Game 44, Athletics at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Rich Hill, 7:10pm
Fresh off a sweep of the Reds, the M’s return home to face the A’s, who sit 8 games behind the M’s in the AL West standings. As we talked about the last time these two clubs met up, the A’s have been remarkably pitching-dependent on the year, thanks to an offense that’s been atrocious so far…and that was WITH a healthy Josh Reddick, something they won’t have for a while now. The A’s are dead last in the AL in OBP, at a 2010-2015 Mariners-esque .294 mark. They’re dead last in all of MLB in BABIP, which you could argue is just bad luck, or you could argue is the logical outgrowth of starting Chris Coghlan, Khris Davis, and Billy Butler. What they may lack in walk rate and line drives, they more than make up for in errors. The A’s defense has been abysmal as well, with the 2nd-most errors and the worst team defense by Fangraphs’ advanced metrics. It all adds up to a position player group that’s been essentially replacement-level so far (again, WITH Reddick), ahead of only the Braves.
I said it’s been their pitching that’s carried them to a non-Braves-like season, but it’s really only their bullpen that’s been decent. Their starting rotation has the worst FIP and ERA in the American League, and the 2nd lowest fWAR total in the majors. A big part of the problem has been the long ball, with Sean Manaea’s 1.38 HR/9 mark the best* and Kendall Graveman’s astonishing 2.11 the worst. Sonny Gray, the ace of the group last year, is seemingly in a free fall, with an ERA over 6 and a FIP over 5. The A’s rotation has the 2nd highest walk rate in the AL, and there’s precious little in the minor league system to turn to. They’ve already ditched Eric Surkamp, so Jesse Hahn and Sean Manaea, both of whom have looked shaky, ARE the reinforcements. Now it’s up to pitching coach Curt Young to refashion these arms into a non-embarrassing group.
The A’s rotation has been awful, but the thing that amazes me is that they’ve put up these putrid numbers with a brilliant start by Rich Hill. The guy who went six years between starts in affiliated ball. The guy who signed last year off the independent league Long Island Ducks roster. The guy who signed a free agent deal this off-season for his age 36 season. THIS is the guy who’s putting his younger teammates to shame. The entire A’s staff has HR problems, but not Hill: his 0.36 HR/9 mark is great. He’s walked a few more than he did in his 4-game what-the-hell-was-that call-up for Boston last year, but the K rate’s stuck around. You could fill a book with the standard baseball rules (“old school” or sabermetric, doesn’t matter) that Hill breaks. He essentially throws only two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a curve. He doesn’t establish his 90mph fastball – against the M’s he threw 54 curves, and he’s actually thrown more in subsequent starts. Some time this year, Hill will throw > 60 yellow hammers in a game. He throws high fastballs slowly and doesn’t pay the price in terms of long-balls the way Chris Young or Marco Estrada do. He has a long and varied track record of failure as a big league starter, but looks dominant now.
How? What? The Rich Hill from the Orioles and Cubs? Really? This great interview starts to shed some light on what’s happening, at least from Hill’s point of view. The takeaway for me was Hill’s belief in what he dubs “creativity” – or manipulating his curve ball depending on what’s working, the opposing batter, etc. That sounded interesting, and I’ll definitely be watching for it, but it’s kind of amazing to go back to his pitch charts once you’ve heard him describe it. Here’s his last start in Seattle:
You can see he’s varying his release point, dropping down every once in a while against left-handed bats. In addition to release point, though, his curve is about as far as possible from a tight grouping in terms of movement and velocity. He doesn’t have one “curve ball” and I’d argue he doesn’t have two. He has a spectrum:
Some of these curves are in the low 80s, touching 82. Some are in the low 70s. Some have essentially zero horizontal movement; they’re an inch or two to the left of the zero line in the chart. Others are at 12″ of gloveside break. Looking at vertical movement, you see the same picture (uh, trust me, that’s enough graphs already). One curve came in with a positive 1-2″ of vertical break, whereas others were around -12″. The average for the game of -5.86 doesn’t tell you nearly as much as the variance around it. If he’s able to do this consistently, and do it with some kind of plan, that’s really interesting. I’d love to hear Hill unpack that word “creativity” and how it relates to this. You’ll see some games where the variance is much lower, and other games, like this one, where he’s just all over the map. At the very least, you’d think that might give him a leg up when he’s seeing hitters for the 2nd and 3rd time, and he’s only showing them two pitches. In the interview he says it helps him get K’s later in the game, and looking at his (tiny) splits so far this year bears that out: he’s worst the first time through the order, and becomes damn tough to hit later on.
Taijuan Walker’s struggled a bit since his neck spasms, as a spate of HRs has pushed his FIP up near 4 (the ERA’s still pretty good). It may be nothing, but his pitch mix has changed a bit in that time. From his first start through May 1st against KC, Walker’s most-used secondary pitch was his split. That was true – to an extreme degree- last year, and while he was mixing in more curves and cutters, it was still true in April. Starting with that abbreviated start vs. Houston, that’s changed. Now, he’s throwing the cutter more often than the split, culminating in his last start when he threw 24 cutters to just 10 splitters. This isn’t necessarily a problem or anything; the damage against him has come on his fastball, not his cutter. But I wonder what accounts for the change, and if there’s anything about the cutter that’s easier for batters to distinguish from the FB. Here’s where I’d love to see what the M’s can in terms of sequencing. Does throwing a splitter at some point in an AB make subsequent fastballs “better,” however you want to define that? How about cutters?
To be fair, some of the pitch mix variance may be a product of the line-ups he’s facing; it makes sense he’d throw more splitters to lefties and cutters to righties, but while Baltimore’s line-up was somewhat RHB-heavy, Tampa’s sure wasn’t. And Oakland’s not buying Walker’s strong reverse-splits in 2016 (or his even career splits), as they’ve got five lefties in there against him tonight.
1: Martin, CF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Aoki, LF
9: Taylor, SS
Chris Taylor gets his first start of the year against the left-handed Hill. Shawn O’Malley remains on the bench, and may pinch hit if the A’s bring in a righty reliever.
Brad Mills made his second appearance of the year for the Rainiers in yesterday’s 8-1 trouncing of the Iowa Cubs. The lefty has sporadic MLB experience with Oakland, Toronto, and Anaheim. The Rainiers hit three HRs, one each from Boog Powell, Mike Zunino, and Stefen Romero. Luis Sardinas has done nothing but hit since his demotion; the 2 singles he hit yesterday have him hitting .429/.484/.464. After a dominant homestand, the R’s head out on the road today, where they’ll face Round Rock. Adrian Sampson takes the mound for Tacoma against MLB vet Kyle Lohse for the Express.
Jackson scored a 4-3 walk-off win over Chattanooga with a run in the 10th yesterday. Sam Gaviglio pitched 7 quality innings on his birthday, and Ian Miller tripled while DJ Peterson doubled to pace the offense. Dan Altavilla got the win in relief, throwing 2 perfect innings with 4 Ks. Ryan Yarbrough starts for the Generals tonight.
Bakersfield’s 9th inning comeback gave them a 6-4 win at Lake Elsinore. Down 4-3 in the top of the 9th, the Blaze hit three extra base hits around a walk and a single to come up with 3 runs. Jay Baum’s two run double was the big blow. Tyler Pike’s 5-IP start wasn’t great, but he kept his team in the game. Eddie Campbell faces off against the Storm’s Brett Kennedy tonight. Kennedy was an 11th-rounder last year, and has impressed thus far, striking out 86 in 67 2/3 pro IP. They’ve all been at low levels, as he just recently moved up from the Midwest League, but still – that’s a great start to his career.
Clinton lost to Burlington 4-3, as a late 2R HR by Jake Yacinich gave the Bees a lead they’d hold on to. Zack Littell pitched a very good 6 IP, with 7 Ks and just 1 BB. Nick Kiel gave up the big HR, and that was essentially that. Kyle Wilcox gets the ball for the Lumberkings tonight against what passes for an Angels prospect in righty Joe Gatto, BP’s #1 for the org. Of course, that’s a low, low bar, and John Sickels had Gatto at #6, but you get the point. Medium sized fish in miniscule pond.
* Besides Hill, of course. There’s nearly a full HR per 9 gap between Hill at #1 and Manaea at #2.