Game 99, Mariners at Pirates
King Felix vs. Francisco Liriano, 4:05pm
A very happy Felix Day to all of you!
The M’s head to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates, who’ve shown some signs of life since they came to Seattle in late June. At that time, I noted that they were clearly one of baseball’s biggest disappointments; they were 4 games under .500 and Fangraphs gave them a 3.6% shot at a wild card. Since June 28th, though, they’ve gone 14-6 and they’re now only a game and a half behind the Marlins and Mets. Sure, they’ve got St. Louis ahead of them as well, a team whose run differential and base runs suggest that they’re a great team, but the Pirates’ wild card odds are now almost 20%. The M’s are now the club with the more difficult job ahead of them. Part of that’s due to the M’s treading water for a while, but a big part of it is the league’s overall strength. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that both AL wild cards will go to 90+ win teams.
Today the King faces off against a solid Pittsburgh line-up. They certainly don’t have the power that Toronto did, but they’re a patient group, as Gregory Polanco and Jordy Mercer in particular have improved their batting eye and drawn more walks in 2016. They’re also a solid defensive group, so as a unit, the Pirates position players rank 9th in overall value. The reason the Pirates have struggled isn’t down to their position players, even despite Andrew McCutchen’s surprisingly mediocre season.
Instead, it’s their pitching that’s betrayed them. I mentioned last time that pitching coach Ray Searage had a ton of success “fixing” pitchers who’d struggled elsewhere, and tonight’s starter, Francisco Liriano, was seen as the best example of his genius. In 2012, Liriano was terrible with Minnesota, walking 5 per 9, and yielding HRs at a career-high rate. They traded him to the White Sox mid-year, where another pitching guru, Don Cooper, tried to work with Liriano on his mechanics and command. Cooper couldn’t solve the problems, apparently, as Liriano’s control stayed bad, and the result was a year with nearly 160 IP and an ERA in the mid-5’s. His FIP was better than that, but it was in 2011, too, when Liriano posted another 5+ ERA.
The Pirates signed him to a fairly cheap 2-year deal, and then RE-negotiated an even cheaper deal (only $1m guaranteed) when Liriano broke his right arm in what was either a “bathroom fall” or “scaring his kids on Christmas” which is one of the stranger off-field injury explanations I’ve encountered. Almost immediately, Liriano’s results snapped back to his Minnesota glory years – from 2013-2015, he posted 3 excellent years, accumulating nearly 9 fWAR. All hail Ray Searage! So how do we explain this year’s collapse? Liriano’s walk rate is approaching 13%, higher even than in his disastrous 2012. His home run rate’s spiked as well, pushing his FIP over 1.7 runs higher than it was in 2015. There are no obvious signs of horrific luck or defensive ineptitude that would explain this – he’s just pitched poorly.
And that’s kind of the thing with Liriano – I don’t know of a more volatile pitcher from season to season. It was remarkable that Liriano had a *consistent* run in Pittsburgh, but now that it’s over, you remember that he did this with Minnesota twice. He was incredibly in 2006, then awful in 2009. He went back to brilliance in 2010, before collapsing again in 2011-12, as we discussed. There are a number of pitchers who can look brilliant or atrocious from game to game, or sometimes month to month. Liriano has hot YEARS; he’ll have one of those games where he just didn’t feel right in the bullpen, and it’ll last 12-18 months. To be fair, most of his problems have come on the road; he’s been decent (though nothing like his recent years) at home, so this is still a tough pitcher playing in a good environment for him. But he’s certainly not pitching like an ace, and the M’s need to make him work. Of course, the M’s have struggled against left-handed pitching recently, so we’ll see.
1: O’Malley, SS
2: Gutierrez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9/SP: FELIX HERNANDEZ
The M’s rookie-level team in the Arizona League won the first-half division, so they’ve made the playoffs. They join AA club Jackson, who sewed up the first half crown a long time ago. Bakersfield and Tacoma have dominated, especially recently, and look like good bets to make the playoffs in High-A and AAA, respectively. Clinton has a 4 game lead in their division in the 2nd half and they’ve already clinched a playoff spot, so it’s possible that every M’s full-season affiliate AND one short-season club could make the postseason. Last year, only Everett had a winning record, and so of course this year they’re the only affiliate without one (they’re 18-20). Clinton lost on Monday, dropping their record to 61-40. One full year ago, on July 25th, 2015, the Lumberkings were 32-67. Bakersfield was 36-62, Jackson was 37-59 and Tacoma was 47-54. Of those teams now, Bakersfield’s 57-44 mark is the worst. Jackson is 62-37! Minor league wins don’t count in the majors, and winning and developing impact talents aren’t exactly the same thing, but this turnaround is jaw-dropping.