Game 19, Astros at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Doug Fister, 7:10pm
Taijuan Walker’s strong start is one of the real bright spots of the season’s first month. After some awful outings in early 2015, Walker seemingly turned a corner and looks great. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how he’s done it. His strikeout rate was *higher* in his awful first-half-of-2015, and it hasn’t rebounded thus far in 2016. His walk rate is now Iwakuma-esque, but then it was fairly low when he was getting knocked around, too. In short, Walker’s improvement is largely the result of much-improved results on balls in play. In the past, maybe we’d chalk that up to luck, but in the Statcast world, we can now… well, what, actually?
Taijuan Walker was absolutely awful at contact management in 2015 according to Statcast, and as Tony Blengino said last September, given his K and BB rates, Walker would be a well-above average starter if he had just average marks in quality of contact allowed. Late in the year and in 2016’s first month, Walker’s obliged, posting below-average exit velocities. So, scientifically, he’s fixed now? I don’t know. I hope so, but seeing pitchers bounce from above- to below-average and vice versa makes the measure look fairly volatile. As mentioned last week, Russell Carleton’s BP article brought some context to the topic, showing that exit velocity stabilizes pretty quickly, but it also doesn’t become *more* stable as you add more and more data – there’s a signal there, but some part of the package we get will be noise, and that’s true with 50 balls in play on up to 5,000 balls in play.
But even there, it seems like an “average” exit velocity can mislead, even if it represents something within a pitcher’s ability to control. A pitcher with a rising fastball might give up lots of home runs, but will also generate plenty of pop-ups and lazy fly balls, as batters mishit the ball. Some pitchers batted balls may be more narrowly distributed. Is one better than the other? As with everything, it depends. How many HRs balanced with pop-ups is too many? A fly ball pitcher who gave up all 90mph fly balls would be a Cy Young candidate, but a fly ball pitcher who gave up 96mph fly balls wouldn’t be. Someone who consistently got batters to hit the ball at odd angles would be great, no matter how hard they hit them. Thus far, Taijuan Walker’s done great. He’s given up some hard-hit balls, but he’s been better than average at ground balls and air balls alike. Last year, he was awful. Is his command responsible for the improvement? Is it familiarity with his role, with his defense, and with the hitters he’s facing? Or is the fact that he’s now actually throwing breaking balls producing a few in-between swings? I’m not sure, but Walker’s a great test case for how we might use Statcast data going forward. Given how differently his 2015 and 2016 started, this should be fertile ground for research.
Speaking of which, Tony Blengino had a great article at Fangraphs today looking at Statcast, and how to interpret the numbers. He notes that we’re still missing a pretty good number of balls in play, and that those “null” data points are predominately extremely weak contact. He also noted that several parks, including Safeco, are missing quite a bit more than the average. I’d link to it, but it seems to have been pulled. Not sure why.
Today, the M’s face old friend Doug Fister, who suddenly fell off the table last year and hasn’t yet regained the form he showed from 2011-2013, when he was quietly effective, averaging 4 fWAR per year in that span. The big, obvious problem is that his velocity’s fallen fairly dramatically. While he was never a power pitcher by any stretch, his average FB is now about 86mph. Despite reports that his velocity reappeared this spring, his velocity looks essentially unchanged since last year. Batters are swinging at fewer of his offereings, and doing more damage when they do – Fister’s given up 3 HRs thus far, and his K% is his lowest ever (though not by much). The Astros as a team have had a horrific time with long balls thus far, but in Fister’s case, it’s a real worry. His GB% (once a real strength), has been trending down for a while. Since peaking at 54% in 2013, Fister’s GB has plummeted, and now sits below 40%. It’s been an utterly bizarre career for Fister, and he’s done so much better than many of us (I’m among the guilty here) ever imagined. I love that he succeeded as an old school command pitcher in the middle of the strikeout boom. I’m not, however, all that bullish on his chances going forward.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
He tried to pitch through it, but now Joaquin Benoit will take some real time off to rest his shoulder. He’s moving to the 15-day DL, with Mayckol Guaipe coming up from Tacoma to replace him. The M’s bullpen has been a strength thus far despite a large number of injuries. Let’s hope that continues. Joel Peralta becomes the 8th inning righty.
The Sacramento RiverCats shrugged off a 4-run first by the Rainiers and beat Tacoma 10-5 in a rain-shortened contest. Chris Taylor and Mike Zunino doubled, while Cody Martin would like to just move on from yesterday’s game. James Paxton starts tonight.
Pensacola doubled up Jackson 6-3. Tim Lopes and Leon Landry each had three hits for the Generals. Ryan Yarbrough had 6 Ks to 1 BB, but also gave up 4 runs in 5 IP. The same two teams face off tonight, with Sam Gaviglio on the mound for Jackson. The rest of the M’s affiliates have a travel day.
Bakersfield dominated Lake Elsinore, winning 8-0 and allowing just two hits to the over-matched Storm. Tyler Herb went 7 innings, giving up a single hit and striking out 3. Ramon Morla and Kyle Schepel closed it out. Austin Wilson and Chantz Mack each had two hits, and combined to hit three doubles.
Cedar Rapids shut out Clinton 9-0. A so-so start for Zack Littell, who pitched 6 IP giving up 11 hits and 6 runs, though only 2 were earned.