Charity Game – Mariners vs. Padres
James Paxton vs. Robbie Erlin, 12:10pm
That snuck up on me. There’s an actual Mariners baseball game today, as the M’s and Padres play their annual charity game in Peoria. James Paxton gets the start for the M’s, trying to show he’s fully healed after last year’s injury-plagued campaign and trying to hold off Nate Karns for the last rotation spot. We last saw the Canuck pitching in the Arizona Fall League, where he maintained 93-94mph velocity but gave up 37 hits in just 29 1/3 IP. What accounts for that? Well, for one, Paxton was told not to throw his curve, his best breaking ball. Leaning on a cutter and change, Paxton may have just gotten too much of the plate. His K:BB was great, so the experiment may have helped him hone the command of his change, a pitch that occasionally looks great, but has looked very much like a work-in-progress in previous big league campaigns.
Opposing Paxton is Padres lefty Robbie Erlin, a one-time Rangers prospect. Erlin came up with a number of soft-tossing control-artists in the Rangers system, but moved to San Diego in a 2011 deal for reliever Mike Adams (new Mariner Joe Wieland was also in that deal). Wieland/Erlin and Robbie Ross all played together for Hickory in the Sallie League in 2010, with Cody Buckel following the next season. All had miniscule walk rates, though scouts were never sure about their 89-91mph velo. All except Buckel (who probably put up the best numbers) made the majors, though all have struggled to gain a real role for a team. (Buckel is attempting to return from the yips with the help of Driveline Baseball and local pitching guru Kyle Boddy).
Erlin featured a very Paxton-like repertoire, albeit missing 3-4mph in velociyt: his fastball had 11″ of rise, not much horizontal movement, and he threw a big, breaking curveball that broke straight down. High spin rates maximized its drop, while his fastball generated pop-ups and fly balls. Unfortunately, Erlin’s stuff wasn’t quite good enough to get many strikeouts, and Petco wasn’t quite big enough to prevent him from having occasional HR problems. Somewhat interestingly, he’s posted really odd platoon splits. Judging by the slash lines, he’s put up reverse splits, as lefties have put up a .347 wOBA compared to the .312 for righties. But these numbers are nearly entirely driven by BABIP. Use FIP, and Erlin’s K:BB ratio and especially his HR rate are much, much better against lefties. Righties don’t have a good batting average against him, but when they hit the ball, they tend to hit it very hard.
Perhaps as a result of that, Erlin seemed to change his approach markedly last year. We don’t have a lot of data, as Erlin spent much of the year getting absolutely pummeled in the PCL, but when he came back up, Erlin’s Paxton-like fastball was gone. Instead of 11″ of rise, he showed a perfectly average-ish 8 or so, with lots more horizontal movement. BrooksBaseball still has it as a four-seam, but either he’s doing something different with his finger/wrist at release, or he’s now throwing a sinker. His curve, too, showed less spin, and thus the huge drop that he’d shown in 2013-2014 wasn’t there. All in all, that sounds like a bad trade. Home runs are bad, and Erlin’s right to try different ways of avoiding them, but I’m a bit skeptical of taking two pitches with very good, very distinctive movement and trading them in for a so-so sinker and slurving-up his curve. Maybe the handful of games he pitches last year were just the growing pains that accompany reinvention, and Erlin will have worked the kinks out. If he’s going to grab the Padres’ 5th rotation spot, he’ll need to show that his tweaks are both effective and not an impediment to consistency.
Line-up! Woohoo baseball!
1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Gutierrez, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF