M’s Continue to Remake Bullpen, Acquire Evan Scribner
In my last post, I mentioned that recently-acquired bullpen arm Jonathan Aro looks a lot like Evan Scribner, then of the A’s, in terms of movement and approach. Pretty clearly, Jerry Dipoto doesn’t mind a pitcher who pitches up in the zone and gives up a lot of elevated contact, even if that’s caused HR issues in the past. Not content with grabbing a guy who could, if things break right, become a Scribner-like arm, Dipoto has gone and traded for the genuine article.
The price is reliever Trey Cochran-Gill, a right-hander with a good sinker/slider. Cochran-Gill was a 17th rounder out of Auburn, but thanks to a great, if abbreviated, 2014, found his way to #20 on the pre-season M’s top 30 prospect list put together by MLB.com. He pitched fairly well in the Spring for the M’s, and then started off the season with great numbers for Bakersfield. He then settled in at AA Jackson, and his control left him – he ended up with more walks than Ks in the Southern League, and was remarkably hittable.
Evan Scribner is coming off two sub-replacement level campaigns for Oakland. On the face of it, this looks like a minor swap: a struggling minor league sinkerballer for an out-of-options big leaguer with serious home run issues. But as we talked about yesterday, Scribner does have a remarkable K:BB ratio and a track record of missing bats at the highest level. HR rate is much, much more volatile than strikeout rate or walk rate, so simple regression to the mean *might* take care of some of the problem.
On twitter, many people pointed out that a fly-ball guy with a HR pitcher should do fine in Safeco field, thanks to its HR-killing mariner layer. The problem with this is that, by essentially any measure, Oakland is now a more *difficult* park to homer in than Safeco. Fangraphs’ park factors (for 2014, admittedly) show Oakland’s HR factor as 92, while Safeco’s is 98. By Statcorner, Oakland’s LHB/RHB HR factors are 81 and 80, respectively, while Seattle’s are 104 and 92. Just counting up the long balls shows that Oakland pitchers gave up 79 dingers at home, compared to 93 on the road. The M’s gave up 90 at home and 91 on the road.* As if to prove the point, Scribner threw 4 1/3 IP in Safeco last year, giving up 7 runs on two HRs (let this Gutierrez bomb to CF just wash over you).
So while the park helps in a general and limited sense, Safeco and the M’s outfield defense aren’t going to solve this on their own. I’d love to think the M’s have figured something out either in Scribner’s delivery or approach that can limit elevated contact. Scribner has struggled most against righties, which may make sense given the shape of his fastball and the fact that his primary breaking ball is a big overhand curve ball – both pitches tend to have small platoon splits. So: could a bit of deception in his delivery help? Maybe. Scribner’s also given up several home runs on outside pitches. These should be harder for batters to drive, but they’re obviously not having much trouble doing so; Scribner might do better keeping his fastball low on the outside corner, and elevate it when pitching inside. Of Scribner’s 24 HRs, *11* have come in 0-1 or 1-2 counts, which could indicate some predictable pitch sequencing.
Beyond the specific players involved, the trade for Scribner (and grabbing Aro in the Miley deal) seems to indicate a preference not just for fly-ball relievers, but for generalists. Scribner has essentially no platoon splits, and Justin De Fratus has reverse splits for his career. They’re replacing the sidewinding Carson Smith who, with his arsenal and arm angle *really should* have platoon splits, but didn’t. Gone is Tom Wilhelmsen, who struggled mightily against lefties last year, and has “normal” platoon splits for his career. And, when Dipoto wanted Scribner, he used another sinkerballer with a low arm-angle in Trey Cochran-Gill who could not get AA lefties out (K:BB ratio of 13:20). There’s an interesting argument embedded here that baseball’s hyper-specialization has gone too far, and that a team with Scribners may be harder to pinch-hit against. Taking it further, you could envision a team with generalists running a 6-man pen, handing the bats another position to use against the opponents’ LOOGYs and ROOGYs. At the same time, I think the advantage of a Carson Smith (or someone worse, say, Roy Corcoran or Sean Green) wasn’t just the platoon advantage – it was that they could generate a specific type of contact. We haven’t seen the final, opening-day M’s bullpen, but I hope that’s still a consideration.
Last season, the A’s bullpen had the 2nd slowest average fastball in the game, just ahead of Houston. Their bullpen imploded, and while it’s absolutely not the case that you can’t succeed without velo (look at Houston or San Francisco), Billy Beane and co. have remade their bullpen this off-season and clearly prioritized velocity. Gone is Scribner with his below-average (92mph) FB, and in is Ryan Madson and his 95mph heater. As August Fagerstrom wrote at Fangraphs, they’ve ditched many of their worst performers from last year, many of whom were comparative soft-tossers: Edward Mujica, Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero.
The M’s, who ranked in the middle of the pack last year, are again moving in the opposite direction. The A’s swapped out Scribner’s 92 for Madson’s 95, while the M’s shipped out Wilhelmsen’s 95 for Scribner’s 92. Justin De Fratus is around 92 as well, Bass and Aro are around 93-94, while Cody Martin’s more like 89-90. The M’s hardest thrower is now Tony Zych, the guy acquired for cash considerations last spring. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but it DOES look different. Some of the big off-season stories involve teams trying to create something akin to Kansas City’s death-dealing bullpen – Boston’s traded for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith and have, on paper at least, a shut-down pen. Oakland’s is at least no longer a clear weakness. The Dodgers looked to be acquiring Aroldis Chapman *despite already having a dominant closer*, before Chapman’s ugly, ugly domestic violence arrest put his future in question. Even with the pick-up of trusted-closer ™ Joaquin Benoit, the M’s are moving in a different direction. Bucking the consensus is a great way to innovate or reap big returns, and it’s also a way to fail. Here’s hoping the M’s – and their pitching coaches – can help the M’s build an effective ‘pen out of not just undervalued but unwanted parts.
* To be clear: Safeco is still a pitcher’s park, though less so than before the remodel. It’s just that Safeco aids pitchers by suppressing hits – it’s really hard to hit doubles there, for example, which may have something to do with its small total outfield area.