Game 122, White Sox at Mariners
King Felix vs. Chris Sale, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day. If you’re having trouble summoning the normal excitement that Felix Day is supposed to bring, and this delectable pitching match-up *should* bring, you’re not alone. It’s not enough that the M’s season has sunk under the weight of World Series expectations or that for all of the changes they’ve made, the M’s runs per game is *still* just 3.79. Now, we’re in the unfamiliar place of looking at our loyal King in a new light: Was that fastball slower than normal? Is that how he normally falls off the mound? After his last start, and a second half that’s seen him yield 26 runs in just 35 2/3 IP, now we’re all on Felix injury alert.
Lefties in particular have knocked Felix around a bit, and they’re doing it against Felix’s best pitch: the change-up. Perhaps as a result, he’s now throwing them more curves than ever before, and while the results are slightly better, they’re still not, well, Felix-esque. The Felix of recent years has been extremely tough on lefties; he’s got a solid K:BB ratio against southpaws, but he’s also limited HRs to them, with HR/9 marks of 0.60, 0.66 and then 0.27 from 2012-2014. This year, it’s up at 1.02, and it’s paired with a drop in K rate. Eno Sarris’ article at Fangraphs asked the question many fans already think they know the answer to: “Is Felix Hernandez hurting?”
Using some injury indicators from Jeff Zimmermann at Baseball Heat Maps, Sarris notes that Felix’s velocity has been “down all year” and doesn’t seem to be rising the way we’d expect. Next, he’s throwing fewer and fewer pitches for strikes, with his zone% dropping consistently over a 2 year period. Worse, his release point seems to be less consistent this year, and more so after an ankle injury on June 1st. To create the graphs in that piece, Sarris looked at Felix’s games since the start of 2014. And yes, his 2015 velocity is down slightly from 2014. It hasn’t risen as much throughout the year as it did last year, though to be very clear: Felix was throwing harder post-AS break than he was before it. As for zone%, this is probably a tool to use if a pitcher’s repertoire is remarkably consistent, but that’s not the case with Felix. He’s constantly shifting between four-seam fastballs and sinkers, between curves and sliders as his breaking ball, and shifting how and when he throws his change from game to game. All of this means it’s really hard to know what to make of game-to-game variance in just about anything with Felix.
Take late game consistency. Felix has been worse than 2014 this year in this metric, but BOTH years are light-years better than 2013. Felix’s velocity isn’t quite as high as 2014, but again, it’s far above his 2013 levels, and it’s quite close to where it was in late 2012, when he had – to put it mildly – a pretty good run. His strike zone percentage is the one metric that shows a clear, nearly unbroken decline. Here again, though, you have to ask whether or not this is the result of strategy or fatigue? Felix’s zone% numbers on Fangraphs have dropped consistently since 2010, though that measure sees Felix throwing MORE strikes in 2015, not less. The reason this isn’t surprising gets back to something we’ve talked about a lot regarding Hisashi Iwakuma: the change-up (or, for Iwakuma, the splitter) is a great pitch precisely because batters will swing at it even if it’s not in the zone. If batters will swing at balls, then by far your best course of action is to *throw balls*. Iwakuma’s no-hitter coincided with his lowest Zone% for any game in his career. Last night, Chris Archer threw a one-hit shut-out in only 95 pitches with an even *lower* Zone% than Iwakuma’s career-low mark. Fastball-dominant pitchers from Bartolo Colon to Max Scherzer to Jordan Zimmermann – those guys have extremely high Zone%, and if you saw them drop precipitously, that’d be concerning. Guys who throw sinkers at the very bottom of the zone (or below) or use change-ups a lot have much lower Zone%, and this can be just as effective – think of Dallas Keuchel, Tyson Ross, Zack Greinke or Iwakuma.
None of this should be seen as a comment on the utility of the tools, or of Sarris’ use of them. I think the tools Zimmermann’s made are fascinating, and I use them occasionally. But Felix is such a difficult pitcher to characterize. He doesn’t *fit* patterns, and you get the sense that any time he feels himself becoming predictable, he makes a bunch of changes. It’s what makes him great, but it also makes it next to impossible to look for hidden information based on variance from a baseline. So that’s it then, Felix is definitively unscathed? Er, no, we haven’t proven anything. For myself, and this is speculation based on some public comments after his lower-body injuries this year, is that his quad and ankle bother him from time to time, but that his arm isn’t the problem. I think he’s trying to pitch through some pain, and it occasionally leads to some disastrous results. But at this point, I think Felix needs some extra rest in September, not a visit to a surgeon’s office.
Chris Sale’s also having an odd season. Like Felix, he jumped a level in recent years, honing his command until his walk rate dropped below 2 per 9, while his K rate crept upward. He’s now posting a FIP of just 2.40, below Felix’s career best. But like Felix in 2013, it hasn’t fully showed up in his actual runs allowed. In 2014 and 2015, Sale became something much more than a left-handed Justin Masterson – he used his slider to dominate righties, and thus become something like the template for Chris Archer this year. His K:BB ratio is now stratospheric, but he’s been unlucky on balls in play (particularly to left-handers, oddly enough) and home runs. The M’s could really use a home run tonight from Cruz, who’s hit Sale well.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Jackson, CF
8: Montero, 1B
9: Sucre, C
SP: KING FELIX
Chien Ming Wang took a shutout into the 7th in the inhospitable environment of Colorado Springs last night, before settling with a quality start of 7 IP with 3 runs allowed. He K’d 5 and walked none in Tacoma’s 10-5 win. Jabari Blash and Patrick Brady homered for the R’s, who send Tyler Olson to the mound today against Ariel Pena.
Biloxi beat Jackson 5-1 in Game 1 of a twin bill yesterday, before Jackson took the nightcap 4-0. Jimmy Gilheeney shares the mound with Tyler Wagner, the sinkerballer in the Brewers org we talked about earlier this year. Wagner shot through the Brewers system and even made a start with the Brewers this year. He has two career shutouts, one in 2013 and one this year, and both of them came against Mariner affiliates.
San Jose edged Bakersfield 3-2 despite Tyler O’Neill’s 28th HR of the year. Ryan Yarbrough continues to improve, tossing 6 IP with 9 Ks and just 1 walk yesterday, but he took the tough loss. Brett Ash starts for the Blaze tonight.
Clinton also lost 3-2 yesterday to Burlington. Lukas Schiraldi gets the ball tonight as the L-Kings return home to host Cedar Rapids.
Tri-Cities beat Everett 4-3. Andrew Moore starts for the AquaSox tonight.
Great article at Fangraphs by ex-Mariner employee and evident Erasmo Fan Tony Blengino, who looks at what’s made the difference for the diminutive Nicaraguan this year. Come for the analysis of Erasmo’s contact management and confidence, stay for the potshots at his former bosses!