Game 84, Mariners at Astros
Taijuan Walker vs. Dallas Keuchel, 5:10pm
Sorry for missing the July 4th game, the first game of this important series. Let’s just say combining big July 3rd parties with non-Pacific time zone day games is a recipe for a missed thread and leave it at that.
So the M’s face the team directly above them in the AL West standings, and already find themselves down a game. The Astros playoff odds are now above 55% for the year, a bit more than double the M’s odds. On its face, there’s nothing terribly surprising about that – the Astros were supposed to win about 87 games in preseason projections, and they’re not projected to win…87 games. The M’s were projected for 84, and they’re on pace for 84. Not bad, projections. Almost makes up for totally missing on the Rangers, who continue to try and run away with the division. More interestingly, the are on pace to match their projection despite essentially every player coming in at their 90th percentile performance or their 10th – every individual player projection is just hosed, but they cancel each other out.
Jose Altuve is having an absolutely bonkers year in the leadoff spot, hitting .353/.424/.567 with 14 HRs. His ISO over the past few years has gone .080, .112, .146, .215. The diminutive 2B’s off-the-charts contact skills were a nice balance to some of their all-or-nothing hitters like Chris Carter (in previous years) or George Springer, guys who might strike out, but do tremendous damage when they make contact. Altuve now offers both – an 8% K rate and an ISO that’s essentially tied with Springer’s somehow.
Meanwhile, the reining Cy Young winner and tonight’s starter Dallas Keuchel is having all sorts of flashbacks to 2013, the last year he was a forgettable, not-very-effective innings eater for the Astros. His sinker’s velocity is down a touch, but that shouldn’t be enough for his ERA to more than double since last year. His FIP isn’t as bad, just as wasn’t in 2013, but Keuchel’s been undone by BABIP – way too many balls in play are falling in for hits. Astros fans are hoping this is just bad luck, and that he’ll be back to his 2015 form, but it does kind of call into question how much skill was involved in his hit suppression last year (and 2014 too). With the new batted ball data, Keuchel stood out as a guy who could consistently generate weaker, most often ground ball, contact, which implied that he’d “earned” his low BABIP. This year makes you wonder if that poor contact wasn’t itself just dumb luck. Beyond just his velocity, the movement on his pitches is a bit different this year, and that may have something to do with batters now hitting Keuchel a bit harder, or it could be that the league’s becoming familiar with his arsenal and approach, and that they’ve learned to adjust their swing path to his sinker a bit – his GB rate’s fallen for the 2nd straight year.
But it’s not just Keuchel. CF Carlos Gomez’s ISO trend is the exact opposite of Altuve’s, and he’s now hitting at a putrid .221/.291/.333 clip. And it’s not just Gomez: Evan Gattis continues to struggle; only his ISO keeps his wRC+ in the 80s. His low BABIP can’t just be luck, as he’s continually produced some remarkably low BABIPs over his career. If it’s not going over the fence, Gattis is going to struggle, and pitchers are more and more attuned to his weaknesses. I mentioned that they may struggle at 1B this year, or at least until AJ Reed was ready. Indeed, Tyler White fell off dramatically after a hot start, and ended up being worth -0.3 WAR this year, so the Astros naturally turned to Reed, their top hitting prospect. But Reed hasn’t staunched the bleeding; he’s hitting 2 for 22 with 11 strikeouts.
For years, the M’s struggled by base runs, meaning that given the sheer number of hits and doubles and HRs and walks, etc., that M’s batters accumulated, they should have scored more runs. One explanation I always liked was that the M’s line-up was ridiculously top-heavy, with some good hitters and then a series of black hole positions near the back end (think of M’s catchers last year). Maybe the M’s could get a runner on 2nd, but then they’d fail to score when Rob Johnson, Ronny Cedeno and Jack Wilson were the guys tasked with bringing the runner in. The Royals were often held up as the opposite, a team who made a lot of contact and ran well and thus squeezed more runs out of each single or other event. Well, the Astros are dead-on their pythagorean winning percentage, and they’re a bit ahead of what base runs would predict. Like a number of teams, they’re simply able to work around their black holes, while other teams seem to be consumed by them.
1: Martin, CF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Robertson, LF
9: Marte, SS
Welcome Daniel Robertson, the LF the M’s signed off waivers from the Angels back in the fall. After DFA’ing him to make room for Hisashi Iwakuma, he stuck around on a minor league deal. The M’s needed some OF help with Aoki working on his swing in Tacoma, so they’ve optioned David Rollins back and brought Robertson up. To make room on the 40 man, they shifted Adrian Sampson from the 15-day to the 60-day DL. Robertson wasn’t all that notable for the Rainiers this year, but he’s a known quantity to Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais – he came up in the Rangers org when Servais was there, and then played for Dipoto’s Angels in 2015.
The M’s big splash in the big July 2 signing period was signing a Dominican OF named Luis Veloz for $1.2m. Veloz ranked 25th in MLB.com’s top available players this year, and 29th in Baseball America’s top 30. He’s apparently got a big arm that could play well in RF. Look for him in the Dominican League next year.