Game 78, Mariners at Padres
Taijuan Walker vs. James Shields, 12:40pm
Early game today, which means many of us won’t actually get to see what’s looking like a very interesting pitching match-up. The resurgent Taijuan Walker’s rattled off six consecutive quality starts, and while yes, quality start streaks make me think of Blake Beavan’s first year, Walker’s looked amazing. His K:BB ratio in that stretch? It’s 44:3. His splitter’s evolved into a real weapon against lefties, and he’s now running reverse splits. That’s probably a better problem to have, but given that he’s all but abandoned both his curve and slider/cutter, it’d be nice if he had a breaking ball he felt comfortable throwing to righties. Mike Montgomery’s got the same basic “problem” and you can see how little it’s troubled him. But Montgomery’s cutter is now something he’s comfortable throwing to lefties, and he showed it again last night (despite facing only 1 lefty starter and 1 lefty pinch-hitter). A true slider would make Walker even more of a threat, and while you don’t necessarily want to disrupt his routine, it should definitely be on Walker’s off-season to-do list.
When we last saw James Shields, he was having a fascinating season. In his first year in the NL, he was striking out more batters than ever. Not by a little, not a “I get to face pitchers now” bump, but a total shift in his peripherals. Through the first two months, he was striking out over 30% of batters that faced him, while keeping his walks low. He’d been a change-up heavy hurler with average K rates and plus-plus durability for years, and now he was in Petco, it looked like he decided to see how power pitchers lived. The problem was home runs. It might SEEM like a good idea to pitch higher and dare guys to hit it out of Petco or San Francisco or Dodgers stadium, but batters excitedly accepted that challenge. Shields led the majors in HRs given up for a long while, but despite some FIP issues, he wasn’t pitching poorly. All the Ks helped, certainly, and his xFIP was under 3 through May. But after an effective April, May was something of a homer-drunk mess. Despite the Ks, despite the fact that his defense had issues that pushed Shields’ BABIP up, after giving up 11 HRs in a month, Shields decided to make a change.
In his first 10 starts, Shields had just one homer-free game. In his last 6 starts, he’s given up just a single dinger. Shields adjusted, or rather, made a series of adjustments. First, he’s throwing the ball down in the zone much, much more than he did before. Second, he’s throwing his change-up a bit less, and replacing it with more curves and cutters. The curve has seen the biggest increase in frequency, and that may be because it’s his best ground-ball pitch. As a result, his ground ball rate has shot up in June.
So, veteran pitcher has a problem, and veteran pitcher uses his knowledge and guile to adjust back and correct it, huh? That’s why these guys get the big bucks. Well, not necessarily. Shields is now homer-free, but that hasn’t made him good. He probably needed to make some adjustments, but it’s not clear that this new approach is natural for him, and it has other side effects. The first is an increase in his walk rate. This shouldn’t be a big shock now that the zones he’s targeting most are below the bottom of the strike zone. You can make a case that this is an acceptable trade – a few more walks for less HRs is defensible. But his K rate has fallen back to his career line, too. He tried the three-true-outcome game, didn’t like it, and is now trying to get grounders. But his fastball and change are still fly-ball pitches, and while putting them lower helps avoid HRs, he can’t avoid balls in play. And that means that the Padres, and the Padres outfield, is going to need to make a lot more plays than they have. While Shields change is effective, lefties still have an advantage against Shields, particularly if they can elevate the ball.
2: Cano, 2B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
Tacoma beat Las Vegas 8-4 behind Hisashi Iwakuma’s solid 5 2/3 IP of work. The rehabbing righty went 82 pitches, striking out 6 and giving up 1 run on 5 hits and a walk. Unfortunately, he left the game with a blister on the middle finger of his right hand. Iwakuma told the News Tribune this was fairly common and nothing to be too concerned about, but from time to time it’s limited him. He didn’t throw his splitter much in the spring due to a blister, and he pitched through blister issues in 2013 quite well. Still, not exactly what we wanted to see from the game. No word on if the M’s will bring him north or have him make another start in the PCL. He’s thrown 68 and 82 pitches in his two rehab starts in Tacoma, and it might be a good idea to see if he can get to 90+ without incident. Meanwhile, the R’s battered Dillon Gee for 13 hits and 8 runs in just 4 1/3 IP. Jordan Pries faces off against the 51s tonight.
Jackson was off yesterday. Edwin Diaz starts the first game of a series against Mobile today against right-hander Zack Godley, who’ll be making his AA debut. Godley is a 10th rounder out of Tennessee. Originally drafted by the Cubs, he moved to the D-Backs org in the deal that sent Miguel Montero to Chicago. He’s had great stats in the low minors, and was brilliant for Visalia in the Cal League this year. He faced Bakersfield twice back in May and pitched pretty well, striking out 11 in a tough loss (the Rawhide struck out 17 and walked only 1, but lost).
Bakersfield lost a tough one in extras to Modesto by a score of 5-4. Up 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th, Emilio Pagan gave up a triple that turned into the tying run after a throwing error from Austin Wilson. In the 10th, the Blaze couldn’t get an out, and yielded a walk-off single. Tyler O’Neill hit his 16th HR in the 8th to give the Blaze a short-lived lead. Eddie Campbell starts today for Bakersfield against Modesto’s Harrison Musgrave.
Peoria easily handled Clinton 7-2, as L-Kings starter Zack Littell had his shortest start of the year. Clinton made 3 errors leading to 3 unearned runs, and the L-Kings couldn’t figure out Peoria starter Austin Gomber, who struck out 8 without walking anyone. Tyler Herb starts for Clinton today opposite Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals 2014 first-rounder out of baseball powerhouse Harvard-Westlake, the school that produced first-round pitchers Max Fried and Lucas Giolito in 2012 and overslot 2nd rounder Austin Wilson (who went to Stanford before the M’s got him) as well.
The Everett AquaSox have been a very tough team this year, but they trailed 3-1 heading into the 8th inning last night. They exploded for 4 runs in the 8th, capped by Alex Jackson’s 1st NWL home run, and made the lead hold up in the 9th. Corey Simpson earns a mention by going 3-4 with 2 2Bs. After a very slow first few games, he’s coming around. Everett heads east to take on Tri-Cities today with Lane Ratliff sharing the mound with the DustDevils’ Travis Radke.