Game 9, Astros at Mariners
Ariel Miranda vs. Joe Musgrove, 7:10pm
Anyone want to debate the following?
You could make a pretty good case that James Paxton has been the best starter in the majors through two turns in the rotation.
— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) April 11, 2017
Paxton’s start yesterday was masterful, a complete masterclass in using velocity and location. It needed no context; it sits on its own as a brilliant performance. But add that context back in – the home opener for a team whose season-opening road trip went about as bad as possible – and it gets even better. One of the many things that made Felix this club’s undeniable ace was the number of losing streaks he essentially stopped single-handedly. Little 4-5 game skids that would just stop because Felix wasn’t having it anymore, and so he’d just dominate some poor team and win despite a lackluster performance by the offense. There are countless examples, but here’s one to give you an idea. In addition to signaling a potential step forward in his command and growth as a pitcher, yesterday’s game fits nicely alongside some of Felix’s “stopper” games. It’s just a shame that following this team for years gives you so many such memories (“Remember, after that 6 game losing streak, where Felix/Paxton…” “Wait, wait, which 6 game losing streak? The one in 2015, or 2014, or 2013, or 2012, etc.”).*
Tonight’s game is a rematch of the lone game the M’s won down in Houston. Even in that game, Joe Musgrove kept the M’s off balance, though his command wasn’t great. Musgrove now seems to be embracing the Lance McCullers school of pitch mixing – he’s essentially pitching off of his breaking ball, a good slider. In that 5 IP start against Seattle, he threw 41 fastballs (four-seamers+sinkers) and 41 breaking balls (sliders+curves) and the slider was the pitch he used most. He’ll throw it to lefties and righties, and in just about any count. It elicits a swing even more than his fastball, which is pretty rare for a non-change-up. If he’s had a problem in his brief MLB career, it’s the long ball. Part of that may be his home park, but a part of it seems to be fastball command that’s still a work in progress; you can kind of of understand why he’d start throwing sliders all the time given his specific weaknesses. In time, he could be a very serviceable back of the rotation arm or even a solid #3, and as Dave Cameron pointed out this morning, the back of the Astros rotation – now that we know Charlie Morton wasn’t just a 17 inning mirage last year – looks pretty good.**
We’ve seen a lot of the Astros already, so it probably won’t come as a shock to you that the Astros lead the majors in the percentage of breaking balls they throw. Counting just curves/sliders, they rank #1, just ahead of the Mariners. If you expand the definition to include cutters, they’re #2, just behind Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. And if you expand it further to capture change-ups and splitters, they dominate the field, throwing nearly half of their pitches slower/bendier. The gap between #1 and #2 (the Rays) is equivalent to the gap between #2 and #14. It’s early yet, but check out this table from fangraphs showing pitch mix on the year. It’s subtle, but fastball usage is down over the entirety of the pitch fx era – from nearly 61% in 2008 down to just 56% now. Houston’s unusually limited use of the fastball may be enough to explain a good chunk of the drop between 2016-2017, though obviously the trend predates Houston’s current breaking-ball-mania.
1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, SS
Jean Segura heads to the 10-day DL with a hamstring injury, and the M’s don’t want to have Chooch Ruiz as the emergency IF, so they’ve made a roster move. Up from Tacoma comes Mike Freeman, who played a bit for them last year. Freeman needed a 40-man spot, so the M’s have DFA’d left-handed reliever Paul Fry. Motter is the SS, with Freeman stepping into Motter’s utility role. Get well soon, Jean.
Evan Scribner tossed an uneventful 9th, and at least according to the adjusted pitch fx/statcast numbers, seemed to have his spin back. But hold on; that spin rate data produced insane movement numbers for Paxton, numbers that are simply not believable. I’m prepared to believe just about anything regarding James Paxton (bitten by radioactive wolf; has cybernetic implants; secretly holds the power in Canadian government through a lifelike robot he built himself and which he dubbed “Pierre Trudeau” to win the backing of French-speaking Canadians), but there’s no way he was averaging nearly 16″ of rise. We’ll just come back to movement numbers after the system gets recalibrated.
Tacoma splits a double-header in Sacramento. Tacoma took the opener thanks to a great pitching performance from Chase de Jong and two late runs from the offense. Ex-Blue Jay Ricky Romero made his first MiLB appearance in a year and blanked Tacoma for 4 IP in the RiverCats 4-0 win in the nightcap. Ryan Weber blanked Sacto through 3 IP, but the RiverCats scored 4 of of lefty Paul Fry who picked a rotten day for a poor outing. Tacoma’s home opener is tonight, as the Rainiers host El Paso at 7:05. Christian Bergman makes the start for Tacoma against Walker Lockett of the Chihuahuas. Seriously, if you’re not going to the M’s game, or if you’re anywhere near the South Sound, make plans to head up to Tacoma for a game this homestand.
Arkansas got rained out, so they’re playing two today. San Antonio got to Lindsey Caughel early to take the opener 5-1, while Andrew Moore makes his second start of the year in Game 2.
Modesto lost to Stockton 8-3, as Stockton scored 6 runs on 3 HRs against Nathan Bannister. Nick Neidert starts a day game for the Nuts today against A’s prospect Casey Meisner (who came to the Org in a trade for RP Tyler Clippard) of Stockton.
Clinton won their first game of the year against A’s affiliate Beloit 4-2. It was looking bleak, but the L-Kings got 3 runs in the 8th to win it and salvage a great pitching performance from Nick Wells, who went 5 2/3 IP with 9 Ks and 0 BBs, giving up just 1 run. Ljay Newsome makes his 2nd start today against another A’s prospect, ex-Texas Tech pitcher Ty Damron.
* The last time the M’s had a season without at least a 6-game losing streak was also the last time they made the playoffs: 2001.
** His specific quote was that they weren’t the best #3-5 in the game, but were roughly league average, and that Collin McHugh would be better than that if he returns. To me, Morton+Musgrove+just about anyone have much more than “league average” upside, and while they don’t have the track record of, say, the Dodgers/Indians back-of-the-rotation, they’re not far off. They’re not in the Nats (and Cubs/Mets, too) range, but that’s as fearsome a bottom-of-the-rotation as you’re likely to find in the American League.