Game 14, Marlins at Mariners
Ariel Miranda vs. Tom Koehler, 7:10pm
Ah, the fish against the fishermen. This sounds like a promising match-up.
Sorry for the lack of a game post yesterday, but hey, the M’s apparently didn’t need it, wrapping up a timely sweep of the reeling Rangers. By BP’s playoff odds (I know, I know), the M’s gained 6.5% in the past week, though a portion of that was the Angels’ slump as well.
On the plus side, the offense looks much better, and Mitch Haniger looks very, very impressive. Taylor Motter’s been more than just a stop-gap at SS, and thus the M’s line-up looks potent. On the down side, Hisashi Iwakuma averaged 84 MPH on his fastball yesterday, and was (justly) pulled a bit over 50 pitches in. He’s made 3 starts and tossed 15 innings, and has just 6 Ks. Worse, he’s got 6 walks and a hit batsmen, so his signature skill – control – appears to be on the wane. He hasn’t been a disaster this year, yesterday aside, but I am extremely concerned every time he starts. Aaron Goldsmith mentioned on the broadcast yesterday that Iwakuma’s fastball velocity is 2nd slowest thus far in 2017, ahead of only RA Dickey’s – a knuckleballer. I double checked, because there are TWO knuckeballers in the league, but it’s true: Steven Wright’s fastball easily outpaces Kuma’s.
James Paxton was electric on Saturday night, and Jeff Sullivan has a great write-up on how he’s doing it over at Fangraphs. Jeff mentions the way Paxton’s been able to use the high fastball to get swinging strikes as well as weak contact, and has a GIF of Paxton getting Elvis Andrus to pop out on the IF, but I wanted to see if Paxton really is using his fastball differently. The 2017 sample is tiny, but let’s take a look at where he throws his four-seam fastball, focusing on RH bats only – many pitchers target different spots depending on the batter’s handedness, and that’s not what we’re looking for here. Here’s Paxton in 2017:
This looks…pretty random. There are high fastballs, but some low-and-in ones too. You can say he targets the inside half of the plate more than the outside half, but it’s not extreme; there’s no clear, obvious zone he’s attacking.
The assumption Jeff makes, and it’s the same one I’m making, is that this is new. This is cheating a bit since it goes all the way back to 2014, but this looks nearly identical to the 2015 heat map. We’re measuring the same thing here, fastballs to right-handed batters, but in the year 2014. See if you can spot a clear, identifiable pattern:
Kind of likes the low-and-in pitch, huh? This is why Paxton ran a very high GB% despite all of that vertical rise on his fastball thanks to his over-the-top delivery, and you can understand why pitching coaches and others would preach this. Keep the ball down, they can’t hurt you. They’re more likely to hit grounders. Get in, and they can’t extend their arms, etc. All of that may be true, but it comes at a cost. In 2014, he used his fastball against righties *70%* of the time. Right-handed batters who had any kind of scouting report not only knew what pitch was likely to be on its way (84% of first pitches and 84% of pitches when he was behind in the count were fastballs), they knew the quadrant of the zone he was targeting. So much research these days has gone into how to keep batters guessing, and how to ensure that pitch mix isn’t predictable. So much of Paxton’s coaching at the time seems to have been focused on making him as predictable as humanly possible without having him literally tell the batter what was coming and where.
Paxton’s command is much better now, and most explanations of why rely on the exceedingly unsatisfying change in arm slot.* He can target the top of the zone as well as the bottom, and work in and out on hitters, which has obviously made him much harder to hit. I just wonder if part of this improvement is the removal of this limitation on his fastball, the elimination of previous well-intentioned coaching. How much of good coaching is precisely this kind of thing?
Today’s opponent, Tom Koehler is a perfectly normal back of the rotation arm, a righty throwing 92-93 with a good slider and a fastball with lots of vertical rise. In 2014, he had a good season with the Marlins, but it’s been downhill a bit since then. Back in 2014, he threw his four-seam fastball about 1/2 the time, and mixed in a sinker as well, and used his curve a bit more than his slider. Since then, Koehler’s steadily increased the usage of his slider and dialed back on both the curve and fastball, leading to his 2017 pitch mix, which is over 1/4 sliders and more than 1/3 against righties. That usage hasn’t made his slider easier to hit – it’s getting better results than ever. Meanwhile, though, his fastball is getting pounded, with batters increasing their production on it every year.
But he recognizes this, and thus throws more of the pitch that’s good and less of the pitch that’s bad, so it all works out, right? In Koehler’s case, no, it doesn’t work out. Since the start of 2016, batters are slugging .592 on his fastballs (four-seam and sinkers), and while they’re only slugging .254 on his slider, the 20 HRs and tons of XBHs off his fastball show that a good slider isn’t enough (at least in Koehler’s case). Given these numbers, you might expect that Koehler’s really struggled against lefties, but that doesn’t seem to be it either. His platoon splits are silly this year, but in 2016 they were pretty even; Koehler gives up HRs on his fastball, and he’ll give them up to righties and lefties alike.
1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Zunino, C
Tacoma capped off a sweep of Alburquerque today with a 4-3 win in Tacoma. After falling behind 3-1, the R’s got HRs from DJ Peterson and Ben Gamel to take the lead, and got solid relief pitching to hold onto it. Christian Bergman got the win, and Jean Machi notched his 3rd save. Yesterday, the R’s beat the Isotopes 3-1 behind a solid start from Chase De Jong, and that followed a 2-0 shutout win thanks to Ryan Weber on Saturday. All told, the Rainiers have pitched 50 innings in their last 6 games, spanning the last 5 days. In that time, they’ve given up 6 runs, good for an RA/9 of 1.08. That’s good.
Speaking of good run prevention, Andrew Moore was back at it today, tossing 7 IP of 1-run ball at San Antonio. That *raised* his ERA on the year to 0.47. He was technically a reliever on the day, as Steve Cishek started and pitched an uneventful 1st, facing 3 batters and retiring them on a groundout and two flyouts. Thyago Vieira got the save today, with 2 Ks and no walks. Good to see that. Lindsey Caughel had a solid start yesterday in the Travelers’ 4-1 win over the Missions, scattering 4 hits in 6 shutout IP.
Modesto was off yesterday, but gear up for a series with Stockton tonight with Nick Neidert on the mound. He dominated the Ports in his last start back on April 11th; we’ll see if he can do it again in front of a home crowd in Modesto tonight.
Clinton was also off yesterday, and begin a series against former affiliate Wisconsin tonight. Ljay Newsome looks to build on his solid 2nd start, and he’ll be opposed by long time major leaguer Matt Garza, who’s on a rehab assignment.
In good baseballing reads elsewhere, Joe Sheehan wrote a thought-provoking article at Fangraphs last week arguing that pace-of-play and the growth in three true outcomes plate appearances are linked – you can’t *just* “fix” one of them.
And here’s Jeff Passan, noting that HRs are still trending upward. It’s a great piece, if slightly frustrating, as I was planning on making that point in this post. Ah well. Here’s a table!
|Home Runs per 9 Innings – April Only|
We’re just comparing April-to-April here, so while the overall rate last year was slightly higher than 1.13 HR/9, it was lower than that in April. If HRs rise with the temperatures, we’ll blow past 2016’s rate. The more I see, the more I think that Safeco just isn’t the HR-suppressing beast it once was, and I’m still not entirely sure why.
* Nearly every pitcher drops his arm slot when he’s tired. This does not make them 1) throw 5 MPH faster or 2) stop throwing balls.