Game 17, Mariners at Athletics
James Paxton vs. Cesar Valdez, 7:05pm
The M’s head into Oakland for a series against the surprisingly resilient Athletics. Before the season, the A’s looked like a team that simply wasn’t built to compete in the AL. With a questionable rotation and a line-up that’d struggle to make contact, it looked like a rebuilding year in the making. It still may be one, but a hot start from LF Khris Davis and a surprisingly deep starting 5 means that the A’s are tied with Seattle, and might hang around the fringes of contention longer than we thought.
As in the Texas series, the M’s miss the A’s #1 starter, the suddenly-fascinating Kendall Graveman. Unfortunately, it’s not just a scheduling thing – the righty’s on the DL with a strained shoulder. The A’s will also be missing starting SS Marcus Semien, who fractured a bone in his wrist and is scheduled to have surgery on it. In Graveman’s place, the A’s have brought up Cesar Valdez, a Dominican starter who hasn’t pitched in the majors since *2010*. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of him, but I’m guessing Jerry Dipoto knows the guy. Valdez was signed out of the DR at a suspiciously advanced age (20); maybe he was a converted position player, I don’t know. He moved to the affiliated minors in 2006, starting off in Yakima, under the newly-installed director of player personnel and scouting, working with AJ Hinch to oversee the Snakes’ minor leagues. Valdez rose through the ranks and had a cup of coffee with the D-Backs in May/June of 2010, right before Dipoto became the interim GM. Almost immediately after replacing Dipoto, Kevin Towers traded away Valdez and he’s spent years in the Mexican League, trying to remake himself from a junkballer with so-so command to a junkballer with very good command. After a great year in Mexico in 2015, the Astros brought him back to affiliated ball and he pitched well in the PCL in 2016. They had no room, though, so he signed with Oakland as a free agent and with a brief stop-off for the DR in the World Baseball Classic, he’s been lights out in a couple of AAA starts for Nashville.
He was a sinker/slider guy way back in 2010, but seemed to feature a lot of a split-style change-up in spring training this year, and I’d imagine the M’s will see a lot of them tonight. He gets surprisingly good sink on his fastball, and always had a reputation as a ground ball guy coming through the Arizona farm system.
Given that thumbnail sketch, you can kind of see why the A’s were interested. The Astros have gone all-in on the low pitch this year, with fully 61% of their pitches thus far classed as in the bottom third of the zone or below (the usual 5-zone definition at BaseballSavant that I/others use a ton). But the A’s are remarkably close, at 59.4%, ranking 3rd in MLB in such pitches. They believe in sinkers, as they have a starter in Graveman who’s essentially abandoned all other pitches and JUST throws sinkers at the knees now. Their other starters keep the ball down in other ways: Jharel Cotton’s tumbling change-up falls through the bottom of the zone, and as a change-up, it generates plenty of out-of-zone swings. Andrew Triggs relies on a heavy sinker from a low arm-slot and has all but abandoned the top of the zone. You get the idea. If Valdez can do that through a combination of 88 MPH sinkers and 80 MPH split/changes, then he’ll fit right in.
One result of the A’s approach is intuitive, but worth pointing out: they throw a LOT of balls out of the strike zone. The A’s lead baseball in the percentage of pitches tracked by Statcast that come in out of the strike zone, with the Angels close behind. And look at the M’s! They’re dead last, and are last *by a mile*.
The M’s apparently take their zone-controlling seriously, and, perhaps problematically, quite literally. You see the same thing in the Zone% numbers at Fangraphs, with the M’s #1 and the A’s at #30. As you’d expect, the A’s staff has walked significantly more than the M’s, despite a nearly identical K rate. But it’s actually the A’s who’ve posted the superior FIP numbers on the year, thanks to the fact that the M’s have nearly doubled the A’s in HRs allowed. The A’s stay down in the zone (and below) for a reason, and they seem quite willing to trade walks for HRs. The M’s seem more willing to pitch up (though they could stand to do it more), and MUCH more likely to challenge batters, even if it means giving up some loud contact. Felix is obviously the best example, as he finally walked his first batter of the season yesterday. He’s given up 5 HRs already, tied for 2nd-most in the league. Look at the spike in his Zone%! It’s admirable to challenge hitters, and not be scared off of your own gameplan, but we may not have seen the last 440’+ HR of the season hit off our valiant King.
James Paxton’s pitched like a demigod thus far. These “trade offs” described above don’t really apply to someone pitching like Paxton, so he hasn’t made any. His control issues cleared up last year, so there’s no big shift in his Zone%, and he’s obviously not allowed a HR all year. His contact rate is in the top 10 in baseball, and it’s driven by phenomenally good marks on IN-ZONE contact. There are two things pitchers can do that are difficult, but critical: either make batters swing at balls, or make them miss on strikes. Of the two, the latter’s probably the toughest, but it’s working for Paxton thus far. Mind you, while his overall contact rate is near the likes of Chris Sale and Danny Salazar, his zone contact rate’s sandwiched between the unlikely pairing of Jason Vargas (#1!) and Ian Kennedy. Baseball is weird, and early-season leaderboards are often surreal.
By pretty much any metric you want to look at, Paxton’s been unreal. ERA? Obviously. FIP? K-BB%? Contact%? Exit velocity? Check, check, check. He hasn’t met the high expectations M’s fans had following last year – he’s blown them out of the water. The only pitchers who’ve been near his level in the early going are Chris Sale in Boston and Noah Syndergaard in New York. I’m still giddy from seeing his last start, so I’ll stop before getting too hyperbolic, but enjoy this run.
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
The Rainiers bullpen suffered an ill-timed meltdown in yesterday’s 9-4 loss in El Paso. Chris Heston was decent through 5 IP, leaving with a tie game at 3-3. Nick Hagadone, who’d K’d 10 of the 11 batters he’d faced on the year came in and gave up a run, and then Mark Lowe gave up a 5 spot, and that was essentially that. 2 hits from DJ Peterson and Dan Vogelbach knocked his first HR of the year for Tacoma. Today, Dillon Overton makes his first start for Tacoma. With Overton back in Tacoma (he was sent down when the M’s activated Tony Zych), the Rs now have 6 starting pitchers on the club – Weber, Gaviglio, Heston, de Jong, Bergman and Overton. We’ll see how they divvy up the games, but one thing was certain: someone needed to go help out in AA instead.
That person was Dylan Unsworth, who’ll start today’s game for the Arkansas Travelers against Springfield and big Cardinals prospect Austin Gomber.
Modesto lost to Stockton and A’s prospect AJ Puk 5-2. The Nuts scored two unearned runs off of Puk through 4 IP, but had only a single hit against him. The lefty has 20 Ks in 12 IP on the year, and is probably about due for a promotion to AA. Today, Reggie McClain tries to get some revenge against Stockton and Casey Meisner, who tumbled down the prospect rankings after a rough 2016. Thus far in 2017, it’s been even rougher.
Clinton beat Wisconsin 6-3 behind a solid start from Brandon Miller and 2 XBH including a HR from 1B Kristian Brito. Today, the Lumberkings kick off a series with Astros’ affiliate Quad Cities, and Tim Viehoff will take the mound for Clinton against 2016 14th rounder Carson LaRue, who’s only pitched in a handful of innings between 2016-17, but has been extremely hard to hit thus far.