Game 81, Orioles at Mariners
James Paxton vs. Tyler Wilson, 7:10pm
On the M’s last trip to Baltimore, they faced extreme pitch-to-contact righty Tyler Wilson, who came up without much hype thanks to a strong aversion to missing bats and so-so minor league numbers. Despite all of that, he’d held opposing offenses in check through his first few months in the bigs (split between 2015 and 2016) thanks to a freakishly low HR rate. Back in May, I wondered if he might follow the dispiriting path that so many pitch-to-contact guys (Nick Blackburn, Scott Diamond, etc.) had gone before, where the league adjusts and a low HR/FB ratio just isn’t sustainable any more. We’re a few months later now, and the evidence is starting to come in that Wilson really is Blake Beavan in a more compact exterior. With a HR/9 over 1, his ERA and FIP are both in the mid 4s instead of the mid 3s (his xFIP is essentially unchanged, which shows how dependent he’d been on fly balls falling short of the wall).
Wilson isn’t quite the extreme fly ball guy that Beavan or various Twins were; his fastball has a bit too much sink for that. It’s also freakishly straight, which may help explain his lack of platoon splits. His sluve-slider has been his best pitch, and it’s curveball-ish enough that it works pretty well to left-handed bats. He’s got a change-up too.
I didn’t get into this to talk about Tyler Wilson, no offense to him, his family or his fans. So let’s talk about the M’s defense. Getting more “athletic” on defense was a key part of Jerry Dipoto’s offseason strategy, and they’ve clearly done that, bringing in ball hawk Leonys Martin, and replacing Mark Trumbo with Nori Aoki (a move that looks…different now). To a degree, that shift in emphasis has brought results: the M’s defense turned 89.1% of fly balls into outs in 2015, while turning…uh… 89.0% this year. Moving from the gaffe-pron Brad Miller to Ketel Marte has helped the infield go from turning 75.4% of ground balls into outs in 2015 to 74.7% this year.*
That’s…surprising, I think. The Mariners overall defensive efficiency is pretty good, thanks to a great job at turning line drives into outs. But these numbers don’t neatly match up with what the team talks about. That is, the team loves to tout the extra outs they’ve saved using defensive shifts. And maybe they’re right! But the overall ratio of ground balls to outs seams kind of low if the shifting was getting them dozens of extra outs every where, and while you can argue that the real benefit is showing up in line drives, I’m not sure that an approach that results in a lot of line drives (even ones caught by fielders!) is an optimal strategy.
So am I against shifting? No, I don’t think so. But like I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit hard to see the clear, obvious evidence that it’s helping the M’s defense overall. Is it hurting the defense? Ehhhh, probably not. There’s no reason not to put your fielders where a batter typically hits the ball, and the evidence seems pretty good that it works against a certain type of hitter. It’s possible that the real issue is how the M’s pitchers perform in a shift, which is something both Russell Carleton and others have mentioned. As Joe Sheehan points out (and as the M’s infield confirms this year) – way more shifting does nothing to limit singles or base hits. It may “work”, but it doesn’t do what we think.
1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
This is not the line-up that’s going to improve the M’s DER on its own, so hey, strike some dudes out, Paxton.
Welcome back to the bigs, Mike Zunino. After one of the most horrific non-injury related career trajectories ever seen, Zunino’s spent 2016 getting his approach right in Tacoma. So far, so good; he hit .282/.366/.512. His K rate’s fallen as well, which helps me overlook the fact that he’s been only OK after a brilliant April. That weird thing from 2013 where he hit a ton on the road and struggled at Cheney Stadium? Ha, in 2016 he’s actually…no? Still there? Huh, yeah, still doing that.
* Of note: Miller’s new team, the Rays, rank dead last in ground ball defensive efficiency this year.