Game 79, Phillies at Mariners + Update on Felix’s New Approach

marc w · June 27, 2017 at 6:16 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

James Paxton vs. Aaron Nola, 7:10pm

The Phillies arrive for a quick two-game series, and tonight’s game features a great pitching match-up between two immensely talented and, at times, frustrating young pitchers. James Paxton has been an enigma since before the M’s drafted him, with his velocity essentially coming and going as he moved from the University of Kentucky to indy league ball and then to the M’s minor leagues. His mechanical adjustments seemingly unlocked his potential, and he’s been one of baseball’s hardest throwing starters for about a year now. Not only that, but the increased velocity came bundled with better control somehow, and so now he’s a FIP triple threat: lots of Ks (thanks velo), not too many walks (thanks whatever magic that adjustment in Tacoma did), and few HRs (again, thanks largely to velo).

The frustrating part is pretty obvious: Paxton’s had trouble staying healthy, and it may relate to a secondary concern: Paxton’s actual runs allowed keep outpacing what his FIP would suggest. Last year, he had a FIP of about 2.80, and an ERA of around 3.80, and an RA/9 (including unearned runs) of 4.61. This year, things are better, but his FIP is still right where it was last year at 2.78, while his ERA is 3.39 and RA/9 is up at 3.69. That’s effective and valuable, as his RA/9 WAR shows (1.1 last year and 1.4 this year despite missing some starts). But we all know he’s capable of pitching like the guy his FIP says he is; we’ve seen it, often for months at a time. My guess is that a more consistently healthy Paxton is a Paxton who doesn’t have the kind of June Paxton’s having this year.

Aaron Nola is Paxton East. He certainly doesn’t throw as hard, but even in the strikeout crazed modern game, Nola’s K/9 was easily in the top 20 out of all pitchers with at least 100 IP last year. His walk rate was low, and his HR/9 was safely under 1, like Paxton’s. Nola paired his 3.08 FIP with an ERA of 4.78 somehow in 2016 (his RA/9 was 5.51). By FIP, he’s a budding star. By RA/9 WAR, he was replacement level. Ok, ok, but anyone can have a weird year with a huge divergence between FIP and ERA. What about this year? A much smaller but still plenty noticeable 3.80 and 4.32, respectively.

The good news for Nola is that Statcast thinks he’s been unlucky; he gives up weak contact, but that contact’s gone for hits a bit more than you’d expect. As you can imagine, Nola’s been worse with men on base and particularly with men in scoring position. But what’s interesting is that Nola seems to change his approach in those situations. While his GB:FB ratio is 1.39 with no one on, it shoots up to 2 with men on and 3.57 with RISP (admittedly, that latter sample’s about 50 PAs). His K rate drops, the GB rate soars…but so do HRs. Nola’s better when he’s getting strikeouts. He may be a bit more predictable when he tries to 6-4-3 his way out of trouble.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C

You may remember back in March I had a post about Felix and the new approach the team wanted him to work on. Instead of a blizzard of sinkers, four-seamers and change-ups all targeted at the knees, the M’s wanted Felix to start exploring other sections of the strike zone, even high strikes, with his fastball. I thought this was great, because the league’s batters have seen much better production on low fastballs in the past few years. It’s only recently that more HRs were hit off of LOW fastballs than high ones. Expected wOBA, SLG%, batting average…whatever you want to look at, batters are doing better on low pitches, and especially low fastballs. Felix’s entire gameplan revolved around keeping the ball down, and thus he was especially vulnerable to a league-wide trend like this. Hence the idea to change things up a bit.

So is Felix actually throwing more high FBs? And how are batters faring on them? The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second…:sigh:. About 1/4 of Felix’s pitches have been fastballs in the upper half of the zone or above (2.5′ or higher) – that’s 52% of his fastballs higher than the middle of the zone this year. Just 40% of his fastballs were thrown that high in 2015, and just 37% last year. So he’s clearly doing more of it. The problem is that batters are doing more damage on them. His wOBA-allowed on these pitches went from around .400 in 2015+16 to .568 this year. 4 of his 8 HRs have come on high fastballs this year. To be even more specific, his sinker’s getting lit up. I don’t really have a prescription for change here, but if he’s going to pitch up, he may want to use the four-seamer for that, and keep the sinker as a change-of-pace or a pitch to disguise his change-up. Either that or reluctantly go back to the old plan…the one that wasn’t working terribly well the past few years. Felix is better than he’s been this year; there’s more in the tank, even if he’s probably not going to be a superstar again. But he’s still got to figure out exactly what tweak’s going to allow him to confuse big league batters again.


7 Responses to “Game 79, Phillies at Mariners + Update on Felix’s New Approach”

  1. Grayfox3d on June 27th, 2017 7:49 pm

    Watching the 3rd inning on game day… does the strike zone just suck right now? or is K zone off because Paxton’s pitches look good but they are being called balls.

  2. stevemotivateir on June 27th, 2017 8:02 pm

    Am I crazy, or did I tune in and see Pagan in the dugout?

  3. Grayfox3d on June 27th, 2017 9:35 pm

    The phillies are terrible! How the hell can you let them beat you like this?!

  4. stevemotivateir on June 27th, 2017 9:37 pm

    ^Nola isn’t terrible.

  5. mrakbaseball on June 27th, 2017 9:55 pm

    Nola might not be terrible, but the Phillies came into tonight’s game on pace to lose 110 games.

  6. dc24 on June 28th, 2017 9:08 am

    Phillies may be terrible, but they are still professional ballplayers and baseball is like that. Offense was disappointing, but I was more disappointed in the bullpen, which was just Zych and Diaz. Keep that game 3-2 or even 4-2 and make Neris sweat a little more.

    Just one game though, let’s get today’s.

  7. Grayfox3d on June 28th, 2017 11:05 am

    And now we get the best news of all!…. Smyly done with Tommy John 12 – 15 months… not the morning I asked for.

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