Game 70, Astros at Mariners
JA Happ vs. Vincent Velasquez, 1:10pm
Happy Fathers Day to all of the dads out there. A sweep of the Astros would be a really thoughtful gift to all of us, M’s.
Today’s game features another of the Astros’ recent call-ups, hard-throwing righty Vincent Velasquez. I mentioned some of the similarites that Velasquez shares with Lance McCullers a few days ago – both had great arms, but struggled at times in the minors. Teammates for Lancaster in the Cal League last year, both of them struggled with control and HRs, and then both of them made some adjustments and were untouchable in AA early in 2015. Both feature four-seam fastballs in the 95-97 range, and throw curveballs and a change-up. Both have somewhat low release points, with the ball coming out below 6′. However, despite the surface similarities, they’re distinct pitchers with very distinct strengths and weaknesses.
As we talked about, something in McCullers’ motion seems to make it next to impossible for left-handers to pick the ball up out of his hand. Velasquez hasn’t shown that kind of deception in his extremely brief MLB career, as lefties have swung and missed far less often, struck out less (duh), walked more often, etc. In the minors, Velasquez dominated lefties, but any M’s fan has seen that this doesn’t always translate to the majors. A half-decent change-up, especially paired with plus velocity on the fastball, can be a dominant weapon in the minors, only to get crushed in the majors – I call this “Getting Maurered.” That hasn’t happened to McCullers, though, because he hasn’t really needed his change-up – lefties aren’t seeing his fastball and curve. Velasquez is going to need that change, as the few lefties he’s seen to date seem to have been quite comfortable.
The other big difference is spin. Despite a lower arm angle, Velasquez gets an obscene amount of vertical rise on his fastball. While McCullers’ rise is essentially average, Velasquez’ 12″ of rise is nearly 2 standard deviations from the mean. That’s one reason for his intermittent home run issues – a pitch like that should get hit in the air a lot, and Lancaster (specifically) and the Cal League (in general) often punishes fly-ballers. While Velasquez’s fly ball rates weren’t off the charts in the minors (and again, minor league hitters are more likely to hit the ball on the ground), they’ve been quite high through his first two starts. They may settle down somewhat, but the movement on his fastball (and curve!) seem like they’ll push him towards the bottom of the GB% leaderboard.
It’s interesting and probably intentional that Velasquez follows Dallas Keuchel in the rotation. Keuchel is as extreme a ground-ball pitcher as there is. Thus far, Velasquez has been an extreme fly-ball guy. Does that help? Is this like Jamie Moyer getting followed by a reliever with a 96mph fastball? It’s too soon to tell now, but this seems like an interesting question to investigate – is there an advantage to following a GB pitcher with a FB pitcher and vice versa?
JA Happ has quietly put together a very solid year. As we expected, his HR problems have been lessened thanks to his new home park, and that’s reflected in his wide home/road splits. At home, Happ’s been brilliant. On the road, not so much, and while that’s less than ideal overall, today’s game – a crucial one – is at home. Speaking of vertical rise, Happ used to have Velasquez-like rise on his FB thanks in part to a very over-the-top delivery. But Happ dropped his angle noticeably in 2014, and he’s kept it there with the M’s. While he still gets a bit more rise than average, he’s dropped from 2 standard deviations above average to less than 1. It hasn’t hurt him, and his velocity has actually increased over that time, but I’d like to know more about why pitchers make changes like this, and how they evaluate the success or failure of a mechanical change.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Trumbo, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Jones, CF
9: Sucre, C
That’s an interesting line-up.
Interesting/depressing MiLB factoid: As you know, all four of the M’s full-season affiliates are under .500, with a combined record that sits 44 games below the .500 mark. Houston’s affiliates are all *above* .500 – at a combined *68* games over. The Rainiers have been the class of the M’s orgs at 34-36, while Bakersfield is just 26-43. For the Astros, Lancaster is “just” 37-32, but every other full-season club is at least 15 games over, headlined by Quad Cities at 44-23.
Tacoma lost 5-3 yesterday in Albuquerque, blowing a 3-0 lead thanks to another poor bullpen showing. Tyler Olson gave up 5 runs (including 2 HRs) in 3 IP to take the loss; Chris Taylor and Franklin Gutierrez each had two hits. Today, Stephen Landazuri takes on Rockies prospect Jon Gray. The M’s saw the hard-throwing Oklahoman on the 11th – that game was a pitchers duel that ended up going to extras. As we talked about at the time, Gray’s an elite talent who, for whatever reason, has struggled to miss bats in the PCL, and pitching-to-contact-at-altitude is rarely a winning strategy.
Jackson split a doubleheader with Birmingham, winning Game 1 8-7, and dropping the nightcap 3-1. Misael Siverio leads the Generals against the Barons again today.
Stockton beat Bakersfield 4-3 on a walk-off, 2-out double in the 9th yesterday. Blaze starter Dan Altavilla was solid, striking out 7 in 7IP, and the offense worked out of an early 3-0 hole. Carlton Tanabe’s 2nd HR was the big blow. Tyler Pike starts for Bakersfield today against Joel Seddon of Stockton.
Clinton beat Cedar Rapids 7-4, as the L-Kings built a 7-0 lead and held off a late challenge from the Kernels. Arby Fields and James Alfonso had three hits each. Jefferson Medina starts today’s game.
Everett beat Eugene 10-4 in Hisashi Iwakuma’s first live game action since going on the DL. Iwakuma gave up one run – a HR to Cubs’ 1st round Ian Happ – in 3 2/3 IP with 3 Ks and no walks. The AquaSox knocked another 15 hits, giving them 32 over their first 3 games. Luis Liberato had 3, including Everett’s first HR of the year. Alex Jackson singled, but continues to struggle – he’s at 1-12 with 5Ks in the (very) early-going. Lane Ratliff starts for Everett today, and Andrew Moore’s scheduled to take the hill in tomorrow’s game.