Game 71, Royals at Mariners
Felix Hernandez vs. Joe Blanton, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day.
There are many, many reasons why the Royals success this year confuses me. Kendrys Morales is good again? Mike Moustakas *finally* figured something out and is no longer an anchor on their line-up? Lorenzo Cain is sneaky-elite now? But my favorite is this: the Royals rotation sucks, and the Royals have a great team runs-allowed and run differential. Ah, but Marc, isn’t this annoying? The Mariners have all manner of positive attributes, like a *good* rotation and a line-up that includes a core that’s been in KC’s class – the Royals top 5 hitters have produced about 45 batting runs, per Fangraphs. The M’s top 5 have been worth 34, which is better than the Rangers’ top 5, it’s essentially tied with Tampa’s, and it blows Minnesota’s top 5 out of the water. It hasn’t mattered, of course. The M’s are mired in 4th, and the Royals are 39-27 and 3.5 up on the Twins in the AL Central.
One of the great things about baseball is that there’s so much of it, you’re constantly seeing performances that strain credibility – baseball is always showing us 1:1,000,000 type occurrences because baseball is just firehosing occurrences at us. What that means is that there’s always something that seems to violate some pattern or rule – we’re always seeing some assumptions being stretched further than we could’ve imagined, and then we get to watch what happens. For example, Rene Rivera is having a remarkable year as the Rays everyday catcher. His slash line of .165/.203/.264 looks like something ripped from Bill Bergen’s bbref page. The question of how bad a hitter can be and keep his job has a lot of history, and it’s an important one. By wRC+, Rivera’s mark of 31 is about half that of recent “worst hitters in the league” guys like Yuni Betancourt or Rey Ordonez. Every once in a while you get a 2002-Neifi Perez, a 2013 Alcides Escobar or a 2010 Cesar Izturis – something that feels almost heroically incompetent. Rivera blows them all out of the water. If you want to argue that the M’s solid core is essentially counteracted by, say, Mike Zunino’s 50 wRC+, you have to deal with the fact that the AL EAST LEADERS will see your shitty catcher and then raise you. “Oh you think you’re not scoring as many runs as you could because your catcher has an OBP of .230? Check this out.”
That’s a long introduction to an analogy that may or may not work, but hey, tortured analogies are all we’ve got these days. The Royals rotation has a terrible ERA, a terrible FIP, and a walk rate that’s well above league average. They have the absolute WORST strikeout rate in baseball, and they have the WORST xFIP. They don’t really do anything well, though they DO lead all of baseball in the percentage of hard-hit balls they allow. Two members of their rotation enjoyed their best statistical seasons in 2007 (Chris Young and Joe Blanton), one in 2008 (Edinson Volquez), while two enjoyed their best years in 2010 (Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas). They have two hard-throwing young phenoms in Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, but those two have been the worst performers. They have a guy with only a half-season in the majors, but he’s a 31-year-old minor league journeyman (Yohan Pino). This group isn’t young, they’re not missing a ton of bats, and, for the most part, don’t have good velocity. OK, your job is: imagine how you can take a grab bag of late-oughts near-All-Stars, marinade them until they’re 32-37 years old, stick them in the American League and produce a team that’s giving up the 2nd fewest runs per game in the league.
You can probably list a number of factors that would help mitigate the whole “our starters aren’t good” problem. A good defense? Check, the Royals, and especially their outfielders, are among the best defensive units in baseball. Sequencing luck? Yeah, kind of. By base runs, the Royals “should” be 37-29 and not 39-27. A great bullpen? Sure, and the Royals ‘pen has been good, but with a below-average K rate and a FIP that’s good, not great, they can’t be the sole explanation. How about that Chris Young magic stuff? Well, the magical giant’s powers have been even stronger this year, and he’s running an ERA 1.31 below his FIP. But the whole “beating FIP” explanation can’t explain the Royals rotation as a whole, not when their ERA is *higher* than their (bad) FIP. You can mix and match these factors, but the takeaway for me is that there really isn’t a single, twitterable takeaway. Every team has some things it’s good at, some things that’s OK at, and areas of weakness. I feel like the defense is the most important factor, but if that were the case, we’d see a low BABIP and a good ERA despite a bad FIP. It’s possible that penumbras and emanations from the brilliance of Lorenzo Cain and crew filter down in ways we can’t quite account for, or that if you get the elements just right, there’s some positive interaction between defense, sequencing and managing that produce oddly large effects. It’s also possible that this is kind of lucky, and that maybe building a rotation with Guthrie, Volquez and Joe freaking Blanton in *2015* isn’t the new market efficiency, but a shoulder-shrugging contingency plan based on injury and ineffectiveness.
I don’t *care* if it’s lucky. I don’t *care* if this is good result but bad process. I think process is important, and building a sustainable, long-term winner is the goal of every team, and something baseball analytics clearly helps to achieve. But if I had to choose between good process and good results, my long suffering brain will drop good process like a hot rock. Royals fans are still in the afterglow of an improbable pennant run, and now instead of a hangover, their bizarre team has turned the precisely *right* kind of weird, and they’re in a great position again. It looks insane. It may BE insane, but I’ve lamented M’s teams created through even dumber strategies, and I’ve hung my head as M’s teams created with “good” processes have cratered just as bad. If nothing else, the M’s have taught us that there are a lot of different ways to lose in general, and that there are number of ways to post a terrible team offense more specifically. This is dispiriting. Living vicariously through the Royals is most assuredly *not* a solution to the M’s problems, but it IS a proof of concept that, at least for for other teams, you don’t have to have *everything go right* to be a good team. You don’t come here to pray for luck, and I’m not here to abandon sabermetrics for a ouija board with a framed picture of Chris Young next to it, but maaaaaan it looks more fun to be a Royals fan right now. As recently as two years ago, we’d console ourselves by saying that as bad as things were, as dark as the long night of 2010-2011 were, at least we weren’t the Royals/Pirates, mired in a perpetual rebuild that could last 10 years or more. All of this hurts, but reflecting on that little bit of point-in-time schadenfreude hurts the most.
Soooo, Joe Blanton. Really. When last we saw him, his career was imploding in a hail of home run balls. In 2013, he managed 132+ innings before the Angels mercifully pulled the plug. He gave up 29 home runs in that period, and a terrible BABIP pushed his ERA over 6. His record was 2-14, and while saber fans may have pointed to his OK xFIP, most folks who watched him pitch would’ve argued that it was irrelevant – Blanton was no longer good enough to have any component regressed to the MLB mean. He was an EX-big leaguer, not an unlucky big leaguer. After being cut in April of 2014 following a few bad starts in AAA, it really seemed like his career was over. The Royals gave him a minor league contract, and the 34 year old produced about the line you might expect in AAA – an ERA near 4, a so-so K:BB ratio and, yes, too many home runs allowed. Injuries got him a call-up, and he’s been a swing man for a while now, and, because Royals, he’s putting up perfectly good numbers thus far.
What’s interesting about this, beyond the shock of seeing Cupcakes Blanton playing in 2015, is that he’s actually pitching a bit differently. For years, Blanton has pitched off of a good change-up. He’s got a four- and two-seam fastball, a rotating cast of breaking balls, from curve to slider to cutter, but his best pitch was a change. It’s what enabled him to post even splits over his long career and long thousands of innings despite a fastball that averaged about 90mph. A late-career velo spike disappeared in 2013, but it’s back now. I know he’s pitched mostly in relief, but Blanton *averaged* nearly 92mph in his last start. More than that, he’s throwing the ball differently. Here’s a link to his horizontal release point, which was fairly consistent between 0-1′ from the center of the rubber from 2007-2013. Now, it’s 2′ plus towards 3B. It doesn’t look like a shift in position – the ball is spinning differently. In years past, Blanton’s fastball(s) had little horizontal movement, but about 10″ of vertical rise. At this point, he’s getting a bit more horizontal movement and less rise – this would be consistent with a change in his release/mechanics. Beyond how the ball moves, he’s putting it in a different place. Here’s where he put his fastball in 2013 – essentially, he worked left-to-right, keeping the ball in on lefties and away from righties, but essentially the same height as the strike zone. Look at it now – he’s targeting the knees and a bit lower. Coaches and conventional wisdom would tell a pitcher not to be scared out of the strike zone – don’t let bad results chase you out of your own approach. Well, Blanton’s home-run barrage seems to have chased him out of his old approach, and thus far, things are working out OK.
Fundamentally, this is still Joe Blanton. This is as big a pitching match-up as you’re liable to find. You need to win this one, M’s.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Smith, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: El Rey
Tacoma beat Jon Gray and Albuquerque 6-5 yesterday thanks to HRs from Pat Kivlehan, Franklin Gutierrez and Carlos Rivero. Today’s a travel day for Tacoma – they’re heading home for a homestand featuring a rehab appearance by Hisashi Iwakuma.
Jackson was blanked by Birmingham 7-0; the Generals managed just 4 hits. DJ Peterson hit a 2B in the game, but his OPS is still just .614. We’ve reached the AA All-Star break (Seattle prep star Blake Snell starts for the South team), and the Generals have had a rough go. They’re 10 games under .500 thanks to a pitching staff that’s put up the worst line in the Southern league by a mile. Every other club has a team ERA under 4, but the Generals’ ERA is 4.79. Their offense hasn’t been quite so bad, but they’ve been below average as well, headlined by the struggles of DJ Peterson. Soooo, yeah.
In what’s starting to feel like a recurring theme, Bakersfield let a lead slip away in their 3-2 loss to Stockton. Tyler Pike pitched pretty well, but the bats went quiet and the bullpen gave up a run in the 8th. Tyler O’Neill had been out of the line-up in recent games, but returned yesterday, going 0-3 with a walk. It’s the high-A All-Star Break too – the Cal League All-Stars take on the Carolina League’s finest on Tuesday. RP Paul Fry of Bakersfield made the team. Fry’s part of a pretty decent Blaze staff – despite their home park, they’ve got a solid ERA thanks a to good control – they’ve given up the 2nd fewest walks, which helps balance their inability to miss bats. The problem is that their offense has been as bad as Jackson’s pitching staff. By OPS, Bakersfield has been the worst in the Cal League at just .622. It’s not just luck, either, as they lead the league in strikeouts. The rest of the Cal League clubs average 985 total bases. The Blaze have 766. I could go on, but won’t.
Clinton lost to Cedar Rapids 5-2. At the break, Clinton’s 17 games under .500 thanks to a bad (but not as bad as Wisonsin’s! Ha, take THAT ex-affiliate) offense and the second worst pitching staff (thank you, Beloit).
Everett won a slugfest with Eugene, 9-8. Alex Jackson went 3-4, and the AquaSox got HRs from Luis Liberato and Jordan Cowan. OSU star Andrew Moore makes his first professional start tonight in Everett opposite Dominican lefty Andin Diaz.