Game 77, Pirates at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jon Niese, 7:10pm
As disappointing a season as it’s been for the M’s, the Pirates may have them beat. After three consecutive playoff appearances, the Pirates find themselves completely out of it in the NL Central, three games below .500 and looking up at a Cubs club that might win 110 games. Like the M’s, they’re well behind a number of teams in the wildcard race. The *lack* of parity in the AL’s been a surprise, but it really doesn’t look like any teams at 81-84 wins are going to squeak into the playoffs in 2016. The Pirates won 98 games a year ago, and even coldly rational sabermetric-loving baseball fans believed their pitching coach was a literal wizard. The Pirates find themselves below .500 in 2016 thanks to a pitching staff that ranks 2nd worst in baseball, ahead of only the historically-bad Reds.
Ray “Not a Literal Wizard” Searage was supposed to fix Jon Niese, a dependably average left-hander the Pirates acquired from the Mets in the Neal Walker trade. Niese was a ground-baller, perfect for Searage’s Pirates, and was coming off something of a down year. A few magical incantations, something about balance and pitching low, and boom, he’ll be fine, right? Jon Niese has a FIP of 5.55, over one full run higher than his next-worst season. This ugly FIP’s been driven by a massive spike in home runs; Niese’s previous career high in HR/9 was right around 1 (1.04 to be exact), but it’s now an eye-watering 1.85. This in turn’s been driven by huge struggles with his splits. As a sinker/curve/cutter guy, Niese has always been much better against lefties than righties, but his splits were nothing alarming. This year, righties are destroying him, with a .550 SLG%-against mark, and pushing Niese’s FIP vs. RHBs over 6. Meanwhile, he’s been even worse on the road. For whatever reason, batters are slugging .626 against him away from Pittsburgh, and have an OPS against him of right about 1.000.
There’s nothing alarming in his velocity or movement – he appears to be the same Jon Niese who underwhelmed for the Mets last year. Niese’s 90mph fastball (four-seam and sinker) were never swing-and-miss pitches, but the damage done on contact is suddenly much, much worse. Why? Part of it may be Niese struggling to adapt to his
wizard pitching coach’s strong belief that the best fastball is a low fastball. Niese is throwing both his four-seam and sinkers lower than ever before, and they’re getting hit like never before.
Of course, the M’s have had loads of winnable games and favorable match-ups in recent weeks and have found a way to fumble away most of them. The club needs to start pitching better or the season will completely get away from them. That sounds harsh, especially given the staff’s pretty-good ERA on the year, but someone’s got to take the pressure off an over-worked, under-performing bullpen. Through much of May and into June, Hisashi Iwakuma was the only pitcher reliably working deep into games, but after a less-than-5-IP, 3 HR disaster, even he’s looked a bit shaky. But while the Pirates’ offense has been good overall, they may be a good match-up for Iwakuma in that they’re relatively underpowered (while Iwakuma’s achilles heel is the long ball) thanks to strong ground ball tendencies. Throw some splitters, Kuma.
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: O’Malley, LF
The Futures Game rosters were announced today, with a World Team of prospects facing off against the US’s top prospects on All-Star Weekend. The M’s have two representatives this year, like last season, and again both will suit up for the “World” team. Jackson starting pitcher Dylan Unsworth (from South Africa) and his teammate Tyler O’Neill (Canada) represent the M’s org. In 9 starts this year, Unsworth’s allowed all of 9 total runs, and has an ERA of 1.16 and a K:BB ratio of 5:1. O’Neill just turned 21, and is hitting a well-better-than-expected .310/.371/.532 for the Generals. The top prospects on the rosters include SS Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson, record-breaking international free agent signing Yoan Moncada, SP prospect Alex Reyes, and OF Alex Benintendi. Like many, I’d kind of assumed Unsworth’s South African heritage would make him the Futures Game representative with the most unlikely background, but no, that honor has to go to Pirates relief prospect Dovydas Neverauskas, who hails from Vilnius, Lithuania.
Zach Lee makes his second start for Tacoma today, this time in Fresno. He gave up 5 runs in 6 IP last time, so hopefully this’ll go a bit better. Tacoma scored 4 late runs to beat the RiverCats 6-2 last night, as Norichika Aoki had 2 hits in his first game for Tacoma. Tacoma’s now 11 games over .500 at 44-33.
Jackson won again, this time 3-1 over Chattanooga. Brett Ash tossed 6 2/3 solid IP to get the win, and the bullpen went the rest of the way without yielding a hit or a walk. DJ Peterson continues to rake, as he went 1-1 with a double and 3 walks, bringing his line up to .271/.340/.466 (after a dreadful April). The club’s off today, and are an incredible 48-27 on the year.
Tyler Herb matched up with Giants’ prospect (and Futures Game invitee) Phil Bickford yesterday, and both held their opponents scoreless for 5 IP. Bickford then left the game to his bullpen, who finished the shutout, while Herb tired in the 7th and gave up 4 runs in an eventual 5-0 loss. The Blaze had just one hit on the day, a bunt single by Aaron Barbosa. The loss dropped Bakersfield to 40-35 on the year.
Clinton destroyed Wisconsin 10-2 behind another solid start from Art Warren. The two clubs played an early game today, and Clinton again came out on top, this time 5-3. Nick Neidert pitched 7 strong IP, giving up 2 R on 2 solo HRs, but largely befuddling the TimberRattlers. Conner Hale had 4 hits for the L-Kings, who are now 45-31.
Everett dismantled Boise 13-1 thanks to a 2-hit, 5 RBI game from Kyle Lewis, whose bases-clearing 2B put an exclamation point on the win. Jake Brentz had 9 Ks in 4 2/3 IP for the AquaSox. Luiz Gohara’s off to a strong start and he’ll start tonight’s game in Spokane. The club is 7-4.