Game 28, Mariners at Astros
Wade Miley vs. Chris Devenski, 5:05pm
The M’s are in first place after a bizarre 9-8 win featuring Felix struggles, defensive miscues, and a whole lot of Dae-Ho Lee. The M’s came back against the A’s bullpen, the one I’d talked up before the series began. At least through the season’s first month, the M’s gang of retreads and never-weres > Oakland’s, and that’s saying something, considering how well Axford/Madson had pitched coming in.
The M’s now travel to Houston, the team whose lead in playoff odds has already evaporated, kind of like the Tyler-White-for-AL-ROY talk. There are a few Astros hitters who’ve gotten off to a slow start (Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena), but the biggest reason the Astros are 10-18 (after a two-game winning streak!) has been their pitching staff. By FIP, they’re 3rd worst in the AL, ahead of only their AL West rivals in Anaheim and Arlington. By ERA, they’re the absolute worst club in the league. Their projections were a lot better, and thus their rest-of-season runs-allowed per game is still at a fairly decent 4.34, or a full 0.6 runs *per game* better than what they’ve done so far. They’re essentially the AL version of the SF Giants, a team that was projected to be solid at run prevention, but has instead hemorrhaged runs instead.
The big problem has been their rotation. As we talked about earlier, both Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are off to slow starts, and the back of the rotation hasn’t picked up the slack. The Astros’ starters have walked far more than anyone thought (et tu, Doug Fister?), given up lots of home runs, and then, to top it off, they’ve allowed the highest BABIP of any team in MLB (they’re fractionally ahead/behind, yes, the Giants). That’s a pretty dispiriting, Hieronymous Bosch-like triptych – it covers the fielding dependent as well as the “three true outcomes,” and it’s not limited to one or two guys. All of that’s the back story for why someone named Christopher Devenski is starting this game.
I like to think of myself as following the game quite closely. I’m familiar with most teams (especially an AL West team’s) prospects, and thanks to my love of the PCL, I know something about the depth a lot of teams have waiting in the wings. So it was something of a humbling experience the other day when I saw the probables for today’s game and drew a complete blank. “Devenski.” Who the hell is Devenski? Wojciechowski, sure. Last year, their rotation depth included Vince Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer (now pitching for 2016’s shockingly-ahead-of-schedule rebuilding club, Philadelphia), Asher Wojciechowski, Dan Straily, and Luis Cruz. Chris Devenski is a sign of just how many pitchers the Astros have lost since last summer. Not only are Velasquez and Oberholtzer in Philly, so is Mark Appel, another guy who logged a bunch of starts for the Astros’ AAA club last year. Sam Deduno left after an injury-plagued 2015. Scott Kazmir went to LA in free agency. Dan Straily saw more opportunity in Cincinnati, and is in the Reds rotation. Lance McCullers is hurt. One of the strengths of the Astros org has been their incredible depth. Well, they really need it now.
Devenski came into the year ranked around the 20-30th best prospect in the Astros system. Drafted by the White Sox, he came over to the Astros org way back in 2012, so he’s moved through the ranks in the Astros’ player development system. That’s probably a good thing, as Devenski was a 23rd round pick who struggled with the long ball and occasional control lapses in the Cal League and in AA. A low BABIP helped him post a nice ERA in AA in 2014, but he repeated the level in 2015 and made some further improvements. Of course, part of the reason his numbers looked better was that he was starting to get some relief appearances as well. Hence the projections of him as a swing-man, which is exactly the way the Astros have used him this year. He started the year in the ‘pen, then made a start 5 days ago. Given the slim pickings for starters, he’ll make another one today.
All of that makes him sound like a generic AAAA (or maybe AAA) retread, but the more I look at what he does, the more intriguing Devenski gets. For one, the reports of his meh fastball don’t match up with what he’s actually throwing now. His four-seamer averages 93-94, and he can touch 95 on occasion. Moreover, it’s got extreme vertical rise; it’s almost Chris Young-ish, albeit 9 mph faster. His best pitch coming up was always his change, and just looking at the movement on it, I can see why. Like his fastball, its armside run isn’t much to write home about, but the thing has devilish drop. By pitch fx, it looks like a (good) split-finger, albeit thrown more slowly (it’s averaging 82). He’s got a big, slow curve that’s been his primary breaking ball and also a rarely-used slider he’s saved for right-handed batters exclusively. He hasn’t thrown either breaker all that much, but again, just looking at movement, there’s a lot to like here. In particular, the gap between the huge vertical rise on his fastball and the drop on his change and, to a lesser extent, curve/slider seem like they could be an effective, confusing combination for batters. An over-the-top pitcher can get lots of vertical rise on their FB, but some of that backspin bleeds into their other stuff, too. James Paxton’s change doesn’t have a ton of drop, and neither does, say, Mike Montgomery’s. Clayton Kershaw and Chris Young both have *change-ups* with over 10″ of vertical rise, and are thus the best examples of this principle. Lance McCuller’s hard change, like Felix Hernandez’s, has similar vertical movement to Devenski’s, but it’s paired with a sinking, low-rise four-seam. Most pitchers have to choose between lower spin, sinking stuff, or high-spin, rising stuff. Devenski doesn’t, and while he may not know how to exploit that yet (and neither do I, to be clear), it’s nice to have.
As you might expect, that rising fastball and the HR problems he had in the minors are linked: Devenski’s never going to be a ground ball guy (though the change might be a GB pitch). He’s improved his control, and may be a decent 5th starter right now. Of course, the issue is going to be: can he miss enough bats to make up for the occasional dinger? So far, he has; his K rate isn’t ideal, but he’s been very lucky on his fly balls. The M’s are on an absolute long ball tear, though, so this’ll be a much tougher test for Devenski.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
Dae Ho Lee’s big day might get him some more playing time. As many people pointed out, Lee’s two dingers came against *righties* – the guys Adam Lind was supposed to face. Devenski’s lack of platoon splits means the M’s shouldn’t be so doctrinaire about platoons, and Lee doesn’t seem to have any particular problems with righties. It all makes sense, but hey, welcome back to the line up, Adam Lind.
Tacoma beat Salt Lake 3-1 for the second straight day. This time, it was Joe Wieland’s turn to shut down the bees like a little-understood combination of fungus and mite parasitism. Wieland went 5 2/3, giving up just a solo HR. Boog Powell HR’d and doubled, and Chris Taylor doubled as well. Cody Martin starts today’s game against Salt Lake.
Jackson’s Brett Ash dominated Jacksonville’s Jake Esch in the Generals’ 11-6 win. Ash gave up an unearned run in 6 IP, and then the bullpen survived a shaky 8th and 9th to hold on. Tyler O’Neill and Zach Shank both had 3 hits for Jackson, and Steve Baron tripled (!). Dylan Unsworth gets the start tonight.
Bakersfield lost a wild one to Rancho Cucamonga, 12-10. The Blaze had a 6-0 lead after 2 innings, and an 8-6 lead after 6, but the Quakes scored 6 in the 7th to pull ahead. Osmer Morales gave up 5 runs without recording an out to take a particularly ugly loss. Jay Baum had three singles for Bakersfield, and Chantz Mack’s double was their only XBH. Tyler Herb starts tonight’s game. Herb was a 29th round pick out of Coastal Carolina, and the righty struggled along with everyone else last year in Clinton. But he’s breaking out thus far in the Cal league: in 24 IP, he’s given up just 14 hits and 7 walks while striking out 33. He gave up 174 hits in less than 140 IP last year in a much more pitching-friendly environment. The sky-high K rate is new, and also nice to see.
Clinton beat Fort Wayne 5-4 despite Art Warren’s first mediocre start. Warren gave up 4 runs in 4 IP, but the bullpen held the line, striking out 6 in 5 scoreless innings and yielding just 1 hit. Zack Littell starts tonight as the L-Kings open a series with Lake County. The Captains have been excellent thus far, compiling an 18-9 record. An Indians affiliate, Lake County’s bullpen includes Tacoma native Christian Meister, a one-time Green River CC product who the Indians drafted in the 23rd round last year not out of college, but after showcases at Driveline Baseball’s training facility. It’s an odd route to pro ball, but one which might become more common in the future.