Game 48, Indians at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm
Another start, another match-up of hyped young starters. Trevor Bauer tore through the minors after going 3rd overall to the D-Backs in 2011, one pick after Danny Hultzen. But upon arriving in the majors, serious problems developed. While his walk rate was always poor, it was simply unworkable in the majors, and when he combined it with too many HRs and what Arizona insisted was a bad attitude, the club quickly soured on their top prospect. Flipped to Cleveland in the Didi Gregorius/Shin-Soo Choo swap, Bauer continued to struggle in limited looks. After some work on his mechanics and a dominant stint in AAA, Bauer was up to stay early in 2014, and tossed 153 solid innings for the Tribe. “Solid” innings are worth something, and slotting in behind guys like Kluber and Carrasco is great. But Cleveland – and Bauer – still expect more, and their patience may be paying off. Bauer’s pretty much the only Indians hurler with an ERA *below* his FIP, because he’s done an excellent job at contact management. Fangraphs’ new batted ball statistics categorizes each batted ball as either “soft” “medium” or “hard” hit. Thus far in 2015, no pitcher’s gotten a higher percentage of “soft” contact than Bauer, and that’s reflected in his low .265 BABIP.
This was never a big part of Bauer’s game. In previous years, he wasn’t great at getting weak contact, and as we’ve talked about, it’s not like his teammates are benefiting from the same effect. In fact, Bauer’s 26% weak contact rate is TEN percentage points higher than Corey Kluber’s. Kluber is going to be just fine, and if he always has an ERA a bit higher than his FIP, that doesn’t prevent him from being a legitimate ace. But some pitchers seem to be able to combine weak contact and great fielding-independent numbers, as Tony Blengino’s series of articles at Fangraphs attests – and as anyone who watches Felix Hernandez a lot will understand. Bauer’s success in soft contact is most evident when he yields grounders. That’s not the focus of Bauer’s game, as this is the way he uses his rising four-seam fastball, but he’s not a Chris Young clone: his offspeed/breaking arsenal generate some grounders. Baseball Reference has splits for batted ball type, and thus far in 2015, Bauer’s OPS-against on grounders is .464. Compare that to Kluber, who’s at a .625 OPS this year, up from last year’s .512. Or, to be mean, compare it to Taijuan Walker, who has somehow allowed an OPS of *.815* on GROUND BALLS this year.
Walker’s suffered from myriad problems this season, from a poor walk rate, to HRs (even on good pitches, like the one to Encarnacion) to a very high BABIP. But while Paxton’s BABIP “luck” eventually evened out, Walker’s hasn’t, and the more we learn about pitcher BABIP, the less we can point to that .356 number and wisely intone, “Regression will take care of that.” Walker doesn’t need to get luckier, Walker needs to get *better.* But that’s why Bauer’s evolution is somewhat encouraging. He dealt with his control problem, and now it’s no longer something that’ll prevent him from contributing. Now, his contact management is much better, which could mean this is a skill that can be taught. Walker’s been incredibly coachable since he was drafted, and I’m sure he’d be receptive.
The poster boy for contact management in Blengino’s series is Dallas Keuchel, the Astros sinkerballer who has fashioned himself into an odd kind of ace despite an 89mph fastball. As you saw on that “Soft” contact leaderboard, Keuchel’s 3rd in baseball in soft contact in 2015, and he ranked 4th in 2014. Of special interest is his success at inducing soft grounders. His OPS-against in 2014 was .438 – and this from the guy who lead all starters in GB% by a mile. But it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2013, Keuchel was outright bad at contact management. His 5+ ERA that year was based a bit on slightly worse-than-average GB contact, and hide-your-eyes bad performance on fly balls (Corey Kluber is also worse than average on FB contact). If he learned something, he learned it really quickly.
So, the good news here is that contact can be learned, and that it shouldn’t take 5 years to improve. The bad news is that until he gets there, Walker isn’t a great young pitcher getting horrifically unlucky, he’s legitimately bad, and will continue to post poor results. The bit-of-both news is that this USED to be Walker’s strength. The sample is so tiny, but Walker never had issues with BABIP and hard contact before. It’s the kind of full-spectrum sucking that makes me think one of two things is at play. One, as we talked about last time, he’s tipping his pitches. A good way to get weak grounders is for hitters to be way out in front of a pitch. A good way to avoid being way out in front of a pitch is to know what’s coming. Jeff mentioned his distinct release point for his splitter, and pairing that with his predictable usage of it might help explain why lefties have lit him up this year. But it doesn’t explain righties. They’re actually hitting him even harder, and they see essentially zero splitters. Either he’s tipping *all* his pitches, or something changed in his mechanics when he went to his new stretch-only delivery that gives righties a long look at the ball. I’m sure the M’s are looking at every possibility, if only because they don’t have a lot of alternatives to Walker right now. But I’d let him use his old mechanics just to see if something clicks, and I’d be talking to both Zunino and Welington Castillo to see if they can detect anything different when he throws a fastball versus anything else.
In any event, Bauer famously throws all of the pitches. He’s got a rising FB at 94-95, but a variety of sliders from slurvy to cutter, and even his “reverse” slider that BrooksBaseball classes as a screwball. You might see a change-up AND a splitter, maybe the odd sinker, and a curve ball in the high 70s. With all of those pitches breaking everywhere, Bauer doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits. Technically, Walker doesn’t either, but in his case, it’s not a good thing.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Smith, DH
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Miller, SS
8: Bloomquist, 2B
9: Ackley, LF
Cano’s out again with the flu.
If you watched the game last night, you saw the M’s trainer Rob Nodine work on James Paxton’s finger before Paxton had to leave the game. Today, the M’s placed Paxton on the 15-day DL with a tendon strain in that finger. No word on the corresponding move, but it’ll probably be a reliever since the M’s have gone with 6 for a while. Farquhar could come back, as his 10-day requirement in Tacoma should be waived due to injury. But Dominic Leone may be a better bet. Lucas Luetge is already back with the club, as Joe Beimel’s taking some time off to go to his son’s HS graduation.
The Rainiers finished up their series in Omaha with yet another painful late-inning melt down. This time, it was Tony Zich who gave up a 2 run HR in the 9th to tie the game, then allowed a walk-off single in the 10th to end it. The Rainiers led 5-2 going into the 8th. Starter Justin Germano was solid yet again through 8 and Ketel Marte had three hits to run his line up to .342/.391/.432. Today, Sam Gaviglio leads the Rainiers into a series against Round Rock.
Jackson lost to Montgomery 3-2, but they still did more damage off of Blake Snell than any other team. After blanking the Generals through 6 IP, Jabari Blash connected for a HR – the first Snell’s given up all year. They scored another run that inning as well, DOUBLING Snell’s total runs allowed on the year, and running his AA ERA from under 0.3 to over 0.7. Ha! Over-rated, clap clap, clapclapclap! Not really, of course, as those would be the only runs on the day, and the Generals fell to 20-26. Today, Jake Zokan has his turn against the Biscuits.
Speaking of odd ERAs, Eddie Campbell had his best game of the year for Bakersfield, who topped Visalia 4-1. In the process, Campbell’s ERA dropped from 37+ down to a more manageable 14.09. Austin Wilson hit his 4th HR of the year as well. Today, it’ll be Ryan Yarbrough taking on Visalia’s Blayne Weller, who we discussed back in early May.
Clinton beat Peoria 11-8 in *15 innings* last night. The pitching star wasn’t Tyler Herb, who started and yielded 5 runs in 3 IP, but reliever Rohn Pierce who went 4 scoreless innings with 8 Ks. The L-Kings were up 8-2 early, lost the lead, then won it in the 15th on 5 straight singles. Tonight it’ll be TBD for Clinton up against the soap-operatically-named Keaton Steele of Cedar Rapids.