Game 27, Mariners at Angels
James Paxton vs. Garrett Richards, 7:05pm
Back at the start of the year, I talked about how it’d be nice to see the M’s start strong and take advantage of the temporary weakness in Oakland (who started without Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick, and have Jarrod Parker and others waiting for the 2nd half) and Anaheim, who were missing tonight’s starter, Garrett Richards. Ultimately, Richards only missed a start or two, so that wasn’t a big deal, but it remains to be seen if the M’s slow start will be a problem.
Last year, the M’s made up for a bad start with some solid play in the middle of the year. They were never in any serious danger of winning the division, but they were in the wildcard because aside from a terrible stretch in April, they were near or above .500 the whole way. At no point in May of 2014 were the M’s 4 games under, the way they are now. Maybe that doesn’t matter, because the rest of the division is right there with them, all staring up at the Astros. On the other hand, if a good chunk of the division starts slow, it makes it that much less likely that any of the AL West teams can snag a wild card. We’ll see – the M’s were 12-15 after game 27 last year, and things worked out OK. Of course, that was in the middle of a stretch where they won 8 of 9…aaaany day now, M’s.
Garrett Richards was a frustrating enigma for most of his career. Blessed with a big (96mph) fastball with natural sink, Richards never managed good results – not in college, for the most part not in pro ball, and he struggled mightily in a series of big league call-ups. Last year, he put it all together, riding his odd, heavy fastball and a good hard slider to a sky-high GB% and the lowest SLG%-against in baseball. Better than Kershaw, Felix…anyone. He threw a fair number of sinkers last year, but that’s not the main driver of his sky-high GB%. Instead, it’s his four-seamer, a 96mph pitch that’s essentially a nuclear-grade version of Sam Deduno’s. It doesn’t have *quite* the same sink to it, but then, it’s going so fast, it has less time for gravity to act on it. This arrow-straight (it’s often referred to as a cutter) fastball was the key to Richards’ success last year; once he learned to control it, it gave hitters fits. He threw about 1,000 last year, giving up 2 HRs and just 13 total XBHs.
Over his career, Richards has shown fairly normal platoon splits, but he ran reverse splits last year, and that’s continued into 2015. It’s easy to write this off as noise, and there’s certainly no way to definitively prove otherwise. Still, it’s pretty stunning to see how his fastball results have changed over the course of his career. From the start of 2012 to the end of 2013, Richards allowed 9 HRs to lefties on FBs (4- and 2-seamers combined), and lefties slugged in the .450 range overall. From the start of 2014 on, lefties are slugging a hair over .300. This has coincided with a slight shift away from the 2-seam and towards the 4-seam, and that makes some sense given pitch-type platoon splits (though the Angels traditionally use 2-seamers on opposite handed hitters for whatever reason), but it doesn’t explain it all. Lefties used to hit his 4-seamer hard, and now they can’t touch it. Maybe that’s noise, but it’s interesting noise if nothing else.
Richards started throwing harder last year, averaging nearly 97 on his 4-seam. That’s what helped him avoid pulled fly balls, as Jeff mentioned in the piece I linked above. That helps put the pieces together – a surprisingly low BABIP (despite all the grounders), the improved results against lefties – and give us something to test. After recuperating from a long layoff following his freak leg injury, Richards isn’t throwing as hard as he did last year. Just comparing April velo to April velo, 2015 looks a lot more like every-year-except-2014 than it does 2014. To date (all of three starts), that hasn’t hurt him. But it’s something to keep an eye on. Maybe his velo creeps up through the spring as he puts his layoff behind him. Maybe it settles in where it was (still plenty fast) and he’s successful anyway. Maybe 2014 was a peak, and he settles in as a very good, but not ace-level. Given the slippage from Matt Shoemaker and especially Jered Weaver, the Angels need Richards to be healthy and effective. If he can’t get close to last year’s 4.5 fWAR, the Angels face very long odds this year.
1: Smith, DH
2: Ruggiano, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, LF
9: Taylor, SS
So, you know how I talked about Matt Shoemaker’s splitter, and how it was unhittable in 2014 and then surprisingly hittable this year? That maybe a new pitcher with a different pitch can be successful for a while, and then needs to make adjustments? Yeeeeahh, that applies to James Paxton in a big way. In 2013 and 2014 combined, batters put up an ISO of under .100 on Paxton’s rising four-seam fastball. Last year, they slugged .304, and righties (and Paxton faced a heavily right-handed hitting slate of opponents) slugged .320. This year, batters are slugging nearly .500 on it. His velo’s down a touch, but then it’s April, and he didn’t have as many April starts last year due to injury. Again, maybe it’s luck, but Paxton has to start working on some countermeasures. He’s been behind in the count a lot this year (more than average, anyway), but that was true last year for him…and that was also true of Garrett Richards last year as well. I’d love to know if this is simply hitters understanding the movement of the pitch a bit better, picking up the ball earlier once they got familiar with Paxton’s mechanics, or something subconscious and ineffable. Whatever it is, I’d love to see Paxton dominate this club the way he did in his first start of 2014.
Check out Tony Blengino’s article on batted ball data at Fangraphs, which is a good opportunity to mention that Fangraphs now has some cool new batted ball stats on each page. Mike Zunino is not only among the most fly-ball prone hitters in baseball, he pulls quite a few. Zunino’s K rate has really inhibited him from developing as we’d hoped, but I can’t get my mind around why someone with Zunino’s raw power can hit so many fly balls to left and have so little to show for it.
The Rainiers beat the Angels AAA affiliate in Salt Lake last night 4-3 behind another good start from Mike Montgomery and two hits from SS Ketel Marte. CF James Jones rejoined the team after a scary concussion in the home opener and tripled in 4 at-bats. Larry Stone had a great piece on 1B Jesus Montero the other day, and the Venezuelan is still hitting pretty well, but went 0-4 with 4 Ks last night. Jordan Pries faces the Bees tonight in Salt Lake.
Jackson’s off tonight; they’ll face Chattanooga next.
Modesto topped Bakersfield 4-1 last night, with Carlos Misell taking his first loss, and the straight-outta-Austen starter Harrison Musgrave picking up the win for the Nuts. Reliever Paul Fry went 3 scoreless with 6 Ks for the Blaze; Fry’s been up and down so far, with some dominant appearances sandwiched around a 1/3 IP, 5 R disaster. He’s a righty from Michigan with a fastball around 90 that comes from a slightly low arm-angle; he got some appearances with Seattle during spring training. It’s Edwin Diaz night for Bakersfield tonight, as the Puerto Rican faces Grahamm Wiest, which sounds like an obscure German literary term.
Clinton shut out Peoria 2-0 behind Lukas Schiraldi. Alex Jackson was 0-3 with a run scored, and Gianfranco Wawoe extended his hitting streak to 17.