Game 104, Mets at Mariners: M’s Pitchers and the Limits of Low BABIP

marc w · July 28, 2017 at 5:34 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Ariel Miranda vs. Rafael Montero, 7:10pm

The M’s start a rare series against the Mets today, and we’ve got an interesting match-up between two pitchers who flew way under the radar before making it to the majors. Miranda signed a minor league deal with Baltimore when he was 25. Despite his close-to-the-majors status, he was passed over in Orioles prospect lists, which took some doing. Pitchers ranked ahead of him by BP included such luminaries as David Hess and Gray Fenter. Rafael Montero signed with the Mets in 2011 as a teenager in the Dominican; so far, so normal, but Montero didn’t sign until he was past 19. In a place where elite talent is working out deals at 15 before officially signing them at 16, a guy getting all the way to 19 is not a sign of a future major leaguer.

Montero immediately garnered attention for some absurdly low walk rates; his walks-per-9 started with a 1 in most of his years in the minors, but he wasn’t *just* about avoiding walks. He was an above-average strikeout pitcher as well. He was never going to be a Noah Syndergaard, but he wasn’t Yusmeiro Petit, either (to sabermetric fans of a certain age, the scouting/stats wars surrounding Petit will be very familiar). Montero throws 93-94, occasionally 95. He’s got a pretty good change-up and a slider as well. So if he’s a starter with above average velo and brilliant control, why wasn’t he a big prospect? It’s the same question I have about Miranda. Sure, neither of them are incredible, but they seem like the kind of pitchers that scouts usually like. To be fair, BA had Montero as the #3 Mets prospect once, but dropped him to 8th the next year (and he dropped out of BP’s top 10 altogether). A big part of it is that, despite control of a varied arsenal, neither guy had a standout weapon, a vaunted putaway pitch.

I’d argue Montero’s change-up is pretty close, as is Miranda’s split-change. Both pitches are difficult to square up and allow them to post decent strikeout numbers while keeping opposite-handed batters off balance. Despite their velocity, neither guy’s fastball is all that special, and in fact, it’s their fastballs that give rise to their shared HR problem. Miranda in particular seems to want to induce elevated contact – something that the M’s have prized this year. It’s working; like a Cuban Andrew Moore, Miranda’s GB% is in the low 30s, and that’s helped keep his BABIP in absurdly-low territory. That’s great! But when you give up as many HRs as he does, that kind of caps how far you can go with that BABIP.

Miranda is, in that sense, a microcosm of the M’s pitching staff. As I mentioned way back in April, the M’s clear plan was to get a bunch of pitchers who wouldn’t walk many and who’d give up fly balls. The trade for Jarrod Dyson was critical to this; by getting fly ball pitchers and assembling an all-world defensive outfield, they’d run really low BABIPs and allow their staff to out-pitch what even the M’s assumed would be a fair-to-middling FIP. I think there’s a critical assumption underlying all of this: that Safeco would help keep fly balls in play for Dyson to run under. Unlike that post in April, I have to say that every element of their plan has worked, and worked beautifully. The only problem is that assumption the whole thing rested on.

Since April, the M’s team defense has been on a rapid rise, and their outfield defense in particular has been better than advertised. Back when the M’s acquired Dyson, I worried that there might not be enough chances for a great OF to convert into outs; given that most fly balls are routine, it’s really only the marginal ones that can add or subtract from average. Unless the M’s really amped up the number of chances, they’d have a great OF without opportunities to demonstrate their skill. Well, I was wrong. The M’s lead baseball – comfortably – in the number of balls their OF has had to field. They’re neck and neck with Boston in UZR, and DRS. By defensive efficiency and BABIP-allowed they rank #1, too. The key is that they lead baseball in fly ball percentage. Sure, losing Felix and Iwakuma helped the M’s push up the rankings there, though of course if Drew Smyly’d been healthy, then maybe they would’ve been even higher. This has been the plan, and it helps make sense of some of the minor trades and free agent pick-ups we’ve seen from Dipoto and crew.

So with the best BABIP in the game, the M’s are probably giving up far fewer runs than their FIP, right? Right! But they’re still giving up waaaaay too many runs. The M’s HR/9 is 1.50, third-worst in the game, and the primary driver of a FIP that’s inching close to replacement level. They allow nearly 4.8 runs per game, and that’s simply hard to do when you have a defense playing at this level. The M’s had an elite defensive efficiency not that long ago. It was 2014, and a great outfield anchored by…uh, Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson? pushed the M’s to a .275 team BABIP. Their pitching staff put up a FIP of 3.61, but the defense pushed their ERA down to 3.17 (this is another reminder of just how much the game has changed in a few years thanks to the HR revolution).* The M’s were merely average in preventing HRs, but their defense and a strong bullpen made them elite run-preventers. The M’s have gotten worse at controlling the zone (K-BB%) thanks to age and injuries to some of their best pitchers, but it’s actually *hard* to find teams with BABIPs this low who struggled like this. The examples I can find are way back in the height of the steroid era – the 2002 White Sox, the 2003 Devil Rays.

The M’s may have banked on HRs regressing after surging in 2016, but after rising in mid-2015, the league-wide HR/FB just keeps going up. Unless some change to the ball or bats occurs, I’m not sure it’ll just go down on its own. And if it doesn’t, the M’s may need to rethink this fly-ball-centric strategy. The M’s OF defense has been a treat to watch, but baseball in 2017 is all about the HR.

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

Tacoma and Colorado Springs played a classic at-altitude game last night, with the SkySox winning 16-9. This is the Rainiers final trip to Colorado Springs, as the franchise is leaving the PCL after 2018. Tulsa put a beating on the Arkansas Travellers and recently-promoted pitcher Nick Neidert. Neidert allowed 3 HRs in 4 IP with 7 runs allowed; he’s now made 2 starts in AA, covering 9 1/3 IP. In that time, he’s yielded 14 hits, and 9 earned runs. Whatever weird mojo that allowed Anthony Misiewicz to improve his High-A numbers has not alighted upon Mr. Neidert.

Starters in the minors today include Dylan Unsworth, Reggie McClain and Andres Torres.

* That 2014 team had Chris Young, who posted a BABIP of .238 that year. He was signed by the Royals the next year and Dyson and Co. helped him drop that to .209. It’s funny; pretty much every team Young pitched for (when healthy) posted very low BABIPs. Young’s pretty much the only guy who was able to allow a ton of fly balls and not pay too high a price for it…up until these past two years.


15 Responses to “Game 104, Mets at Mariners: M’s Pitchers and the Limits of Low BABIP”

  1. Westside guy on July 28th, 2017 7:48 pm

    Wow, down 3-0 already.

  2. mrakbaseball on July 28th, 2017 8:02 pm

    The lack of urgency following the off-day is disconcerting. Dug themselves an early 4-0 hole. Zunino’s line drive puts the Mariners on the board.

  3. Westside guy on July 28th, 2017 8:49 pm

    Fortunately Montero seems he’ll-bent on giving it all back!

  4. Westside guy on July 28th, 2017 8:57 pm

    And Seager puts the Mariners ahead, 5-4!

  5. Sowulo on July 28th, 2017 9:01 pm

    I have had my fill of Valencia striking out on pitches more than a foot off the end of his bat.

  6. Grayfox3d on July 29th, 2017 1:51 pm

    ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!! I really hope Haniger is OK…. Im so mad right now…. Now we have another Hurt outfielder and guess what… no tyler o’neil…… so stupid.

  7. Grayfox3d on July 29th, 2017 3:29 pm

    yet another game the bullpen seems to wanna lose for the team.

  8. mrakbaseball on July 29th, 2017 3:54 pm

    Enjoy the USS Mariner replicas!!!

  9. Notfromboise on July 29th, 2017 4:17 pm

    OK Diaz, take a deep breath and remember you should pwn souls against the bottom of the Met lineup.

  10. Notfromboise on July 29th, 2017 4:23 pm

    Ok Diaz, You got Cabrera no problem.. shake it off.

  11. Notfromboise on July 29th, 2017 4:25 pm

    Never Easy. Glad the team is one game closer to .500. Really excited to see Erasmo back, i always liked him even back when we had actual healthy starting pitchers.

  12. Westside guy on July 30th, 2017 4:35 pm

    And Big Maple does it again on Sunday!

  13. Notfromboise on July 31st, 2017 12:25 pm

    Its weird seeing some of these ‘insiders’ saying the Mariners need to upgrade at 1B. Maybe its stockholm’s syndrome, but this is the best we’ve had it at first base since the days of Alvin Davis and Richie Sexon.

    We need legit starting pitching and a bullpen assassain.. 8th or 9th Inning, just make it happen.

  14. Notfromboise on July 31st, 2017 2:37 pm

    Looks like Grey and Darvish are both off the table. Shucks. On a side note: That Dodger team is looking pretty legendary at this point.

  15. Notfromboise on July 31st, 2017 2:40 pm

    Two random facts, one fun, one not fun at all.

    Fun: The Astros are a whopping 38-15 this year ON THE ROAD.

    Not fun: I learned this fact while realizing the Mariners have played 59 home games so far this year and only 47 on the road. Uphill climb, this second half shall be, in more ways than one.

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