’s teams. As you might expect, their actual production’s been a lot more volatile/variable. Despite abysmal showings from their two-headed DH monster of Chris Carter and Evan Gattis,* the Astros still rank 5th in baseball in battting.
Perhaps more surprisingly, they’re third in baseball in ERA and sixth in FIP. Given the out-of-nowhere breakouts by Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh last year, the Astros were one of the tougher teams to project. The same was more or less true of the Indians, but given the Tribe’s huge advantages in strikeouts, velocity and stuff, they seemed like a safer bet to hold on to their gains. In actuality, it’s the Astros who have an advantage in FIP (albeit a tiny one), and a huge advantage in runs allowed. As you may have heard, the Indians have been undone by their defense, who’s team defensive efficiency is an obscene .642, which is far, far worse than any team in recent history. At the other end of that team DER table? Yep, the Astros. Maybe it’s better to talk about the Astros’ run prevention as opposed to just “their pitching staff” but the overall results have been quite good.
Scott Feldman, tonight’s starter, is a veteran righty who signed a three-year deal with the Astros when they were at a low ebb in their rebuild. He’s largely done what’s been asked – been a steady, unremarkable, healthy starter who overcomes a poor strikeout rate by pounding the zone and getting some ground balls. Feldman came up with the Rangers, and had some so-so years out of the bullpen in his early 20s. At 25, he got a chance to start, and it didn’t go well. His K rate plummeted, his walk rate increased, and he wasn’t getting ground balls like he used to. In Texas, that’s a bad combination. However he did it, he came back the next year and went 17-8, and despite a so-so K:BB ratio, he kept the ball in the ballpark and had a solid year in a tough environment. He did it with an interesting pitch mix – a sinker, a cutter and a curve. He’s got a change, but by and large, he’s a three pitch pitcher, and he’s had the same approach now for many years.** He uses it pretty much as you’d expect, with righties getting a lot of sinkers, curves and the odd cutter, and lefties seeing the cutter, curve and occasional change.
Feldman doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits, but the ones he has are kind of interesting – over 2000 batters faced from either side, lefties have hit *worse* off of him than righties. The gap – which is there in pure wOBA/batting lines as well as FIP – is largely the result of home runs. Lefties have hit 14 fewer HRs off of him than righties in a bit more than 100 *more* plate appearances. And getting more granular than that, the home run gap is itself centered on Feldman’s curve. In his career, he’s thrown just shy of 2,000 curve balls to lefties, and they’ve managed 5 HRs on the pitch. Righties have seen just a hair *over* 2,000 curve balls, and they’ve hit 22 HRs on it. If Cruz can recognize the pitch, he can do some damage on it.
1: Smith, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Ackley, LF
9: Zunino, C
Tacoma opens a series with Fresno, Houston’s new AAA affiliate, today with Jordan Pries facing off against Alex White, the first-rounder that went from Cleveland to Colorado (along with Drew Pomeranz) in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal years ago.
Jimmy Gilheeney gets a spot start for Jackson against Pensacola tonight. Gilheeney’s been excellent as the Generals long-man in the pen, and he’s got years of starting experience.
Bakersfield’s off today.
Clinton had another early one against Wisconsin today, and they came out on the losing side of a 3-1 score. Jefferson Medina struck out 9 in 5 IP, and Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak continued, but other than that, the L-Kings couldn’t figure out the TimberRattlers pitchers. Alex Jackson went 0-4, and is now 0 for his last 17.
* Carter also gets a lot of PAs at 1B, where he teams up with Marwin Gonzalez to form another chimera of ineptitude. I say this not to suggest that Carter’s worthless…I said that years ago, and he’s done OK for himself. Still, the Astros have actually HAD black holes at DH and 1B and they’re STILL a good hitting team. If Carter and Gattis climb out of this early hole, the team could be even better.
** This approach caught the eye of his teammate in Texas, Brandon McCarthy, who modeled his own sinker/cutter shift on Feldman at the end of McCarthy’s Rangers tenure.