Game 157, Astros at Mariners
Roenis Elias vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm
The M’s have a new GM, and we’ll see where Jerry Dipoto steers the good ship Mariner in the coming months and years, but for now, the M’s play out the string against an Astros club that’s desperately trying to hold off the Angels. Roenis Elias has all but replicated the out-of-nowhere season he had in 2014, despite his poor showing in the minors in between. Meanwhile, Lance McCullers stabilized the back of the Astros rotation and was a big part of their run in May/June. But like the rest of his team, McCullers has fallen back to earth a bit in the second half. To be clear: we’re talking about a guy who pitched, and not exactly well, in high-A in 2014, so the fact that he’s no longer dominating big league hitters falls in the “good problems to have” category. But here we are: there’s less than a week to go, the Astros have a half-game lead, and they desperately need their 21-year old rookie to get back on track.
One of the striking things about McCullers is his platoon splits. It’s not just that they’re reversed, and he’s pitching better against lefties, it’s that they’re massive and persist in basically any component you want to look at. His FIP against righties isn’t just higher – it’s *1.7 runs* higher. His K/9 isn’t just higher against lefties, it’s 2.6 higher. Against righties, McCullers is a perfectly good, young middle of the rotation guy. Against lefties, he’s a dominant force. This seems odd. But the pattern’s repeated at essentially every stop in the minors – this really doesn’t seem like a sample-size oddity. Even looking by pitch, you see it: lefties are mystified by his hard curve ball, while righties are slightly confused.
How’s this possible? My guess is that it’s the product of McCullers’ “crossfire” delivery – his tendency to hide the ball with his body by stepping a bit towards 3B. We often associate this with sidearmers and relief specialists, but there are several pitchers who employ this technique and, for whatever reason, end up messing with opposite-handed-hitters’ view of the ball during delivery. One of the only pitchers with a K/9 against lefties that’s higher than McCullers is another crossfiring right-hander: Jake Arrieta. This NY Times piece mentions that Baltimore tried to change Arrieta’s delivery to save strain on his shoulder, but the Cubs essentially told him to throw however he wanted, and he reverted back to his pre-draft delivery. With the Cubs, Arrieta’s been great against everyone, but look what he’s doing to lefties on the year. The same pattern held last year as well.
So why would Baltimore teach an effective delivery out of Arrieta? M’s fans are probably already wincing, but this across-the-body delivery was the hallmark of Danny Hultzen. While Hultzen’s splits weren’t as bizarrely reversed as Arrieta’s or McCullers, that delivery was a big reason Hultzen was able to throw 89-91mph fastballs past right-handed hitters in the high minors. You’d see it with his breaking ball, with righties putting up some truly ugly swings on sliders – a pitch that’s supposed to have big (normal) platoon splits. Deception overcame that, just as it overcame average velocity. One of the big issues teams have with this delivery is that it often leads to control problems. That happened to Hultzen, but he was able to work through it, just as he did at UVA. The other problem is worse: shoulder injuries. Hultzen couldn’t dodge that one, and while it’s essentially impossible to pin an injury on mechanics (esp. ones the pitcher had for years in college), it makes you think slightly differently about Baltimore’s dilemma with Arrieta. Hultzen went to extended spring training with the intent of straightening out his delivery, but weakness in his shoulder made it a second straight lost season.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, RF
6: Smith, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, S
6 lefties in the line-up tonight. McCullers has to be happy about that.