Game 142, Rockies at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Chad Bettis, 7:10pm
Since 2011, the Rockies have put up a combined record of 334 and 453, a bit worse than the M’s 367-421 mark. Both teams have somewhat extreme home parks which may or may not play a role in oddly specific player development challenges. This year, the Rockies lead the NL in average, slugging percentage and OPS. Since their last playoff appearance in 2009, the roster’s completely turned over (especially now they finally moved Troy Tulowitzki) – only Carlos Gonzalez remains, and he was a mid-year acquisition. The point is, the Rockies had to essentially start from scratch and acquire a line-up. They picked up Nick Hundley to catch, they developed a 3B (Nolan Arenado) who now leads the league in HRs, their CF has been surprisingly effective for so long it really shouldn’t be surprising anymore. They needed to develop an offense to compete in a high-scoring environment, and by and large, they did so.
How does that square with the record I mentioned above? Their pitching hasn’t just been bad, it’s challenging the notion of where we set the imaginary line called replacement level. Let’s be clear: a great deal of this is park related. At altitude, the ball doesn’t break the way it does at sea level, and pitchers without breaking balls tend to sidle up to replacement level production standards. But all of the losing the Rockies have done has allowed them some pretty high draft picks, and they’ve selected a number of highly-regarded hurlers who’ve dominated at times in the minors. At some point, minor league hitters start figuring them out, and major league hitters feast on them. It’s the mirror image of the M’s struggles at developing hitters. LHP Christian Friedrich was a 1st rounder in 2008, and laid waste to the low minors before starting to struggle in AA. I saw him briefly in 2012 in AAA, and he looked like a clear big league starter. After initial success in Colorado, the league adjusted, and Friedrich has a career ERA near 6 and he’s become a middle reliever on a bad ball club. Jon Gray was the 3rd overall pick in 2013 and made 5 incredible starts in the California League that year, striking errbody out while showing impressive control. In 2014 in the AA Texas League, he was merely good as opposed to great, but seemed on track to debut in 2015. He did so, but not without serious issues in the PCL. While he misses his share of bats, he’s been oddly hittable, a trait he brought with him to Colorado for a quick cup of coffee with the Rockies. Eddie Butler was another low-minors star, and a supplemental first rounder in 2012. With plus velo and a good breaking ball, he shot through 3 levels in 2013, yielding just 96 hits in about 150 IP. Like Gray, even scuffles in AAA couldn’t prevent him from making his MLB debut, and while that went about as poorly as it could’ve, he was still a promising young pitcher. This year, like Gray, he’s struggled everywhere he’s pitches, losing his hold on a big league rotation spot and pitching poorly in AAA. All three of these guys were top 50 prospects in baseball. All of them showed not only potential but impressive results, and then all three of them started hemorrhaging runs and hits. They are the mirror image of Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley and…take your pick, Jesus Montero? Justin Smoak? And as with the M’s disappointments, you wonder if the big league park isn’t just in the players’ heads, but if it starts to warp player development. Fittingly of course, the M’s have reached out to recently-fired Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd about the vacancy here in Seattle.
In this series, the M’s will face not these major disappointments, but the fungible pile of minor league vets and later-round picks the Rockies have assembled because this is baseball and pitchers really are required. Today’s starter, Chad Bettis, is a good bridge between the two groups. A 2nd round pick, Bettis had success in the low minors, showing good control and missing bats. He didn’t have the pedigree of Gray or Friedrich or the undeniable pure stuff of Butler, so when he struggled a bit in the high minors, it wasn’t a shock. Cups of coffee in 2013 and 2014 were disastrous, but he’s made some improvements in 2015 while transitioning to the rotation. He throws a four-seam fastball, which would seem risky for a guy in Colorado with some HR issues, but it’s not a rising fastball – instead, it behaves much like a sinker. He’s got a change with sink that functions as a good ground ball pitch, and a curve that misses some bats but which right-handers tend to see pretty well. The natural sink on his fastball, plus that good sinking change, allow him to post a solid GB%, but the combination of Colorado and command lapses means he can’t fully reap the benefits of it. Righties have teed off on him, and his walk rate is still a bit high for someone without the stuff to pitch around them.
1: Jones, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, LF
6: Smith, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Hicks, C
Let’s hear it for King Felix. The way he’s looked after a bit of rest makes you wonder why the M’s haven’t done this before, and it makes me, for one, hope that they might make some adjustments next year. Whether that’s a 6-man rotation or just a 2nd half re-shuffle to get both Felix and, if he’s back, Iwakuma, some extra rest to prevent late-season swoons we’ve seen from both guys.