The Second Half Begins – Game 90, Mariners at Yankees
Mike Montgomery vs. Masahiro Tanaka, 4:05pm
The M’s finished the first half 7 games under .500, seemingly stuck in neutral as their competition fights a mile or so ahead. It’s a difficult lead to make up, but given the parity in the 2-wildcard AL of 2015, perhaps not difficult enough. As we’ve talked about, the M’s may fancy their chances to add another bat and make a run, which would be somewhat quixotic move given the number of teams above them, and would be hard to swing in any event given the struggles of the M’s top prospects. They could sell some of their pitching depth, but 3 months of JA Happ isn’t going to bring back a whole lot, and trading a Mike Montgomery or Roenis Elias is simply not what the M’s should be considering. All of that said, Jack Zduriencik is clearly on the hot seat now, and that’s what’s concerning me. Not that’s he’s on the hot seat, but that decision-making acumen isn’t generally improved by administering pain and desperation.
The trade deadline’s less than two weeks away. Prices are higher at the deadline than in the offseason because teams are supposed to know more about where they stand and why. While the M’s are probably painfully aware of what’s gone wrong, it must be difficult to really assess where they stand at the moment. The M’s fangraphs playoff odds are at 17%, which, while not great, don’t PRECLUDE “going for it,” whatever that means. At BaseballProspectus, they’re under 5%, though. You can pick and choose why BP just doesn’t GET the M’s, or why Fangraphs’ view of the offense is more accurate, but some very good statistical minds have produced a frustratingly wide range of outcomes for you to consider. What Zduriencik must be wondering about is why his team’s offense has so consistently underperformed their projections. Whatever they’ve been, and the M’s have had some mighty pessimistic forecasts in 2011-12, the M’s have generally found a way to come in low. The 2014 club succeeded because their pitching (and really, their bullpen) was incredible. They haven’t had a season where they surprise people by clubbing the ball. This is a problem they haven’t solved in the 6+ years of Jack’s tenure in charge. There are multiple suspects, up to and including Zduriencik’s own eye for pro talent, but there’s no way to conclusively assign blame. That kind of cloud has *got* to make it difficult to make trade decisions right now.
I have no idea what happened over the all-star break when one group of (national) reporters stated that the M’s were close to a deal for a catcher, and another group of (local) reporters said they weren’t. I just know that as of today, the M’s didn’t add one. And that means another half-season of Mike Zunino, and scrounging every data source for some reason to be hopeful. Zunino’s wRC+ is currently 45, a level no qualified batter has approached since Cesar Izturis’ 46 in 2010. He adds value in other ways, and sure, maybe even these struggles count as development of some sort or another, but the trend here is alarming. That no one knows how to stop it is *more* alarming. The M’s, as an org, are full of former catchers, but the M’s have continually struggled with the catcher position. And now, Zduriencik and that coterie of ex-catchers need Mike Zunino’s bat – not his glove, but his bat – to save their jobs. Working in baseball is surely stressful, but some spots are more stressful than others.
Today, the M’s kick off their second half with an intriguing match-up between Masahiro Tanaka and Mike Montgomery. Both have so-so fastballs, and both rely heavily on a plus to plus-plus offspeed pitch. The splitter, the pitch Tanaka throws more than any other, is really a form of change-up. It’s thrown with the same arm speed as a fastball, but comes in slower and sinks more. Montgomery’s change has less vertical “drop” of a typical splitter (and Tanaka’s splitter in particular), but has remarkable armside run. In general, the more 12-6 movement of a *good* splitter is very advantageous, because it can be used against all batters, gets a ton of ground balls, and is difficult for batters to hold up on – think of Iwakuma’s swing-rates on his split, even when he throws it below the zone. A more traditional circle-change can be great against opposite-handed hitters, but depending on who’s throwing it, it might not be so great against same-handed bats, and it might generate fly balls. That’s pretty much what we see with Montgomery – his change isn’t a big ground-ball pitch, and batters are less likely to swing at it than Tanaka’s split.
But there’s something to be said for living at the tail end of the distribution. Montgomery’s motion is more or less over the top – he releases the ball near 7′ from the ground, or about 0.1′ lower than James Paxton does. And yet Montgomery’s change-up gets over 11″ of armside run – far, far more than Paxton’s or most anyone’s. To be fair, there are a few pitchers in baseball that get a bit more run. In first place is the wonderfully bizarre Chris Sale, who averages 13″. But think about Sale’s arm angle and how different it is to Paxton/Montgomery’s. It’s just easier for a side-armer like Sale to apply enough sidespin to make the ball move that much. It’s really tough if you’re coming over the top, but Montgomery manages, which means the difference between what a hitter expects and what he gets has got to be freakishly large.
By the numbers, another Mariner has a very similar change-up, the guy Montgomery’s currently beaten out as the 5th starter: Roenis Elias. Elias’ is nowhere near as upright as Montgomery, but gets 10.5″ of run with an average release point over 6′, and that’s interesting. But if you know about Elias, you know why that’s a bit misleading. Elias drops way down to lefties, and I think those drop-down changes might generate more run. David Price’s cambio is similar, as it gets run similar to Elias’ but from a slightly higher release point. It’s also easier to understand Price applying an ungodly amount of spin to the ball, because *all* of Price’s pitches move like crazy. Another ex-Ray has a still-more comparable change: Matt Moore. The oft-injured lefty throws harder than Montgomery, but generates an insane amount of run on his fastballs and change despite a release point higher than Price’s (but still lower than Montgomery’s). What Moore and Montgomery have shown – albeit in limited samples – is that their swerving change-ups tend to get fouled off a lot. They get plenty of whiffs, but instead of ground balls, they get a lot of strikes without the ball being put in play. Moore’s control wasn’t great to begin with, so he wasn’t able to take that advantage and turn it into great walk rates. Montgomery’s control has been solid, so this is something to track – if Montgomery’s able to get and stay ahead of hitters, his BABIP won’t regress as far as it otherwise would.
1: Miller, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Smith, RF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Ackley, LF
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Zunino, C
That’s a strongly left-handed line-up against a pitcher in Tanaka who’s run reverse splits thanks to his splitter. It’s not BABIP luck or HR/FB – lefties have a ground ball rate of over 54% against Tanaka in his career, while righties are at just under 40%.
Speaking of Roenis Elias, he’ll start tonight’s game at Cheney Stadium against Chris Stratton and Sacramento. Fireworks night, perfect temps…head to Tacoma. The R’s lost the first game of this series last night by a score of 11-3.
Jackson’s Edwin Diaz starts tonight in Mobile. The Generals have gone 1-1 in the series with the Shuckers, winning the first behind homers from DJ Peterson and Tyler Marlette, but losing last night 8-3 thanks in part to an inside-the-park-HR from former General Jack Reinheimer. Reliever Paul Fry, who’d been so good with Bakersfield, is now in Jackson.
Bakersfield lost the first two games of its series with Modesto by a combined score of 20-6. Dan Altavilla tries to stop the bleeding tonight.
Clinton lost the first game of their series with Kane County, and then yesterday’s game was postponed. They’re playing two today, with Lukas Schiraldi and Osmer Morales starting for the L-Kings.
Everett’s dropped two straight to Vancouver, both by the same score: 5-4. Lane Ratliff looks to stop the losing streak tonight in Everett. There was a lot of chatter on Wednesday when Alex Jackson was pulled from the game midway through, and then was held out of yesterday’s game. There was no apparent injury, and well, it’s trade season, but in the end, Jackson’s not going anywhere. He picked up a hand injury on a swing in Wednesday’s game, and that kept him out yesterday. He’s not on the DL yet, and may play tonight.