Game 24, Mariners at Astros
Taijuan Walker vs. Collin McHugh, 4:10pm
So, the Astros seem to be better than we thought. A few days back, I mentioned that they’d passed the A’s for 3rd highest division odds, and today Fangraphs tweeted a pretty cool graph showing that they’ve passed the Angels as well. Their projected win total now stands at 84, with the M’s at 85. It’s the tight AL West we all expected, just with a different set of contenders. Of course, the projections are still driven in large part by the underlying true-talent estimates of each team. You adjust those based on the first month, but the starting point still matters. That’s why the M’s are still on top in Fangraphs odds, and it’s why the M’s are rapidly falling off the pace according to BP. There, it’s the Angels who were supposed to be the leaders, and they’ve seen their edge slip. BP also saw a tight division, with the leader now projected at 85 wins and the Astros’ charge has upped their projected total to 84. It’s just that the M’s and Angels are flip-flopped. What about Clay Davenport, the projections that had the A’s winning the West? Well, now it’s a mess, with the Astros a tiny fraction of a win ahead of the A’s, and with the M’s and Angels within a game or two. At this point, it’s too soon to write anyone off, except Texas, who are in shambles. But it looks like it’s a four-team mess now, and if the Astros just go .500 the rest of the way, the M’s will need to win 77 of their remaining games to win, a winning percentage of .554 or so. That’s not impossible by any stretch, but the road’s getting harder.
And it’s not getting easier today, with the M’s facing Collin McHugh, who’s having another solid year *despite* giving up a BABIP over .340. Like Matt Shoemaker, McHugh came out of nowhere to post shockingly high K:BB ratios, and both had elite K-BB%, with McHugh finishing one spot ahead of Shoemaker, and just a fraction behind Hisashi Iwakuma. While K rates and walk rates tend to be fairly stable, it’s still tough to know what to make of someone whose own rates had been so volatile. Neither McHugh nor Shoemaker had shown signs that they were capable of this in the minors, and of course McHugh had been knocked around and waived by a few NL teams already. This year, Shoemaker’s K-BB% is still pretty solid, but it’s fallen back to 15% from the 18+% it was at last year. McHugh’s, however, continues to rise, and it’s above 19% now.
To be clear, 19% is really, really good, but it’s not Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez good. That’s OK, I think even McHugh would acknowledge he’s not in that class. Instead, it’s a testament to what he’s able to do without nuclear-grade stuff. Shoemaker and Iwakuma use a splitter to get weak contact and whiffs while avoiding the middle of the plate. McHugh, as we talked about last time, has become a crafty junkballer, throwing a blizzard of sliders and curves – keeping them in the zone when he wants, and expanding the zone with two strikes. McHugh now throws a fastball only 1/4 of his pitches, and essentially uses his slider as his primary pitch. No one in baseball pitches this way, unless you include knuckleballers.
But both of today’s pitchers bring up the question of how and where you set the boundaries between pitch types. What IS a slider, and how is it different from a cutter? If you include cutters, there are plenty of pitchers who use them as a primary pitch – the M’s just saw one the other day in Scott Feldman. If you see McHugh’s slider as a sort of cutter, then his pitch mix doesn’t look so remarkable. McHugh’s “slider” is thrown quite hard, with only about a 5mph gap between it and his four-seam fastball. It’s got a different shape than Feldman’s, so he may use it a bit differently, but you can argue they’re different versions of the same strategy. With Taijuan Walker, we heard a lot about how he was shifting to a true slider from his hard (91mph) cutter. Thus far, his slider/cutter thingy is *still* 91mph, and damn if I can see much of any change in its break (OK, OK – it has 1″ more horizontal movement). What you call it ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what you want to do with it. Walker still pitches off his 96mph fastball, and uses the cutter/slider thingy as a breaking ball to righties, just as you would a slider. McHugh’s slider-y/cutter thing is his primary pitch to lefties and righties alike, and mixed in four-seamers and curves to both (with a change-up for lefties). That’s what, say, Scott Feldman or the old version of Brandon McCarthy would do with their cutters. I don’t know what we’ve proven here except that language is malleable and can conceal/confuse as much as it can reveal. That’s pretty heady stuff for a Saturday morning.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
The M’s are six games back. The furthest back the Angels got last year was also 6 games, back when the Athletics looked like they were going to rip off 110 wins. The year before, the A’s got to 7 games back before going on a tear to reel in the Rangers. Back in 2012, the A’s started slowly, falling 13 games behind the high-flying Rangers before essentially not losing in the 2nd half to win. Those three years all had a dominant team or two, and the winning club won at least 94. It might be easier to come back if you don’t need to go 51-25 like the A’s in 2012 or beat another club winning 90+, but man, I’d like the M’s to avoid falling 7 back. I guess the positive to take from this brief review is that there was a team in each year that flew out of the gates and built a big lead only to lose it in the season’s second half.
The Rainiers won 2-0 last night against Fresno, with Justin Germano throwing 5 1/3 excellent innings in the spot start, and…look, you know what you’re for, I know what you’re here for, let’s cut to the chase. Jesus Montero stole home. Once again, the Rainiers pulled off a double steal, with Jesus Montero, the one you remember, not some other one, but Jesus ACTUALLY Montero stole home. Here you go. Tacoma faces the Grizzlies again today with Sam Gaviglio on the hill.
The story in Jackson was the return of lefty Danny Hultzen. Hultzen made his 2015 debut against Pensacola and Robert Stephenson, and pitched 3 1/3 innings, giving up an unearned run with 4 Ks and 3 hits. The Generals knocked out Stephenson in the first, scoring six runs. DJ Peterson doubled in the first, then knocked a solo HR in the 2nd. Cuban southpaw Misael Siverio starts for the Generals today opposite Daniel Wright, a 10th round pick who put up 141 Ks to 22 walks last year across two levels, but who’s struggled a bit in his first taste of the high minors.*
Ryan Yarbrough struggled for Bakersfield, giving up 7 runs on 7 hits in 3 2/3 IP as Visalia put out the Blaze 9-2. Tim Lopes went 2-4 with a 2B, and continues to rebound from a slow start. Dan Altavilla starts today against Visalia, with Blayne Weller taking the mound for the Rawhide. Weller’s an org guy – at 25, he’s making his second go-round in High-A, and that’s as high as he’s been. While his overall numbers aren’t great, he’s a remarkably streaky pitcher who misses tons of bats. He joined the D-Backs org in 2013 out of the independent Frontier League, and struck out 61 in 60 IP. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But last year, he K’d 161 in just 120 IP. He started in the midwest league, and threw a no-hitter in his final game, racking up 12 Ks. He was then promoted to the Cal League, where his K rate actually went up, punctuated with 16 strikeouts in an 8 inning start against Modesto. In his next start, he couldn’t make it out of the 3rd, giving up 7 runs, and walking 3 against 2Ks. If he could harness his stuff, he wouldn’t be in the Cal League at 25, but he’s not your typical org depth.
It’s tough to get noticed on a day when Danny Hultzen makes his return to the minors after 20 months, or when Jesus Montero steals home. To get the attention of M’s fans, the Lumberkings would need to do something special. Well, they managed it. Clinton threw a combined no hitter at the Cedar Rapids Kernels, with Danial Missaki, the Brazilian prospect-who-is-not-Luiz-Gohara starting and going 7 IP with 7 Ks. He was perfect through 6, but walked a man in the 7th, then pitched around it. Kody Kerski pitched a 1-2-3 8th, and then Troy Scott finished things off in the 9th. With two outs and a 2-2 count, Scott thought he’d rung up Tanner English, then *really* thought he had him at 3-2, but the umpire called ball 4. No matter – Scott K’d Nick Gordon and that was that, the first combined no-no for Clinton since 1996, and the first no-hitter since Victor Sanchez threw one in 2013 aaaand now I’m sad again. Missaki now has a 30:4 K:BB ratio on the year in 29 1/3 IP. Tyler Herb starts for Clinton today in Cedar Rapids against hard-throwing Twins prospect Michael Cederoth. Cederoth got lots of scouting attention at San Diego State thanks to a high-90s fastball and the makings of a change-up, but struggled with his control in his sophomore year (he went 3-9, too). A move to the bullpen helped, but that sent him down the draft board, and the Twins got him in the 3rd round, and promptly moved him back to the rotation.
* Like a number of guys with gaudy K:BB ratios, Wright had some hidden free passes – he also plunked 11 batters. Ryan Yarbrough’s hit three to go with his four walks, meaning he’s given up one more free pass this year than he did in his remarkable 2014 with Everett, when he had 53Ks, 4BBs and 2 HBPs. This year, it’s 17Ks, 4BBs and 3 HBPs.