Game 38, Mariners at Orioles
Taijuan Walker vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 4:05pm
The M’s head east to take on the Orioles, owners of one of baseball’s best offenses in the early going. Despite losing Nelson Cruz, the Birds are 6th in wRC+ as a team, and 5th in SLG%. They’re not perfect, of course, not with a low OBP and park effects taking some of the shine off of that SLG number. But this is still a pretty good test, especially in Baltimore, for M’s pitchers. And this is the time Taijuan Walker needs to take two steps forward, without all of those annoying steps back.
Jeff mentioned this back in the spring, when Walker was utterly dominant, but Walker’s splitter’s somewhat interesting in that it seems fairly easy to identify. That is, Taijuan Walker releases his split/change thing both lower (vertically) and more towards third base (horizontally) than his fastball. That’s the kind of thing that seems like a “tell” and when you add the fact that he throws it most often against lefties, it’s the kind of thing that batters can learn to look for. To be fair, this isn’t new – this isn’t a 2015 phenomenon. He had a very similar gap in 2013 and 2014. That said, batters certainly *seem* to be reacting to it like they know what’s coming. His whiff rate with the pitch is down substantially, and then there’s his slash line on the pitch this year: batters are averaging .519, and slugging .741. Against lefties, it’s even worse, though it’s worth reiterating that we’re talking about less than 100 pitches thrown. But his struggles with the pitch, or whatever word conveys vastly more than a bad bounce here or there, matter. He’s had multiple issues with multiple pitches, but if he has nothing to throw at lefties, then his future prospects come down. Tonight’s a good test for Taijuan. At this point, he knows what’s working and what’s not, and he’s probably got a few concrete steps to improve those weaknesses. Bringing his release point closer to his FB is probably the biggest one.
He’ll face off against Miguel Gonzalez, a former Rule 5 pick by the Red Sox who toiled in the minors without a great deal of success (and got released by Boston in late 2011) before something clicked with the O’s in 2012. Since that time, he’s been a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for Baltimore, racking up nearly 4 fWAR over 3+ seasons. It’s a cool story, but it still may be selling him short. Fangraphs’ WAR is based on FIP, but if you look at their fielding-DEpendent wins above replacement, he’s already over 6, with a 3 WAR season in 2014. By Baseball-Reference’s RA9-based WAR, he’s over 8. If you believe in Gonzalez’s sterling strand rates and ERAs, you’re saying that he’s a Chris Young type – a guy whose ERA hasn’t just been below his FIP, but will continue to be below his FIP for the foreseeable future. So, how similar is he to Young? Fastball with well above average vertical rise? Check. Lots of fly balls, but also lots of infield pop-ups? Check. Consistently low HR/FB ratio? Nnnnoooo.
Thanks to his season last year, Chris Young is a great recent example of someone who “beats” his FIP. In years past, Matt Cain was always the guy people associated with this class of hurlers. But there are probably multiple ways to get there. You can consistently run low BABIPs like knuckleballers or Jamie Moyer, and reduce your FIP that way. You could strike errybody out, which reduces baserunners, and thus lessens the impact of the occasional HR or walk while also improving strand rate). Or, you could do that weird Chris Young magic trick of allowing plenty of HRs that fly precisely 270′ and not 350′. Gonzalez has given up plenty of fly balls, and he’s given up plenty of home runs. He’s never been a strikeout guy, and doesn’t get a ton of out-of-the-zone swings, so he’s not going the Clayton Kershaw route either. Instead, it may be the result of a very different approach with men on. With no one on, he’s given up over 1.5 HR/9, and with men on, it’s under 1. Neither is particularly impressive, but if his OVERALL rate was 1.5, we wouldn’t be talking about Gonzalez, because he wouldn’t be a major leaguer. His overall line with runners on isn’t THAT different, so we’re not talking about a radically different approach, but he will throw more splitters, esp. to lefties. His “clutch” stats are solid as well – in high leverage situations, he’s been much better than average, while he’s below average in low-leverage situations. Finally, he’s got a career BABIP of .262. Sum it up, and you’ve got a guy who’s better than average in just about every way that a sabermetric fan would dismiss as luck.
I’m not ready to do that, though, given the consistency with which Gonzalez has piled up these stats. I don’t think he’s a true talent 3.00 ERA guy, but I think he’s probably a bit better than the rich man’s Blake Beavan that FIP describes. I’m not quite sure what to make of a guy who’s been so effective against same-handed hitters despite failing to strike them out, or a guy who gives up lots of home runs and few runs (though this always makes me think of M’s broadcast descriptions of Ryan Franklin). I’m not Gonzalez’s biggest fan, or anything, and wonder what he’d do in the AL West where he might actually run a low HR/FB ratio, but I’m glad we’ve got these statistical anomalies to examine. And ultimately root against, as the case may be.
1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
So, the M’s swung a trade with the Cubs this morning for C Wellington Castillo, the Cubs starter in 2013-14 who gave way to Miguel Montero this year. Castillo’s got a career wRC+ of 97, and was worth 5.5 fWAR the last two seasons, but who rates abysmally in catcher framing metrics. The return is reliever Yoervis Medina, a hard-throwing righty with great GB% who’s been fairly effective despite ugly walk rates. Medina’s ERA has been lower than his FIP by almost as much as Miguel Gonzalez, albeit in a much smaller sample, and the M’s were unhappy enough to demote him a while back. The M’s are clearly quite deep at reliever, and they may get deeper down the line when David Rollins comes off his suspension.
In the near term, Castillo is replacing Jesus Sucre, who’s been optioned to AAA. If Castillo is going to unseat Zunino, that hasn’t happened yet, and the M’s see Zunino as the starter for now. In fact, nothing’s changing today, as Castillo isn’t in Baltimore yet. But Zunino has to be looking over his shoulder a bit more than when Sucre/John Hicks/John Baker were the competition. Zunino’s still a tantalizing talent who combines great pitch framing/defense with plus raw power, but he’s been ineffective at the plate and he hasn’t been getting better. If regular old aging and experience haven’t been enough, it’s time to start wondering why, and what IS going to help that process. I really hope the M’s have a plan here. In the meantime, they’ve got someone to beat up on lefties (Castillo has a career 129 wRC+ against ’em), or a starter that could hold down the fort while Zunino went back to learn the things he skipped in the minors. That said, the M’s have tried this particular approach many, many times – with Ackley, Montero and Justin Smoak in particular – and it’s not clear there’s a clear protocol to backfill development time for guys who moved up quickly/too quickly.
Franklin Gutierrez returns to the Tacoma line-up after missing some time with an injury, and yes, I have a keyboard macro for that phrase. The Rainiers played a day game against Las Vegas and lost 2-0, despite another good start from Forrest Snow (7IP, 2R, 0BB, 7Ks). They simply couldn’t figure out Duane “the Love” Below, who tossed a complete game 4-hitter. The R’s beat the 51s last night 5-4, getting 9Ks from starter Sam Gaviglio and HRs from Ketel Marte and Jesus Montero. Marte’s line is now up to .346/.390/.446. Not a bad line for the top prospect I think most M’s fans were the LEAST confident in of all the M’s top 10 prospects.
AA Jackson takes on the Tennessee Smokies tonight with Jake Zokan on the hill. The Generals blanked Tennessee 11-0 yesterday behind Scott DeCecco and a HR from Jordy Lara. Dario Pizzano went 2-4 with 2 2Bs, Jack Reinheimer had 3 hits, and DJ Peterson hit a 2B in 6 trips to the plate. Moises Hernandez closed it out with three perfect innings. Felix’s bro has actually pitched decently in his fifth campaign with Jackson. The Generals face Ivan Pineyro of Tennessee tonight, a righty tools prospect who’s been delayed by injuries and inconsistency, but who’s having a solid year in 2015. If you’ve got MiLB.tv, this is a game worth watching, as Tennessee features several top Cubs prospects, including C/DH Kyle Schwarber, 1B Dan Vogelback and CF Albert Almora.
High Desert topped Bakersfield 7-6 last night, dropping the Blaze to 15-22 on the year. Tylers O’Neill and Marlette went 0-8 combined, but Austin Wilson awoke from his slumber to knock a HR. Ryan Yarbrough was shaky again, giving up 5 runs in 4 IP, despite 7 Ks. Dan Altavilla starts today against Kyle Finnegan of Stockton. The Blaze knocked Finnegan around back on April 22nd. More of the same, let’s hope.
Clinton lost 14-10 to Quad Cities, as Tyler Herb and a host of reliever got lit up. SS Erick Mejia had three hits to lead the Lumberkings, and Joe DeCarlo homered. Gianfranco Wawoe got a base hit; the Curacao native has been in a tailspin since his long hitting streak was snapped, and has seen his average fall from .350 to .277. Patrick Peterson, the L-Kings best starter, goes tonight.