Cactus League Check-In (and another game, too)

marc w · March 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The Cactus League “season” grinds on, as the M’s send Drew Smyly to the hill today as they host the Rangers. At this point, with the M’s not quite a month into their preparations and after 10 or so practice games, we’ve seen pretty much every pitcher the M’s will begin the regular season with. While no one’s throwing the way they will in July, pitchers are – even in early March – throwing much the same as they will come April. As Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma have lost ground on their fastball velocity, their spring training numbers picked up the decline early: Felix’s ST velocity has been within 1 MPH or so of his April velocity going back several years. Hisashi Iwakuma’s 90MPH velocity was the same in March of 2012 as it was when the season began; his velo spike in 2013 was already showing up in March of that year, and his 2016 decline was reflected in last year’s spring numbers. So while there are plenty of very real caveats to using tiny snippets of spring training pitch FX numbers, it’s not like they’re completely useless.

Felix Hernandez
Felix comes into 2017 in great shape after re-dedicating himself to offseason fitness and strength training. He was pretty clearly unhappy with his declining stuff, and to his credit, took it upon himself to regain a tick or two on his sinker and fastball. A year ago, Felix was throwing about 91 MPH during the spring, which is in line with what he’d do the rest of the way. Thus far in 2017, it looks like his velocity may have crept up slightly. He averaged 92 with his sinker the other day, and he touched 93 several times…something he didn’t do at all last spring. That’s not a huge improvement, but anything other than continued velocity decline would be pretty welcome news. It may not mean anything, but his change has not had an equivalent gain, meaning there’s a bit more separation between fastball and offspeed. Felix hasn’t really needed that separation, and it given the sample, it may be nothing, but it’s something to watch for as we wait for meaningful games to start.

Thyago Vieira
Vieira’s incredible velocity was the story of the Arizona Fall League, and the imposing Brazilian gets regular coverage in Ryan Divish’s twitter feed and game stories. He routinely exceeded 100 MPH in Arizona, and posted decent control numbers during the 2016 minor league season. That sounded like a great combination, and one that could catapult the 23 year old to the majors at some point this year. At this point, his average velocity’s down a tick or two from the Fall League, though his peak velocity shows he’s still more than capable of 100-101. The problem’s been his control, and Divish noted in his first appearance that he eased up on his fastball in order to find the zone. Vieira pitched again this weekend, and had even more trouble trying to locate his pitches. Just 12 of his 25 fastballs were strikes, with the majority of his misses clustering towards the right-handed batters box. Plenty of pitchers have command lapses in early March, so it’s not yet a huge red flag, but given the control issues that have plagued his tenure in the M’s system (at least until last year), it’s something to watch. On the plus side, it’s nice that Vieira can dial his fastball back and STILL sit in the upper 90s. (Kate Preusser has a great profile of him today at Fangraphs, incidentally.)

Chris Heston
I mentioned in the game preview before his first appearance that it’d be great to see him touching 90 instead of the 88 he was at in his first MLB action since TJ surgery last year. In that start, he was still firmly in the 88-89 range, but he looked much better over the weekend, touching 91 and averaging just under 90. Obviously, velocity’s not a huge part of Heston’s game, but here his velocity is more a measure of his overall arm strength. Heston was a decent big league starter before his injury, and while his upside isn’t that high, it’s not bad for a potential 5th-6th-7th starter. Given that the injury risk in the rotation is always high, and probably higher still for the M’s, depth like Heston is critical. If he can build on the velocity he showed the other day, he’s got a decent chance to add some value. It’s not all the way back to pre-injury levels yet, but at least the trend’s going in the right direction.

James Paxton
Ok, ok, when I said spring velocity numbers weren’t totally useless…that doesn’t apply to James Paxton. Perhaps no pitcher in recent memory’s had such a varied record in terms of his velocity. The fact that he’s had so many nagging injuries probably has something to do with it, but it’s not the only thing. In early March of 2013, he averaged 91 MPH on his fastball, before getting a September call-up that year on the strength of his 95-96 MPH heater. He sat about 95 the following spring, and bumped that up to 96 in April before a long, injury-necessitated layoff. His velo was fairly stable until April of 2015, when it briefly dipped a bit to just under 94, but he was back on track before another injury took several more months from him. Last spring, he was down noticeably, averaging 92 or so- he’d show flashes of 95 MPH velo, but wasn’t able to sustain it, and thus lost his bid for a rotation spot to Nate Karns and headed to Tacoma instead. You know what happened then – he touched 100 in his first game back for Seattle and averaged 98, and while his velocity dimmed a bit towards the end of the year, he sustained the highest velocity of his career for half a season. Given all of that, I was very interested to see where he was this spring, even if we’ve just demonstrated that Paxton’s spring velo bears surprisingly little relationship to his regular season numbers. This Saturday, Paxton averaged 95, with his fastest pitch registering 97. That’s clearly down from where he left off, but we’ll see if he improves over the course of the spring or if he again does something completely different during the season. I’ll admit that, despite its lack of predictive power, it would make me feel a lot more confident in the M’s rotation to see Paxton sitting 97 in a game this spring.

Ok, there’s still a game today, and maybe we’ll see how Drew Smyly’s velocity looks.

1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Valencia, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Zunino, C
7: Heredia, LF
8: Motter, 2B
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Smyly


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