Game 15, Astros at Mariners – Strikeouts, As Far As the Eye Can See

marc w · April 18, 2018 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Gerrit Cole, 7:10pm

Having beaten Dallas Keuchel, former Cy Young winner, the M’s were beaten in turn by future Cy Young candidate, Lance McCullers. Their reward from having split those two games? Facing Gerrit Cole, who’s been utterly dominant thus far.

Perhaps no pitcher in recent memory has moved between two organizations, or at least big league clubs, who have such a clear, obvious Strategy when it comes to pitching. The Pirates, under Ray Searage, famously preached throwing sinkers low in the zone. If you were a journeyman sinkerballer, you might flourish in a system that’s almost mono-maniacally focused on sinkers. But if you were, say, Gerrit Cole, #1 overall pick, blessed with a high-90s four-seam fastball, what would you do? Adjust the system to the player’s strengths, or adjust the player’s strengths to the system? Easy – Pittsburgh instructed Cole to throw a bunch of sinkers, and he did, and when he wasn’t hurt, he was pretty darn effective, capped by a brilliant 2015 in which he racked up 5.5 fWAR. Since then, and with the rise of the HR, Cole regressed a bit, throwing a solid but not outstanding 200 IP last year. As league-wide K rates continued to spike (more on that later), Cole’s stagnated and even dropped a bit.

What would happen when he got to Houston, a team that likes low pitches but loves breaking balls and whiffs even more? Cole is essentially unrecognizable, and, more importantly, unhittable. It’s early, but Cole’s K:BB ratio coming in is 36:4 in just 21 IP. Yes, yes, sure, that’s a tiny sample – but it’s just so out of line with his previous career. Cole has pitched in MLB since 2013, and in that time had exactly two starts with more than 10 Ks – one in 2013, and one in 2014. In three starts this year, he’s put up 11, 11, and 14 strikeouts. This is a new level of performance. The Astros’ approach, paired with Cole’s remarkable arm strength/quickness, has created a monster.

Strikeouts are up throughout the game, but even within that, Cole stands out. It’s rare that starters can get to 14 Ks, because they simply don’t pitch long enough anymore. Shorter starts and more innings shifted to the bullpen (which have grown as a result) in turn push league K rates ever higher, as teams don’t pay a times-through-the-order penalty, and as managers mix and match to get the platoon advantage as much as possible. You see that now, as relievers have thrown about 41% of the innings in the young season – and remember that’s before starting pitching depth has been battered by injury, and before teams have needed to use 5th starters as much. It may go up from here. For context, relievers threw 38.1% of IP last year, 36.7% the year before that, 33.5% in 2014. Right in line with that trend, you’ve got the league K/9 setting a new record every year for the past *10 years*. Given that, it shouldn’t be a shock that the league-wide K rate is up yet again, but the magnitude of it is pretty amazing – a half a percentage point, from 8.34 to 8.82, and this is in April, when pitch velocities are lower.

Reliever K/9 is already over 9, or a strikeout per inning, and obviously the overall K rate is closing in on 1/IP, and may get there either this year or the next. What would that look like? Well, for a preview, check out the minor leagues. After looking at yet another set of box scores littered with double-digit strikeout totals, I took a look at the league-wide strikeout rates in the full-season leagues this year. They’re up, and yes, it’s the latest point in a steady, upward trend line, but the magnitude of it floored me. Last year, the Texas League K/9 was 7.8 per 9, actually down slightly from the year before. This year, it’s 9.3. The entirety of the league now gets more than a strikeout per inning. How about the Southern League? 9.2, same as the International League. In the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, this trend is pretty advanced, as the league is closing in on a league-wide K/9 of 10 – they’re at 9.8 right now. The California League is at 9.8 too, but at least people hit HRs over there. I’m struggling to convey just how shocking I find this – a full season league has never had a K/9 of 9 before, and now I can only find a couple of leagues with a K/9 UNDER 9 (and just barely).

The M’s affiliates, stocked as they are with minor league free agents, are all over the map in this metric. The Rainiers are 2nd in the league, with a team K/9 near 10. But they’re among the lowest in the Cal League and in the Texas League. Clinton, though…Clinton. The Lumberkings currently have a team K/9 of over 12, and just a single pitcher has a K/9 under 10, some poor kid who’s only K’d 6 in 6 2/3 IP. Does this mean the M’s are bringing up a fireballing class of relief prospects? Not necessarily – if anything, it’s now harder to identify bat-missing that stands out from the crowd, now that seemingly every low-level 6th inning guy gets 12 Ks every 9 IP. A big part of WHY the minors has seen this explosion is that the minors have seen the most comprehensive changes in starter workload. No prospect throws 200 IP anymore, and that means starters are going 3-4-5, maaaaybe 6 IP. There are a lot of innings left over, and those are going to a fleet of relievers schooled in things like how to improve velocity. Teams don’t worry if batting prospects have high K rates as long as they’re effective overall, so there’s nothing countering this trend towards more and more strikeouts.

Is this what we’ll see in the majors in a few years? 200 IP seasons are already an endangered species; will we see a list of ERA qualifiers that’s like 10 names long? Would you care? As an M’s fan, I’d like to figure out where the next competitive advantage is going to come from. What is THIS org going to do better than everyone else, something that can give the team a real, tangible advantage. I keep thinking that they’re already at a disadvantage in this trend, no matter what Clinton’s doing, because teams like the Astros are already so far ahead – and Cleveland’s ahead of Houston in terms of maintaining a true-talent K rate near 25% or 9.5/9 innings. The M’s have attempted to zig while the league zags and get low-BABIP, non-turbocharged strikeout pitchers behind James Paxton, but to date, it hasn’t really worked.

Mike Leake looked like a good candidate for this strategy after he showed an ultra-low walk rate last year and some contact management. As decent as he’s pitched this year, those attributes haven’t been there for him in 2018 – he’s walked more than he’s struck out, and he’s given up some really crushed contact. Why? A part of it may be that his velocity’s down not only from where he was last September, but down by at least 1 MPH across the board from where he was in April of 2017. It’s been very cold, but that’s a worrying trend. He’s throwing his change-up more than he has since 2013, and it’s been fairly effective – but that’s balanced by a decline in the effectiveness of his cutter. That pitch used to take pressure off of his sinker, and give batters a different look, but as he’s shifted from the sinker to the cutter, the results are essentially a mix of the two – there’s no net gain in effectiveness.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Vogelbach, 1B
9: Freitas, C
SP: Leake

Welcome back, Ben Gamel. Ariel Miranda was optioned back to AAA to make room. Consider the can kicked for 5 days; the M’s pitching probable is listed as TBA on Sunday the 22nd, but it kind of looks like Erasmo Ramirez will make that start.

Tied at 2 in the 8th, the Rainiers scored 6 runs to beat Albuquerque 8-2, tatooing Isotopes reliever Austin “Burning Down the” House for all 6 runs. John Andreoli went 2-5 and still has a SLG% above .650. They’ll send Rob Whalen to the mound in tonight’s game.

Arkansas beat Corpus Christi 6-3, despite another great appearance from Hooks pitcher Josh James. James has faced Arkansas in his last two appearances and gone a combined 10 IP, given up no runs on 4 hits with 2 BBs and…16 strikeouts. The Traveleres are off today to, uh, travel.

A’s prospect Jesus Luzardo (an 80-grade name for fans of 90s noise-punk bands) K’d 9 in 5 no-hit innings and Stockton blanked Modesto, 4-0. Even Mike Zunino couldn’t help, going 0-4. Danny Garcia starts for the Nuts.

Clinton edged Burlington 3-2, with L-Kings hurlers striking out 16 Bees, making up for the 13 strikeouts Burlington pitchers racked up in 8 IP of work. 29 strikeouts, 5 total runs, 3 earned, 0 HRs. The 2018 Midwest League, everybody. Sam Delaplane is the K leader of the Lumberkings, as his season line is now at 10 Ks and 1 BB in 4 2/3 IP. Clinton/Burlington was rained out today, which, I suppose is an improvement on being snowed out? Maybe?


7 Responses to “Game 15, Astros at Mariners – Strikeouts, As Far As the Eye Can See”

  1. Westside guy on April 18th, 2018 8:26 pm

    1-1, top of the 5th.

    Haha, I just tuned in – just in time to hear Goldy pitch “another strong pitching matchup” in tomorrow’s game. Yeah, the Astros pitcher looks good… but Marco Gonzalez’s 8+ ERA kinda jumped out from the screen.

    He’s been unlucky, that’s for sure – but it’s not like his FIP is down below 3 or something.

  2. Westside guy on April 18th, 2018 8:35 pm

    I have to admit -that was a nice catch.

  3. Westside guy on April 18th, 2018 8:52 pm

    Leake was doing really well… until this seventh inning.

  4. mrakbaseball on April 18th, 2018 9:28 pm

    No Mas

  5. Grayfox3d on April 18th, 2018 9:28 pm

    Well, at least were not the worst team in the division right now!

  6. Westside guy on April 18th, 2018 9:58 pm

    The first 5-6 innings were great!

  7. Westside guy on April 18th, 2018 10:22 pm

    I’m a bit bummed about this – Taijuan Walker has to have Tommy John surgery:

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