Game 65, Mariners at Rays
Nate Karns vs. Drew Smyly, 4:10pm
Nate Karns gets the added incentive of facing his former time, while Drew Smyly makes his first start in ten days, after the Rays skipped him to give him a “mental break” following a spate of awful starts. This is a winnable game, despite the way Smyly started his 2016 campaign, and if the M’s want to reinvigorate their playoff odds, they’re going to need to take advantage.
There’s no real mystery to this M’s skid. Hell, we saw a textbook example last night. The M’s losing streak has coincided with a dreadful stretch of performances by the M’s great-in-April-and-May bullpen. Looking just in June, the M’s bullpen is far and away the worst in baseball when measured by Win Probability Added, and M’s relievers have the worst ratio of shutdown (“really good”) appearances to meltdown (“really bad”) ones, a fact that probably won’t shock anyone who’s watched the Texas series or yesterday’s debacle.
The main reason the M’s relievers have been so atrocious is simple: home runs. The M’s lead baseball in reliever-allowed dingers this month with 10, in just 42 2/3 IP. On the positive side, they can’t keep up this pace. On the down side, part of the reason the pen was so successful early was their insanely low BABIP; now that the BABIP pendulum’s swung the other way, they look awful, but even when the BABIP bad luck subsides, they may not revert to April/May results. This bullpen was, in some sense, cobbled together with a few plan B types. With so many guys hurt, the M’s have had to give a lot more high-leverage innings to Nick Vincent, Joel Peralta and others than they may have wanted. But right now the M’s have severely under performed their base runs (or plain old pythagorean) winning percentage, and that can’t happen if they want to climb back into the race and hold off a good Houston club. It doesn’t help, of course, that Texas has, for the second consecutive year, taken a page from the Kansas City Royals’ playbook and essentially demolished their “expected” wins via base runs: they’re a .500 team using that method. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so aggravating: even Prince Fielder, the expensive albatross with a putrid batting line has saved seemingly every one of his few base hits for a key situation. Meanwhile, the M’s offense, which is lighting up the scorebook, seem to fade a bit when the game’s on the line, resulting in a poor “clutch” rating. It’s insane: Texas hasn’t been good in extra innings (the M’s are 5-2), and neither team’s been solid in one-run games. Tom Wilhelmsen’s absolutely lost it, and their closer’s lost his job. The typical ways you might expect a team to outplay base runs just don’t work in this case. If anything, you might think the M’s would have a chance to “beat” the context-neutral numbers. And yet it’s Texas that now has a 5.5 game lead. Baseball is always cruel…to someone.
Sooo, Drew Smyly. As homer-prone as the M’s relievers have been recently, Smyly’s about matched them dinger for dinger. He was given a mental break after a stretch of four starts that saw him give up 7 HRs. Despite his over-the-top delivery and four-seam/curve-focused repertoire, he’s always had some platoon split issues, but they seem to be worsening. He’s now a much better strikeout pitcher than he ever was in Detroit, but it seems to be coming at a cost. Smyly’s game is focused on a trade off between whiffs and fly ball contact. This year, Smyly’s 2nd only to (who else) Chris Young in the percentage of fly balls he allows, but he pairs it with a very not-Chris-Young-like 26% K rate. But for whatever reason, righties seem to get a better look at his curve, and his 3rd pitch to show RHBs, a cutter, simply doesn’t work.
I mean that in two senses: first, it’s generated bad results. Righties are slugging .667 against it, and he’s thrown it 20% of the time against them. Second, it…doesn’t cut. We’ve talked a lot about cutters that are slider like, with lots of horizontal movement and a big gap in velo from the fastball, and we’ve talked about more fastball-like cutters that are only 2 MPH slower, with less vertical break and 4-5″ of “cut” compared to the four seam. Smyly’s “cutter” almost calls for a new category. Smyly’s straight four-seamer gets 4″ of armside run. His cutter gets…4″ of armside run. There’s less than a half inch of difference despite a big 7 MPH gap in speed. It doesn’t have the same vertical rise as his FB, but I’d wager that has more to do with the pitch’s velo than any spin Smyly’s imparting. It didn’t use to be this way: in Detroit, Smyly’s four-seam riseball had a foot of vertical movement, whereas the cutter (which he didn’t throw much) was around 5″ or so. These days, his fastball’s about the same in vertical movement, while this…other pitch has crept up to 7″ of rise. I mean, just as a thought experiment, if a pitcher like Smyly were to throw his regular fastball at 90% intensity, wouldn’t it look exactly like this “cutter” thing? Isn’t this just rebranding a batting practice fastball as some sort of breaking ball? You can’t… that’s not how cutters work, Drew.
Karns is the opposite, in that he’s had persistent *reverse* platoon splits. They’re not huge now, but anyone who’s interested in how deception works on hitters would do well to study these two pitchers. They have the exact same repertoire, more or less, with both relying on rising fastballs and a curve. Karns has a change, while Smyly has that BP fastball type thing, but ignore that for a minute: study how hitters react to their curve balls. Karns’ curve has been deadly against lefties, even though Karns himself is a righty. He’s always maintained better K rates against opposite-handed bats, so the reverse splits are not just a BABIP mirage. Smyly’s curve, for whatever reason, while effective overall against righties, has yielded 10 HRs to them (and none, ever, to a lefty). Karns has similar splits with his curve, with 7 HRs allowed to RHBs, versus just 1 to a lefty. I’d love to know why.
1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Aoki, LF
Nick Neidert heads up the pitching match-ups in the minors today, as he’s leading Clinton against Peoria. Cody Martin starts for Tacoma, with Ryan Yarbrough on the hill for Jackson.