Game 26, Mariners at Athletics
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Sonny Gray, 7:05pm
Before we get to today’s game, I’ve got a random observation about the still-young 2016 season. For the past 5 seasons or so, the rate at which batters make contact when they swing has been trending down. Contact % dipped under 80% first in 2012, and it’s lived in the 70s ever since. The explanations for that were many: teams signing players with contact issues if they could do damage on the pitches they DID hit. The ever-expanding strike zone. Finally, a nice, clean link: batters rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone kept rising. The first year overall contact fell below 80% was the first year o-swing% topped 29%. From there, it just picked up speed: 29.3% in 2012, 30.1% in 2014, and 30.9% last year. This correlation between “bad” swings and whiffs was clearly correlated statistically and logically. It’s early, but 2016 is breaking the link between them.
I’ve talked about o-swing% rates several times already in these posts, and many of them show a dip in 2016. Well, that dip shows up for the league as a whole. We seemed destined to fly past the 31% mark in o-swing%, but instead, the league currently sits at 29.3%, right back where we were in 2012. Contact rate apparently hasn’t received the memo, as its free fall continues: after falling to 78.8% last year, it’s fallen nearly a full percentage point to 77.9%. What’s going on? If “bad” swings aren’t the cause of it, it stands to reason that “good” swings have been remarkably whiff-prone this year. That’s what Fangraphs’ pitch fx data show, as it happens. For the entire pitch fx era, the rate of contact for swings *at strikes* has been remarkably consistent. It bounces up and down in a very, very narrow range between 87% and 88%. In every year since pitch fx debuted in 2007. So, this year, zone-contact% stands at 85.8%, well over a full percentage point drop from 2015. What does this mean? I don’t know. A hunch is that teams and coaches are better at teaching discipline now; that instruction is undergoing something of revolution. I think that’s clearly a factor in the velocity gains pitchers are making, and we may be seeing some signs of a response from hitters.
It’s not a complete response, obviously, not with contact rates on strikes and overall still falling. But between the fact that MLB’s newest crop of youngsters is producing so well so young and a rebound in baseball’s walk rate (which had been dropping for a few years) and ISO, maybe we’re seeing the first fruits of better hitting instruction. It may be a shift in the kinds of players teams are drafting, signing and developing – a move towards Kris Bryant types who strike out but also know the strike zone. It may be an artifact of the velocity arms race, where pitchers don’t *need* to get batters to swing at low-and-away sliders when they can throw it past (some) hitters. Or it could be an April thing. O-swing rates were lower by a bit in April the past few years, but this zone-contact thing is new. We’ll see, I guess.
The M’s take on the A’s confusing ace, Sonny Gray. Gray was brilliant last year by ERA and fielding-dependent metrics, but seemed to be the product of insanely good luck by both FIP and batted ball/statcast-y measures. Tony Blengino and Eno Sarris both noted that Gray’s runs-allowed success has been fueled largely by his consistently low BABIP. This balls-in-play success didn’t seem to be backed up by some skill in inducing weaker contact, the way Dallas Keuchel’s and Jake Arrieta’s is. He gets plenty of ground balls, and many of them are pulled, but they’re not hit all that soft. Despite an infield with some defensive question marks, Gray’s success on ground balls continues: his BABIP-allowed on ground balls over his career is .202, and in 2016 – a year in which his GB% stands at a career high – it’s .208. That’s far better than the A’s as a team, which allow a .249 BABIP on grounders.
The M’s need to elevate the ball, as Gray’s been vulnerable when batters hit the ball in the air. Gray’s been great at inducing grounders, but the non-grounders have been hit remarkably hard. He’s also walking more batters. To tie it back to the opening, Gray’s not inducing as many out-of-zone swings in 2016, a fact which is probably related to the fact he’s throwing more fastballs this year than in the past. But when batters don’t chase, Gray’s command hasn’t been good enough to work his way back in the count. His walk rate in 2016 is 12.2%, up from 7.1% last year, and blowing away his previous high of 8.2% in 2014.
Hisashi Iwakuma’s O-swing% is still sky high, but it too has come down along with (seemingly) everyone else’s. That probably helps explain his uptick in walks and drop in Ks, but I don’t think it fully explains his .330 BABIP. For a guy who’s made a living running low BABIPs (just like Gray!), his bad luck in 2016 really sticks out. His split’s still working pretty well, so I don’t think that’s the issue. Instead, it seems that batters are swinging at his slider *more* and having the kind of success they’ve had from time to time throughout Kuma’s career. It’s a problem Kuma’s well aware of and one he’s been working on for years. That he hasn’t quite fixed it yet is both understandable and a bit concerning, but in general, I’m not too bothered when a pitcher’s 3rd or 4th pitch isn’t doing too well. If batters adjusted to his splitter, that’d be career threatening. If they’ve got a BABIP of .467 on his slider is a mixture of bad command, bad movement, and a whole lot of bad luck.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma
Adrian Sampson tossed 7 brilliant innings as the Rainiers downed Salt Lake 6-1. Chris Taylor and Ed Lucas homered for Tacoma. Taylor’s season line is up to .333/.412/.556, and he’s reached base in 22 of his 23 games this year. Mike Zunino went 0-4, but his season line is even better: .378/.416/.756. The back end of the Tacoma rotation has been brutal thus far, which is why Tacoma is “only” 13-11 despite Zunino/Taylor/Stefen Romero’s hot starts. Donn Roach looks to change that tonight.
Jackson got rained out yesterday, and they’re traveling today.
Bakersfield’s late comeback fell just short, and they lost to Rancho Cucamonga 4-3. Eddie Campbell didn’t have it, walking 7 and giving up 4 runs in 3 1/3 IP, but the bullpen kept the Blaze in it while the hitters tried to figure out Josh Sborz. The Blaze scored a run in the sixth, seventh and eighth, but couldn’t complete the comeback in the ninth. Andrew Moore starts for Bakersfield tonight.
Clinton got a great start from Nick Wells, the lefty prospect who’d struggled mightily in April, but lost a heartbreaker 3-2. Wells went 6, giving up 1 R on 5 H and 2 BBs, and Darin Gillies followed with 2 scoreless innings in relief. Gillies came back out for the 9th, attempting a 3-IP save, but gave up a 2-run HR to Brad Zunica, and that was the difference in the game. Of note: the Lumberkings scored their two runs off of reliever Enyel De Los Santos, a righty you may remember as a member of the Everett AquaSox and the return for Joaquin Benoit this offseason. Lukas Schiraldi faces Fort Wayne today in an early getaway day game.