Game 63, Mariners at Astros
Roenis Elias vs. Lance McCullers, 11:10am
Well that’s more like it, Mariners. The M’s playoff odds got slightly better, but they’re given less than 1/2 the chance of winning the division as either Houston or LA, and that’s a problem. BP’s odds, which seem to rely less on preseason projections somehow (they regress actual wins/losses less, I’d guess) have Texas with twice the odds of winning the division, whereas Fangraphs still sees them as a bad club that’s played out of its mind for a month.
Texas and Houston are two of the stories of baseball this year, as both clubs seemed to be in rebuilds, but are now fighting for playoff spots. Neither team had a lot of established MLB talent on their opening day roster, especially with Yu Darvish missing the year. There’s Adrian Beltre, sure, and then there’s…Dallas Keuchel? Scott Feldman? Elvis Andrus? They had mostly young rosters, and a wave of talent in the minors – if they struggled, they could presumably sell off whatever vets they had and bolster the ranks of cost-controlled prospects. As it’s happened, they haven’t struggled at all, and thus this wave of talent is entering the league playing meaningful games on good teams. Joey Gallo is filling in for Adrian Beltre, and hitting balls like this. Houston recently brought up a decent chunk of their AA-affiliate’s opening day line-up with SS Carlos Corea, today’s starter Lance McCullers, and Vince Velasquez. The Twins were expected to be going nowhere, but they’ve called up OF Byron Buxton as they fight to re-take the lead in the AL Central from KC. Today, the Indians got into the act, bringing up SS Francisco Lindor. As Jeff mentioned earlier, the AL has completely defied the projections – the Twins are above .500, the M’s aren’t – and thus the teams laden with prospects aren’t playing for next year.
Take McCullers, for example. A year ago, he was in high-A Lancaster’s rotation, where he struggled with control and the long-ball. He struck out more than a batter an inning, but walking 5.4/9IP and giving up 18 HRs in 97 innings pushed his ERA to the mid-5s. He had a live arm (see the K’s), but little idea where it was going. Houston moved him up to AA Corpus Christi, and something clicked. In 29 IP, McCullers struck out *43* while giving up just 15 hits, and posting an ERA safely under 1. When injuries hit Houston’s rotation, the Astros called him directly to the big leagues. Despite the huge K%, McCullers control still wasn’t perfect in AA. And as we’ve heard from high-K sluggers like Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo, the big-league strike zone is actually a bit smaller than the one called in the minors. What would the over/under on McCuller’s walk rate in the majors be, considering these facts? So far, McCuller’s walk rate is just 4.9%, half what it was in AA, and about 8 percentage points lower than his Cal League mark. McCullers is still striking everyone out, and he’s still hard to hit, but he’s finding the zone much more often.
Moreover, he’s continued to dominate opposite-handed hitters. The big league sample is tiny, of course, but lefties haven’t figured him out at all – they’re hitting .143. Kind of like with Mike Montgomery, though, we can see that this isn’t new – he was very tough on lefties through the minors, posting a better K rate against lefties than righties. But unlike Montgomery, McCullers has a low 3/4 arm slot – his release point is more than a foot lower than the big lefty’s. And while Montgomery used a great *pitch* to post reverse splits, I think something else is going on with McCullers. To be fair, McCuller’s change has looked quite good, but he just doesn’t throw it enough to explain why lefties have struggled. Instead, I think his delivery is especially deceptive to lefties. His arm drops down and back during his delivery, and as he turns and strides forward, his body hides the ball, especially to left-handers. He doesn’t hide the ball by throwing across his body (the way Danny Hultzen did, and which made him so effective against righties), but by that point, it’s probably tough for lefties to know where the ball is.
So the first-place Astros have two members of 2014 Lancaster’s rotation, both of whom scuffled in the Cal League, and both of whom then annihilated AA in short stints. If something’s going on with player development here and this isn’t either bad luck in 2014 or great luck in 2015, then this is a remarkable story.
1: Smith, RF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
Mark Trumbo was supposed to start in LF, but he’s been scratched due to back spasms. Rickie Weeks was DFA’d yesterday to make room for Danny Farquhar – we’ll see if anyone picks him up. I thought for sure someone would take a flyer on Justin Ruggiano, but they didn’t, so he’ll get outrighted to Tacoma.
Tacoma rallied late, but couldn’t come back from a 6-0 deficit in yesterday’s 6-3 loss to Albuquerque. Shawn O’Malley and John Hicks had two hits each, and Andrew Kittredge was fantastic in relief of Sam Gaviglio – Kittredge pitched 4 shutout innings, striking out 2 against no walks. Kittredge continues to rack up frequent flyer miles shuttling between AA Jackson and Tacoma. Forrest Snow starts for Tacoma today against the delightfully named Yohan Flande.
Jackson beat Mobile behind a solid start from swingman Moises Hernandez and another good day at the plate by LF/DH Dario Pizzano. Trey Cochran-Gill got a nearly 3-IP save in the 7-2 win. Today, Jake Zokan faces off against Brandon Sinnery.
Bakersfield held on to beat Modesto 5-4, thanks to another big day from Tyler O’Neill, who hit his 14th HR of the year. The Canadian corner OF will turn 20 later this month, and while his OBP is ugly, he’s starting to hold his own in the Cal League. Austin Wilson also homered, but that brought his SLG% – again, in the Cal League – to .299. It’s been a rough season. Eddie Campbell takes the hill today for Bakersfield, while the well-traveled TBD starts for Modesto.
Clinton was rained out yesterday in Fort Wayne, so they’ll play two today. Tyler Herb and Osmer Morales are the starters for Clinton.