Game 145, Angels at Mariners
Garrett Richards vs. Taijuan Walker, 7:10pm
The Angels head to Seattle with their playoff odds at or below 1 in 5. Depending on who you think the Angels *are*, they can be as high as 20% (according to Fangraphs, which has them winning ~ 83 games), or as low as 11% (according to BP, where they win ~82 games). They aren’t yet zero, and with flawed teams like Texas and Minnesota above them, they probably shouldn’t be. But with less than a month to go, they’ve got a sizable gap to overcome, meaning they absolutely need to win games against teams like…well, the Mariners.
With their ace on the hill, you’d have to like their chances. Garrett Richards is having a Felix-of-2015 style year after his brilliant Felix-of-2014-style year in last year’s campaign. To be clear: Richards isn’t Felix – Felix not only has him on durability and innings pitched (Richards has yet to top 200 IP in any year), but has him on K:BB and FIP, two rate stats. That said, Richards rode a freakishly low HR rate and an excellent K:BB last year to post a FIP of 2.60. This year, the K:BB isn’t what it was, and more fly balls are finding the seats, and his FIP’s all the way up at 3.71. That’s somewhat similar to Felix, who posted a FIP of 2.56 a year ago, and this year has seen it rise to 3.56. Both guys have had disaster starts of 1-2 innings, but both are still top-of-the-rotation types who log quality starts consistently: Richards has 20 quality starts in 27 opportunities this year, essentially the same rate as last year.
Consistency is not a word that would leap to mind when you think of Taijuan Walker’s 2015, not with its horrific start, then great run, and then a more volatile past month. Taijuan’s ERA isn’t indicative of his true talent, as his K:BB’s been solid, and his generosity with the HR is already factored in to his decent-ish FIP of 4.18. Tony Blengino had a great post at Fangraphs that partially explains the gap: Walker simply allows much harder contact than the average pitcher. In Walker’s case, it’s not that he’s given up a ton of hits, leading to a high BABIP (though he WAS doing that early in the season), it’s that so many of the balls in play are hit very hard – this has led to HRs, but it’s also meant more extra base hits. Walker has a normal BABIP but a very high ISO on balls in play. More problematic than this hard contact is WHEN it comes. With no one on, Walker’s ISO is just .123, and his SLG%-against is .333. With men on, that ISO rises to .262, and his SLG%-against is an insane .581. No matter what your K:BB ratio, you can’t survive for long when you turn the league average batter to face you with men on base into Josh Donaldson. The question is why: as we’ve mentioned many times, it’s not that Walker struggles out of the stretch – he ONLY pitches from the stretch. It’s not a big change in approach. It’s either mental, or sequencing that falls into predictable patterns. An expanded repertoire – one that would include a true slider, let’s say – would help.
Here’s the odd thing, though. Walker’s horrific struggles with men on base hasn’t exactly hurt the M’s. Sure, sure – those runs given up has clearly had an impact on their odds of winning, and without those struggles, you’d figure the M’s would’ve won a few more ball games. But the M’s are 16-12 in games Walker’s started. As a comparison, the Angels are… 16-11 in games started by Garrett Richards, their ace. Obviously, a team’s record in games started by each player is, at least in part, luck-driven. Some times the bullpen’s implosions are concentrated on one starter. Some times run support is much better for one guy (Walker’s received 4.5 runs per start, while Roenis Elias has to make do with 3.0, and Richards is only at 4.0). In any event, despite Walker’s inconsistency, the M’s haven’t *really* suffered for it.
Richards problems with the HR ball come down to one pitch: his hellacious slider. I probably talk about this too much, but Richards’ breaking balls look like nothing else when viewed through pitch FX. Despite his freakishly low-spin fastball, his slider comes in at 87-88 with tremendous downward break, nearly 3 standard deviations more than average. His curve is quite similar – 81mph, with 2-3 standard deviations more “drop” than other curveballs. Both pitches generate whiffs and ground balls as a result, just as you’d expect. So it wasn’t a huge shock that he didn’t give up a single HR on either pitch last year – he only gave up 5 dingers in all, after all. His ISO-against on breaking balls was .022 for sliders and .026 on curves – on just about 1,000 pitches-thrown. That’s too extreme to last forever, perhaps, but regression’s been particularly cruel to Richards’ slider. This year, he’s given up *8* HRs on it, and his ISO is up to .163. It’s still a very effective pitch, but his mistakes have been punished pretty severely. You have to wonder how much of this is the result of hitters reacting to it once they’ve seen it. Once you see the drop on it 10-20 times, it may be easier to mentally tell yourself, “like a curve, only faster” and adjust your swing path. That’s why I keep waiting for Richards to switch to his curve: he’s never given up a HR on it, over several years. Sure, the fact that he uses it sparingly probably has a lot to do with that, but if familiarity breeds dingers, it might be worth while to ease up on the sliders a bit: he throws 30%+ sliders these days, compared to just 5-6% yellow hammers.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, RF
6: Trumbo, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: O’Malley, CF
9: Hicks, C