Cactus League – The Avant-Garde Rockies at Mariners

marc w · March 6, 2018 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. German Marquez, 5:40pm

Another night game in the Cactus League as the M’s host Colorado tonight in Peoria. Mike Leake looks to build what’s been an absolutely brilliant start, and faces off with hard-throwing righty German Marquez. Marquez throws a four-seam fastball at about 96 MPH, pairing it with a hard curve, an occasional change, and a rarely-used, but effective-in-spots sinker. Marquez added plenty of velo in 2017, and was a generally effective/league-average-or-better starter for the Rockies, so he’s worth talking about in his own right, but I want to talk about the system that gave us German Marquez. The Rockies are doing something, and Marquez is just one example.

I mentioned this last year when the M’s and Rockies squared off in interleague play, but the Rockies have overhauled their approach to pitching. Playing at altitude requires you to think very carefully about your approach, or else you end up with the Rockies pitching staffs of the pre-humidor era, the nadir of which intersected with the steroid era. Over 1999-2000, the Rockies hurlers allowed 458 home runs, and put up a collective ERA of 5.66 with a FIP of 5.32. *After* the humidor, the Rockies have been, I think, underappreciated for their HR-suppressing ability. The Mariners have given up more HRs than the Rockies in most years since 2004, and that’s continued into this most recent HR explosion. Other teams looking to reduce HRs have attempted to minimize the pitches that go for homers most often: four-seam fastballs. The Astros throw a ton of pitches low in the zone, and feature a steady diet of non-fastballs. Same with the Yankees, who threw shockingly few fastballs in 2017, a strategy which led them to give up about 50 fewer HRs than their batters’ knocked. The Rockies know that ground balls are the surest way to avoid HRs, but they’ve taken a completely different approach to producing them: they throw a blizzard of…four-seam fastballs.

The Rockies led baseball last year in ground ball rate. They also led baseball in the percentage of four-seamers thrown, and by quite a ways. This strategy’s been kicking around Colorado for a while, as they led baseball in four-seamers from 2010-2015 (the little HR ice age), too. But they’d never come close to their percentage last year, and had a four-seam percentage 10 percentage points lower as recently as 2015.

To be clear, the Rockies are not the only team that’s tried a steady diet of four-seamers. The Rays were the prime example of this approach in recent years, as they had pitchers with high spin rates (and lots of vertical rise) trying to generate fly balls in a HR-suppressing ballpark with an OF patrolled by Kevin Kiermaier. The approach made their breaking balls/splitters more effective, and played to the strength of their defense. The Rockies are the first to use this approach to get *ground balls* – and they’ve been shockingly good at it. It hasn’t made them a great overall staff, and they’ve given up some HRs and plenty of extra-base hits, but so much of that comes from their spacious park. They’ve turned middle-to-back-of-the-rotation pitching prospects like Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland into…middle-to-back-of-the-rotation major league pitchers. And not just “eh, that’ll play in Colorado, I guess,” but legitimate league-average production. I would really like to know how.

The Mariners have talked a lot about fastballs this off-season. It’s been a subject on the Wheelhouse Podcast several times, and so we now scrutinize each new addition’s fastball metrics, from spin to movement to approach. Given the run environment, or more specifically, the home run environment the game operates in, each team *should* spend time thinking about how to use each pitcher’s arsenal to limit hard-hit, pulled contact. The M’s clearly do. But here’s the problem:

HRs Allowed
M’s, 2016-17 450
Rockies, 1999-00 458

The M’s pitchers have yielded essentially exactly the same number of HRs as the abysmal Rockies’ staffs of 1999-2000. Whatever the M’s have done, it hasn’t worked. Yes, yes, injuries. And what about the new ball? The Reds gave up way more! That’s all very true. But if you’re in the same neighborhood in HRs-allowed as pre-humidor Colorado…yeesh.

I guess I hadn’t realized just what a difference it’s made, as the Rockies haven’t had a season with over 200 HRs allowed since 2002 (they gave up exactly 200 in 2004). The M’s have gone above 200 a few times, including 2004 and then blowing past it these past two seasons. Part of this is the fact that the dimension changes in Safeco have made for a very different environment, but part of it seems to be that the M’s approach is either not quite working, or is not well-suited to Safeco. Not sure which at this point, but the M’s really may want to look at what Colorado’s doing. An M’s staff with Colorado’s HR rates would be a formidable one.

No word on who’s coming off the 40-man to make room for Ichiro!. Ryan Divish reports that it’ll be a reliever. Armstrong/Morin/Moll/Bradford have to be nervous.
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Ford, 1B
8: Perkins, RF
9: Andreoli, LF
SP: Leake


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