Game 158, Astros at Mariners
Vidal Nuno vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm
It’s not just a Vidal Nuno start, it’s a Nuno start *on short rest.* With James Paxton hurt, Taijuan Walker shut down and the M’s lack of upper-minors pitching depth (it’s telling that the M’s have as many eligible, healthy catchers SPs on their 40-man roster as they have catchers), Lloyd McClendon turned to Nuno to make the spot start tonight, the managing equivalent of a shrug emoji. McClendon’s fighting for his job, meeting with new GM Jerry Dipoto, and also starting Vidal Nuno on short rest because it probably *is* the best option. Managing his own exasperation has got to be part of the game plan as he discusses his vision of the 2016 M’s with Dipoto, but as much as Lloyd has some things to answer for, overall roster depth isn’t on him.
That all sounds like a reason to avoid this contest and do something productive with your life, but this is one of those pitching match-ups I find irrationally interesting. Both of today’s starters were draft day afterthoughts, with Fiers picked after the 20th round, and Nuno waiting until the 48th round to hear his name. And you can see why: neither guy averages 90mph on his fastball, and both love pitching up in the zone despite that lack of velo. As a result, both generate a lot of fly balls, and the difference between a 200′ fly ball and a 425′ one is minuscule. To be successful, they have to be extremely precise. This sounds Moyer-ish; Chris Young with less magic or Beavan with a more command. But they *aren’t* pitch-to-contact, soft-tossing control artists – they’re strikeout pitchers.
Batters have come up empty on 25% of their swings against Vidal Nuno’s four-seam fastball. Not only is that the highest rate of any M’s starter, that would put him in the top 10 of all starting pitchers this season with at least 200 fastballs-thrown. That puts him ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Corey Kluber and Chris Archer. It does not make his fastball a *good pitch* but it does help him maintain a strikeout rate above the league average despite being a lefty throwing 88mph. Fiers gets whiffs on 19% of his four-seamers, which, thanks to his over-the-top delivery generate an absurd amount of rise. But Fiers has learned to do something that Nuno, to date, has not: get opposite-handed hitters out.
Nuno was relieving in Arizona for a reason: righties dominate him, while lefties struggle. In his career, Nuno has a 2.33 FIP vs. lefties and a 5.25 FIP vs. righties. For Fiers, those marks are 3.66 and 4.41, respectively. Both have a shot at “beating” their FIP thanks to a lot of pop-ups and easy fly balls pushing down their BABIP (Nuno’s is .279, Fiers’ is .285), but Nuno simply has to get better against righties, or he can’t be a starter. Fiers’ weapon that’s actually helped him post reverse splits (he’s a righty, remember) isn’t a change-up – it’s a slow curve. Coming in at 73mph, Fiers’ curve has an insane amount of drop; I’m guessing the same over-the-top delivery that produces a backspinning fastball channels the spin on his curve such that it drops nearly straight down. As a result, no curve in baseball has as much drop as Fiers – he comes in just ahead of Chris Tillman, a guy with very similar mechanics. While righties struggle with Fiers’ curve, lefties seem unable to pick it up at all – they’re slugging .291 on it in Fiers’ career. Nuno’s change isn’t anywhere close to that effective. Nuno’s got a curve too, but he doesn’t throw it much – especially to righties. His best pitch is probably his slider, but it’s much less effective against righties, and it doesn’t matter as long as righties are slugging .651 on his four-seam fastball.
Nuno gets strikeouts, but when batters hit the ball, they hit it extremely hard. Fiers struggles with that a bit (he’s given up 17 HRs on his fastball alone this year), but a slow breaking ball and command allow him to survive. That either of these pitchers is in the majors at all seems sort of bizarre – that they’re high-K guys is even more confusing. But Fiers’ curve is, in internet-speak, the one weird trick to become a viable target from a playoff team. Even if Nuno can’t come up with a trick of his own to start battling righties, he’s shown enough that he should carve out a niche as a good LOOGY, and there’s something admirable about watching him throw elevated fastballs past hitters. But this match-up illustrates just how fine the margins are when you throw 88.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, LF
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Jones, CF
9: Hicks, C
It was good to hear Dipoto mention depth in his press conference, though of course it’s fairly obvious. The M’s system’s prediliction for high-K tools-projects also got a mention, when Dipoto said he was taken aback by the strikeout numbers in the M’s minor league system. This in part reflects one of the key differences between the Zduriencik regime’s draft strategy and that of Dipoto: the M’s tended to value high ceiling guys, while the Angels under Dipoto went for higher floors. Part of this was the result of losing a number of first round picks due to free agent signings – really high ceiling guys don’t stick around long – but part of it seems to be preference. The M’s have gone after younger power bats from Gareth Morgan, Corey Simpson and Tyler O’Neill to college guys with power potential like Mike Zunino or Austin Wilson. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, necessarily. The Rangers have, if anything, actively sought out raw, toolsy guys with K issues, but they’ve often made it work (Lewis Brinson and Joey Gallo have been great in the minors). The problem’s been that the M’s were awful at developing precisely the kind of player their amateur scouts loved. To be fair though, the Angels struggled to develop their own “type” – Cuban IF Roberto Baldoquin alternated between hurt and terrible in the Cal League this year, while Alex Yarbrough mixed Ks with a lack of power in the PCL. Let’s end on yet another caveat: if Dipoto’s drafts had a “type” it wasn’t low-K hitters, it was pitchers. Dipoto didn’t pick a bat until his 8th selection in 2013, and not until his 6th pick in 2014. There’s a reason their top prospect lists are so weighted towards pitchers.