Game 20, Astros at Mariners
Nate Karns vs. Dallas Keuchel, 7:10pm
The M’s find themselves in first place after a dominant – and very, very encouraging – performance by Taijuan Walker, who pitched around defensive miscues, some early command issues, to finish the night with six consecutive Ks. The line-up couldn’t score despite a career high 7 walks from Doug Fister, so run support was added to the burden Walker had to carry, but he did so easily. Sure, he had some help – two HRs and a baffling caught-stealing in a nail-biting 9th inning come to mind. But Walker’s fast start is everything we could’ve hoped for. The M’s rotation needed another anchor in Felix and Kuma’s slow decline, and, to bring it back around to today’s game, the uh…not so fast start of the newcomers.
I talked about Miley the other day, but Nate Karns hasn’t quite found himself yet either. He’s striking out batters at the same rate as before (the K/9 is higher, but his K% is roughly equal), but walking many more and giving up far too many hits. Like Miley, his BABIP is terrible, and that should regress as soon as his 30%+ line drive rate does. That’s encouraging, as is his declining contact rate. Wait out the bad luck and you’ll have something. But there’s conflicting stuff too, as you’d imagine looking at a guy who’s been hit so hard. Batters are pulling their fly balls against him far more than they have in the past, and in general, pulled fly balls are good for the batter. This increase in the *percentage* of pulled fly balls is accompanied by a similar increase in the number of fly balls. Having all but ditched his sinker, a pitch he threw over 10% of the time last year, that makes sense: he’s trying to get more FB contact, and he’s doing it. It’s just getting hit a bit harder than he’d like.
And that brings us to Karns’ biggest weakness, the biggest blemish on what’s been a decent start to his career. He’s been hit hard – destroyed, really – by right-handed bats. Like with BABIP, the temptation is to rely upon general rules that such beasts cannot exist, and that this is an illusion borne of random chance or running into a bunch of good righties in the AL East. It’s true: his career’s too short thus far to say much with conviction. But thus far, Karns is giving up over *2* HR per 9 IP to same-handed bats. Both lefties and righties have hit his four-seam fastball well, but while lefties have an ISO of over .200 against, righties are up over .300. Similarly, lefties have an ISO of .039 against his curve, while righties are up at .134. This could be nothing, but it’s kind of interesting to imagine a guy with a weakness that’s hidden by standard theory that you bat tons of lefties against righties. I mean, Karns has faced over 3 times more lefties this year than righties, so it’s clear most teams don’t buy this is real at all. But his K:BB ratios show similar reverse splits, so it’s not JUST about a few doubles turned into HRs. Is he more deceptive against lefties somehow? Are righties able to guess more easily, given he doesn’t throw his change as much to them?
Speaking of batters who’ve been giving up too much hard-hit contact, the M’s face the reining Cy Young winner tonight, Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel who, for the past two years, has been amazingly good at inducing both ground balls in general and slow ground balls in particular, has had a rough start to 2016. In his last start, he gave up 13 hits and 6 runs in 6 IP. In his 2nd start, he walked 6 in 5 2/3, leading to a big spike in his walk rate. Like Karns, Keuchel has seen batters chase fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and like Karns, he’s seen his contact rate improve – he’s getting more swinging strikes. But the problem is that hitters are doing more damage. It’s kind of amazing how often this pattern has repeated this year: batters appear more selective, and do a bit more damage, but don’t make more contact. Back in 2013, when Keuchel was essentially replacment level, 29% of the contact against him was classified as “hard” or well-hit. In the past two seasons, he’s been around 19-20%, a mark that led the league both seasons. Thus far in 2016, he’s sitting at 30%. Some of this may be due to a velocity drop that looks a bit bigger than the standard April decline (Karns’ velo is actually up this year). Whatever the cause, the M’s need to take advantage.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Lee, 1B
9: Smith, DH
Smith’s legs necessitate another RF start for Nelson Cruz, which… man, he did not look comfortable out there last night. At least Gutierrez can play LF?
The Astros have 5 righties in their line-up and two lefties in the middle of the order with big platoon splits of their own (Preston Tucker/Colby Rasmus), which seems like a good line-up on paper against Karns. Of course, it’s not like they’re consciously opting for righties in lieu of lefties; Altuve/Correa/Springer are starting against anyone. But it’ll be interesting to see how Karns deals with that top third of the line-up tonight.
Tacoma played a morning game, and it looks like the position players were a bit tired. Sacramento won it 1-0 with a run in the top of the 9th. Ramiro Pena homered off of Justin De Fratus for the only score. Chris Taylor had his hitting streak broken yesterday, so started a new one with a single. Not much else going on for the offense, but Mike Zunino had a pinch-hit single in the 9th as well. Tacoma’s off tomorrow.
Jackson lost 9-3 to Pensacola, as Sam Gaviglio had his first poor outing, giving up 2 HRs and 7 runs in 5 IP. The Generals couldn’t figure out Reds prospect Amir Garrett, who fanned 9 in 6 2/3 dominant innings. They’ve got another tough assignment tonight, as they face rehabbing Reds starter Homer Bailey, trying to make his way back from injury. Brett Ash starts for Jackson. Like Tacoma, Jackson’s got a travel day tomorrow.
Tyler Pike starts tonight for Bakersfield, and Kyle Wilcox starts for Clinton.