Game 128, Mariners at Braves – Fly Ball Revolution Faces Setbacks

marc w · August 23, 2017 at 4:25 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. RA Dickey, 4:35pm

The M’s just got shut out in an important game against one of the worst pitching clubs in baseball. If they got something of a free win the night before when they kicked the ball around the diamond but still came away with a one-run win, they’ve given it away. This has been the frustrating thing about the team, as they look great for a spell and then just lose it for a day or a week. They’ve been hanging around .500 for a long, long time, and despite the fact that no one’s really running away with the second wild card, you get the sense that they can’t wait around for the wild card to fall to them by default: they need a 7-3, 8-2 stretch for a change.

As we’ve talked about a lot, the pitching staff’s woes mean that they’re going to need to hit. The M’s offense was very good in the first half, grading out as solidly above average. No, they weren’t mashing like the Astros/Dodgers, and they didn’t control the zone quite as much as Dipoto and Company would like, but they were buoyed by some great performances by young hitters like Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and Mitch Haniger. In the second half, they’ve seen Nelson Cruz come alive, and that’s helped push their ISO and power numbers above their first-half rates. The problem is that everything else has gotten worse, as the team’s walk rate’s down and those young outfielders are now actively hurting the cause. The M’s runs per game average of 4.66/game ranks 17th now. It’s always going to be a tall order to make the playoffs when your rotation includes guys that you’ve acquired from the minor league systems of other clubs, but this team simply can’t overcome the challenges they face with a below average offense.

So what happened here? I talked a lot about how Ben Gamel and Taylor Motter had improved their approach back in in April and May, and while I didn’t talk as much about Mitch Haniger, he was a standout performer in the early going. As far as guys with new/improved approaches at the plate, Yonder Alonso was one of the most talked about in baseball, and now HE plays for the M’s. Are these fly ball revolutionaries maintaining their higher launch angles? Again, there’s a lot of variance between players, but in general, pitchers have adjusted how they attack these guys, and the hitters haven’t yet made counter-adjustments.

Ben Gamel’s launch angle in 2016 was under 4 degrees, and upped that to nearly the league average in the early going. This generated a flurry of line drives that propelled his BABIP into the thermosphere for a while. After running GB/FB ratios of 1.2-1.4 consistently, he opened 2017 by halving that to 0.6-0.7 for a while. This wasn’t necessarily because he was hitting fly balls – that was Yonder Alonso’s adjustment. Instead, he was hitting everything on a line. Hitting line drives is great, and it made him insanely productive for a few months, but even then, there was something of a problem: he was hitting all of those line drives against fastballs, but he struggled against non-fastballs. Since then, a couple of things have happened. First, his production on *fastballs* fell, and second, he started putting more breaking balls into play.

Alonso was always a frighteningly under-powered 1B, and he cratered last year in Oakland, grading out as a below-average player. Instead of non-tendering him, the A’s were encouraged by reports of a swing change and saw their patience pay off as Alonso started the season on fire. The swing change basically doubled his average launch angle, and he was able to hit far more HRs than anyone would’ve thought in the early going. Since then, though, he’s had a rougher go of it. Like Gamel, he’d essentially halved his GB/FB ratio for a while, but it’s been creeping back up as he hits more and more ground balls. Like Gamel, his production on fastballs is down after a hot start as well.

There are a couple of possibilities here. One is the nihilistic view, which says that all of these statcast measures are essentially noise, and that hitters have less control over things like launch angle than we’ve thought. Yes, some hitters are capable of making lasting changes that benefit their production, but that fact isn’t related to launch angle, per se – rather, launch angle is the byproduct of other changes in things like pitch recognition, and so we’re focused on the wrong thing just because we now have more data on it. The slightly less nihilistic view is that launch angles are very much controllable by hitters, and that operationalizing this – putting something like “change your swing plane” into effect on a real-life baseball diamond – is probably at least partially related to the pitch type you’re trying to hit. That is, Yonder Alonso or Ben Gamel’s changes in swing plane as measured by launch angle came about because they were prepared to make a particular swing at a particular pitch (a fastball) in a particular location. Instead of trying to do X when you see a fastball in this zone, do Y instead. Both of them are very selective hitters and were presumably ready to pounce when a pitch meeting their favored attributes came along.

But you can’t simply wait for those pitches. Pitchers will try to avoid throwing the kinds of pitches that you’ve demonstrated mastery of, and with due respect to Alonso, I’m not sure it’s a timing issue, or if it is, the pitchers have some control over a batter’s timing. Through July 1st, Ben Gamel put 87 fastballs into play (including HRs, hits, outs), and Alonso put 91 into play. They put just 76 and 75 non-fastballs in play, respectively. Thus, their ratio of fastballs to non in play were 1.14:1 and 1.21:1, and for guys who demolished fastballs, that worked well. Since July 1, Gamel’s put 56 fastballs in play and Alonso’s chipped in with 52 – but their ratios have tanked. Gamel’s hit 73 non-fastballs while Alonso’s at 51. So Alonso’s 1.2 is now an even 1, while Gamel’s 1.14 is down to 0.77. It’s not that they’re missing fastballs, and it’s not even that they’re swinging through tough sliders or something – Gamel’s K rate is down in the 2nd half. But they’re not hitting their favored pitch types, and pitchers have noticed. Gamel’s average launch angle since July 1 is below 7 degrees, and it’s just 3 degrees on fastballs. He’s regressed into pretty much the exact same hitter he was in the minors and the guy we saw last year. Alonso’s launch angle is still fairly high, but along with some expected regression in his HR/FB ratio, he’s clearly mishitting pitches because pitchers are pitching him differently. He made a huge adjustment this offseason; now he’s going to have to make another one. If pitchers are keeping the ball away a bit more, especially low and away, it might take a different kind of swing adjustment than the one he used to obliterate fastballs over the middle or up. Gamel needs more help, and this will be a big test of Edgar Martinez’s teaching skills. Old habits are tough to break, but in this case, they really need breaking.

RA Dickey, the nearly 43-year old ex-Mariner knuckleballer is still hanging on thanks to a perpetually low BABIP-allowed. His HR rate fairly high, but it’s nothing too problematic; he should be used to it, anyway, as his HR/9 was in the 1.4 range a few times when he played for Toronto. As you might expect, he’s shown no real persistent platoon splits. Knuckeballers are weird.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Valencia, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9/SP: Erasmoooo Ramirez

The development of Danny Valencia as a corner OF is still in its early stages, but it seems to have enabled the M’s to make a surprising move. David Phelps is healthy and was activated from the 10-day DL today. To make room on the active roster, the M’s have once again DFA’d OF Leonys Martin. Martin hit for a bit of power since rejoining the M’s, but his overall line wasn’t pretty, so the M’s may think they can once again slip him through waivers and stash him in Tacoma. The move leaves the M’s with three healthy OFs in Heredia, Gamel, and Haniger, but Jarrod Dyson should be back soon. With Valencia stepping in at RF, the M’s obviously think they have enough on hand to survive without Martin until Dyson heals, and they may think they can bring up a youngster from AAA if they need a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner. I get not wanting to lose Martin for nothing, but given his prolonged offensive struggles and the fact that his best asset – OF defense- is at least somewhat redundant on this team, I’ll defer to the M’s on this one. If they’d optioned Taylor Motter, they wouldn’t really be able to give the infielders an off day, and he’d have to stay in the minors for 10 days. They could option a relief pitcher, but the current plan seems to be to limit starters to 4+ innings, and in THAT context, going with an 8-man pen seems understandable. I was a bit surprised Martin slid through waivers before, and the M’s may be in a position to know with some certainty that he could do so again. Whoever’s in the OF going forward, the M’s need offense.

Probables in the minors tonight include Everett’s own Aaron West, whom the M’s picked up from Houston on July 30th. He’ll start for Arkansas, and he’s pretty familiar with the Texas League, having pitched for Corpus Christi in parts of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Modesto turns to Tyler Jackson, whom the M’s signed as an undrafted free agent this year out of Clemson. Steven Ridings starts for Clinton while Randy Bell pitches for Everett.

Sam Gaviglio’s 5 IP, 1 ER performance with no walks and 6 Ks edges Ljay Newsome for pitching line of the day for yesterday, while Joey Wong’s 2-3 with a HR in his very first game for Tacoma takes the nod for batting lines.


7 Responses to “Game 128, Mariners at Braves – Fly Ball Revolution Faces Setbacks”

  1. Longgeorge1 on August 23rd, 2017 5:09 pm

    DH? DH? We don’t need no stinkin’ DH!

  2. mrakbaseball on August 23rd, 2017 5:41 pm

    Left hamstring tightness for Canó.

  3. Grayfox3d on August 23rd, 2017 6:59 pm

    hah! Looking like were going to lose 2 out of 3 to one of the worst pitching teams in baseball, I don’t know how this team is hanging around .500 because this is terrible baseball.

  4. Grayfox3d on August 23rd, 2017 7:05 pm

    Ok bullpen…. do NOT blow this damn game!!!!!

  5. Grayfox3d on August 23rd, 2017 7:53 pm

    Winner winner chicken dinner.

  6. Notfromboise on August 23rd, 2017 9:12 pm

    Question of the day, wow was that random and wonderful

  7. Notfromboise on August 23rd, 2017 9:30 pm

    Even more amazing was Diaz striking out 3 batters and going 4 outs in a 12 PITCH performance. I love it when Diaz is dominating.

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