Game 46, Athletics at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Zach Neal, 7:10pm
After a riveting walk-off win against the heart of the Oakland bullpen, the M’s go for a series win facing a pitcher making his first big league start. This has happened a few times already this year, but when I saw the probables, I had no earthly idea who Zach Neal was. That’s always confusing, as I like to *think* I’m conversant with the 40-man roster of the AL West. In this case, I think the A’s front office and even Neal himself are all as stupefied as I am that he’ll take the hill at Safeco tonight. Neal was drafted by the Marlins in the 17th round in 2010. After a couple of so-so campaigns, he was released in 2013. The A’s picked him up, and he gave them a few more mediocre seasons. He’s not a strikeout guy, with minor league K rates around 15% or so. His control was fine, as he was stingy with walks, but that’s not the same as having elite command – he’s been very hittable at every level, which is why his runs allowed have been rather poor in the minors. He’s got a career AA ERA over 4, and a AAA ERA near 4, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: Neal’s given up *55* unearned runs across those levels, pushing his RA/9 to near 5.
Like a number of pitchers, he’s gotten better with more time at each level – he hasn’t had initial success, but with experience, he’s able to hold his own. That seems to be what’s happened this year, as he’s been Nashville’s best pitcher from a runs-allowed standpoint despite having less stuff and prospect cache than others. Still, it’s kind of amazing that a guy who, despite playing in the high minors the past few years, wasn’t invited to big league spring training and was nowhere near the 40-man is now making a big league start. Nominally, he’s replacing Sonny Gray, the A’s ace who’s been a shell of his former self and is now on the DL. The M’s have to like their chances.
There’s one small catch. Neal’s fastball has a lot of sink on it, and he’s got a so-so cutter/slider thing as well as a curve that doesn’t drop all that much. All of which points to extremely low spin rates on all of his pitches. High spin rate guys get a lot of attention, and for some good reason – the right kind of spin makes a pitch move, and movement is obviously useful. That said, there’s some value in being at the other end of the distribution. A ball that moves a lot LESS than people expect can be confusing in its own way. The poster boy for low spin rates last year was Kendall Graveman, whose sinking fastball and curveless curve kinda sorta worked for a back-of-the-rotation arm. It hasn’t worked this year in large part, but even last night, it’s been decent against the M’s. I don’t know of a way to search for M’s hitting against low-spin guys; if you want to make the intuitive leap that low-spin = ground ball guys, then the M’s have done fairly well. But they’ve also struggled against guys who don’t K or walk many batters, and in Neal they’ve got one. Neal is an underdog, and may get lit up tonight. I’d just feel better if he didn’t remind me so much of Graveman.
To be fair, Graveman has more movement on his pitches than Neal. Neal’s FB sinks a bit and is arrow straight, like an underpowered version of Garrett Richards’. But whereas Richards gets an insane amount of spin on his breaking balls, Neal’s just float up there as if they weren’t spinning at all. It’d be remarkable if the A’s didn’t throw a guy who did the same thing just yesterday. Still, the fact that even his fastball has very little armside run differentiates him from Graveman enough. And let’s not forget: because Graveman’s struggled so much the 3rd time through the order, the A’s got him out early yesterday. They’ve made some roster moves to give their pen some depth, but they may need to leave Neal in longer than they’d like, and if they DO go to the pen in the 4th-6th, it’ll be the B team there for a while. After beating up on the first string, the M’s should have some confidence today.
1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Sardinas, SS
9: Aoki, LF
As you can see, Luis Sardinas, having spent 10 days in the minors, can now be recalled from AAA, swapping spots with Chris Taylor.