Game 21, Astros at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
The M’s go for a three-game sweep of the preseason divisional favorites tonight. A day after Taijuan Walker’s electrifying performance against the Astros, Nate Karns nearly one-upped him, going 7 shutout innings and yielding just 2 hits. Karns came into the game getting plenty of whiffs on his change-up, and after mixing cambios and curve balls through the first three innings, he and Chris Iannetta noticed something and shifted to the curve nearly exclusively. Karns ended up throwing an astonishing 53 curves on the night, or one less than Rich Hill threw in his own dominant performance in Seattle on April 9th. By the 6th/7th IP, the Astros must’ve known it was coming, but couldn’t hit it – after struggling a bit with his command, Karns found a groove and the Astros simply weren’t able to get him out of it. Here’s a graph of his usage – the first inning’s at the left, and it goes chronologically until the 7th IP on the far right:
He only had 6 Ks which kind of understates how great Karns looked, but fortunately we have other metrics. Linear weights measure the change in the game state after each pitch – if it’s a ball, that’s a fraction of a run deducted from the pitcher, and if it goes for a strike, he’ll be awarded a fraction. Hits are bad, obviously, and anything that helps tilt the balance in favor of the pitcher is good, whether it’s a foul, a whiff, or a pop-up. It’s not a perfect tool, as an 0-2 chase slider that’s taken for a ball isn’t necessarily “bad” and fastballs have an uphill climb to rate well, given they’re often thrown when a pitcher’s behind in the count, and thus go for walks or for hard-hit balls. Still, since it’s measured by pitch type, it gives you ONE way to see what a pitcher’s most effective pitch was for the day. Last night, Karns’ curveball was 2.86 runs better than average. That’s a pretty astounding level for one pitch. In Hill’s mastery of the M’s, his curveball rated below average because the M’s actually managed to knock some base hits on it when they weren’t frozen by it, a fact that makes me question the metric more than Hill. But those games are good illustrations of HOW you’d score well by linear weights. Do you mix 4 pitches well, like Kershaw or Felix? Eh, probably pretty tough. You almost need to be a two-pitch pitcher and throw some breaking ball a ton; it’s a counting stat after all, not a rate stat.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but Karns -2.86 is the best mark of the season for a Mariners’ pitcher. It’s better than any one pitch Felix threw in his perfect game or Iwakuma’s no-no. That’s not to say it’s historic, though. The last game by a Mariner that I can find with a modicum of searching that beats it came from Taijuan Walker in his destruction of the Twins late last year. In that game, Walker’s *fastball* was easily over 3 runs below average. Clayton Kershaw’s topped 3 runs with his fastball as well, and would easily get there if he threw either his slider or curve enough, but he mixes them to great effect instead. Jake Arrieta, and this is probably not shocking, is essentially making a habit of this with his sinker. I’m kind of shocked that Noah Syndergaard hasn’t done it yet this year, but as with Kershaw, it’s often because he’s mixing his pitches and not throwing any one of them enough to rack up runs. The most dominant game *of Karns type* and I’m totally making this up as I go here, but a game in which a pitcher dominates by throwing a blizzard of yellow hammers, was Jose Fernandez’s brilliant 14K, 0BB start against Atlanta in April of 2014. Fernandez went 8, threw *54* curves, and had -4+ run value on the pitch. Steve Cishek actually closed that one out when he was with the Marlins. (Alex Wood struck out 11 with no walks and took a hard 1-0 loss for the Braves).
Collin McHugh started 2016 in about the worst way possible, lasting 1/3 of an inning and giving up 6 runs to the Yankees. His K and BB rates are nearly identical to last year’s, and he’s given up just one dinger on the year, leading to a FIP under 3, but as you’d imagine given that first start, he’s been extremely hittable and given up 15 runs in less than 17 IP. Like Keuchel (and Miley, and Karns-before-last-night), McHugh’s BABIP is off-the-charts high. Never a big ground ball guy, his GB% has plumetted by 12 percentage points this year, and he’s been an extreme FB guy thus far. McHugh works with a low-90s fastball, a high-80s cutter with a tiny bit of glove-side break and a curve. In the past, the curve was his putaway pitch, and his cutter was a useful one to lefties and righties, but he was prone to hang the odd one. Over time, batters have started to elevate both his curve and fastball, and that’s what’s leading to his dwindling GB%. That’s not awful; plenty of pitchers actively court fly ball contact, after all. But it certainly hasn’t been good for McHugh. On the plus side, he’s giving up weak fly ball contact, with an average that’s one of the best in the league, sandwiched between Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. They’re not pulling more of them, nor hitting them harder, the way we saw with Dallas Keuchel. So will McHugh eventually figure this out? We’ll see.
1: Marte, SS
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Lee, 1B
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
Jackson beat Homer Bailey and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 5-3. Tim Lopes and Leon Landry had two hits each. Brett Ash got the win with 5 IP, but the bullpen pitched extremely well, yielding zero runs. Forrest Snow made his 2016 debut with 1 2/3 hitless innings.
Bakersfield’s comeback fell just short, as they lost to Lancaster 5-4 despite homers by Austins Wilson and Cousino. Eddie Campbell starts tonight.
Bowling Green raced out to a 10-0 lead on Clinton and held off a late rally, winning 12-8. Dalton Kelly hit his first pro HR in the game. Kyle Wilcox gave up 10 runs in 2 2/3 IP. The former 6th rounder is off to a slow start, as is today’s starter, Nick Wells. Thankfully, Wells has been somewhat better of late; he gave up 3 runs in 4 2/3 today, but ended up losing a tough 3-2 decision. RF Gus Craig homered for the Lumberkings. Speaking of Dalton Kelly, the former 38th round pick out of UCSB leads the org with a .451 OBP, edging out Mike Zunino’s .449.
Larry Stone wrote a great story on Zunino’s mental adjustments and how much fun he’s having tearing the cover off the ball in Tacoma.
The story of the day may not be the M’s beginning play in 1st, or Nate Karns great outing. Instead, the M’s announced a big change in their ownership group, with Howard Lincoln, in charge since 1999-2000, stepping down and minority owner John Stanton moving to acquire the club. Stanton and partners are seeking to acquire 90% of the club according to Geoff Baker. What will this mean to the M’s? We’ll have to wait and see, but probably very little in the short to medium term. Kevin Mather’s retained as the President. It’s important to note that Nintendo’s share would be sold, so while Stanton’s currently part of ownership, this is more than shuffling the titles on the ownership committee, but Stanton isn’t a complete unknown. The M’s ownership has taken a lot of deserved criticism for seeming out of touch in the M’s years of wandering through the AL wilderness, talking more about the ballpark experience than the product on the field, or meddling in Eric Wedge’s practices, but most of all for not opening their purse strings. The M’s payroll has been on the low side, and calls to spend more will increase as the M’s TV revenue looks to be among the game’s highest. As part of Stanton’s purchase, the team’s been valued at $1.4 billion. Should the M’s be acquiring more free agents? Or having acquired Robbie Cano and Nelson Cruz, is the focus going to be elsewhere for a while? The M’s avoided a rebuild and would need some talent to go head to head with the Cubs or to pull away in the AL, so it’s something that Jerry Dipoto could be talking about sooner rather than later. That said, the historic contract to Cano shows that the primary problem hasn’t necessarily been a reluctance to pay, but abysmal performance from low-paid arb and pre-arb players the club’s depended on. I’d be happy to learn that ownership will commit to in-season upgrades, but if this team is going to go anywhere, change needs to start in player development.