Mariners at Angels – The Ball is Different, and It’s Changing the AL West Race

marc w · July 10, 2018 at 5:04 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Garrett Richards, 7:10pm

Back in mid-April, I wrote this article on the sudden drop in HRs league-wide, and how that seemed to be the result of a new, less-springy baseball. It referenced work by Rob Arthur, who gained fame by pointing out that the baseball had changed in the *opposite* direction in 2015-2016, leading to the unprecedented dinger surge of 2016-17. Yesterday, Alex Chamberlain wrote this at Fangraphs, noting that component stats for hitting are trending up even as results go down: batters are hitting the ball harder than ever, at better angles, leading to better quality-of-contact…and they’re getting less out of those contacts than in the past. At this point, it’s essentially impossible to chalk it up to bad luck, or really good defensive positioning (shifts!) or anything but the baseball. It’s pretty clearly different than it was last year, and that’s why HR/FB ratios and isolated slugging are down throughout the league – it’s a subtle difference overall, but it’s noticeable.

Back in mid-April, I wondered what that would mean for the M’s chances: their pitchers were still giving up far too many dingers, but their batters were hitting just as many, and keeping the club afloat. Since that time, things have changed dramatically: the M’s pitchers essentially stopped giving up HRs, which bailed out a relative dinger-dearth from the offense. Meanwhile, the Angels have been hit about as hard by the injury bug as the M’s were last year, and it’s resulted in a staff so bad that their HR/FB is actually *up* relative to 2017. The Athletics looked to be in full-on rebuild after trading Sonny Gray last year and relying on a mix of cheap vets (Edwin Jackson!) and untested youngsters (Paul Blackburn). But the new ball has made them…well, not great or anything, but a perfectly average staff. The A’s shouldn’t be in the playoff race, not with a line-up that’s the most dependent on HRs for run scoring, not with Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill pretending it’s 2010.

But changing the penalty for giving up decent contact means different things in different places. One of the most stunning effects of the new ball – at least to me – was that it seemed to swamp traditional park effects. Safeco Field was *always* a pitcher’s park in large part because it suppressed HRs. Then, suddenly, in 2016, it didn’t, and I was completely dumbfounded. Now we know what was causing all of that. Back in April of this year, I wrote about the huge difference that had opened up between Statcast’s expected wOBA, or xwOBA, and actual results, measured by wOBA itself. That is, Statcast calculated the average results of batted balls with a given exit velocity and angle. This worked pretty well, and in general, there was no or very little difference league wide between xwOBA and wOBA…as there shouldn’t be. Well, several months later, that gap remains, and it’s absolutely massive. All of the data that went into calculating xwOBA was based on 2015-17 results/batted balls, and now that the ball has changed, it’s assuming that we’re still in an offensive explosion. As Alex Chamberlain’s piece lays out, batters are hitting the ball even harder, and higher, than they did in 2017, so xwOBA believes we’re in an offensive environment that’s incredibly tilted towards batters. But we’re not. And the effects of that mismatch between expected and real outcomes is felt most keenly in certain parks…like the ol’ marine-layered parks of the AL West’s coast: Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle.

By venue, no park has seen a bigger mismatch than Oakland, where the gap is nearly *60 points* of wOBA. Seattle’s got the 7th-highest gap, and Anaheim’s not far behind at #9. Sorting by team and not by park gives a slightly different view, but they’re correlated (er, as they should be). Oakland’s #3, Seattle’s #5, while the Angels fade a bit towards the middle of the pack. But look at those xwOBA figures! Seattle pitchers have, apparently, given up more threatening contact than Miami’s, or Cincinnati’s staff. Oakland’s been slightly *better* in fact, but they’re still in the Baltimore range rather than Boston or Houston. If expected contact lined up with actual results – *the way it did, nearly perfectly, the past two seasons* – the Mariners would likely be struggling mightily.

Or at least, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to say that the M’s anticipated this, and changed their approach a bit in April. The M’s K/9 and BB/9 this year look remarkably similar to their 2016 rates, and their BABIP is exactly the same. The only difference is HRs, where a drop in HR/FB has pushed their FIP lower by almost half a run. Remember back in 2016, when the M’s clearly thought the park would bail them out, so they pounded the zone at home and had higher FB rates, higher strike rates and lower walk rates? They’re doing all of that again, but the change in HRs has totally shifted their results. Sure, you’ll get guys like Wade LeBlanc who may take it a bit far, and thus have far more HRs-allowed at Safeco, but then you have the opposite effect with Marco Gonzales. The M’s were *always* set up to profit from non-insane levels of HRs. That way, they could take advantage of Safeco’s low BABIP and run a competitive rotation out without breaking the bank. Oakland wasn’t necessarily set up that way, but they too needed something to change in order to compete in 2018. They got it, and now they’re competing. Poor Anaheim’s seen injuries decimate their roster, and they’ve thrown pitches so bad that even the new ball hasn’t been able to completely eliminate the odors. The Yankees don’t care about the ball – they replaced Jacoby Ellsbury with Giancarlo Stanton; they’ll hit some dingers. The Astros don’t care too much, because even as the ball brings Jose Altuve back to earth, it’s turned Gerrit Cole into an absolute beast. All in all, the new ball has helped turn the AL West into a remarkably deep division.

Tonight’s game features two hurlers who’ve benefited from the new ball, but in different ways. Richards has amazing stuff, thanks to elite spin rates, but so-so or worse command. His walk rate’s up, and he’s even giving up too many HRs despite pitching in parks that suppress them. Richards has given up some hard contact, but hasn’t paid as much of a penalty for it, and thanks to his swing-and-miss stuff, he’s limiting the number of balls in play. Mike Leake has one of the highest gaps between xwOBA and wOBA in the game – he ranks 144th out of 156 pitchers with at least 150 balls in play this year. But look at who he’s hanging out with! Gerrit Cole is at 142nd, Luis Severino is at 148, and Sean Manaea’s at 153. Like a lot of sinkerballers, Leake gets plenty of weak ground balls – but if the batter adjusts his swing plane, the fly balls he DOES give up get hit really hard. Thus, Leake’s given up lots of very hard hit fly balls. That would…that wouldn’t play in 2017, but in 2018, it’s not some disqualifying flaw. Incidentally, Garrett Richards has the same issue; his GB rate is 50%, but he’s giving up some of the hardest-hit fly balls in the league.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Herrmann, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Leake

Another interesting sign of the new/old ball and how it plays differently in different parks. If we exclude “barrels” or ideal contact, and look just at “solid contact,” you can see how things have changed in the marine layer parks. In 2016, Safeco saw 22 HRs off of non-ideal contact, and Oakland just 13. The next year, the peak of DingerMania, Safeco was up to 31, and Oakland saw 23. (Cincinnati led the league both years at 47 and 49, respectively). This year, with over half the year in the books, Seattle’s seen just 9, while Oakland’s at 7.

Felix Hernandez has been placed on the 10-day DL with back tightness. Not a great sign, of course, but this seems like the kind of thing the new, shorter, DL was designed to address. Let’s get Felix healthy – completely – before we need him for the stretch run. Nick Rumbelow’s up to take his place on the active roster. Also, Gordon Beckham’s swapping places with John Andreoli.

One easy way to extend the M’s competitive window is to extend Nelson Cruz, who becomes a free agent at the end of the year. Today, Larry Stone wrote about why the M’s should do so in his column at the Seattle Times, and Brendan Gawlowski did the same over at the Athletic ($).


3 Responses to “Mariners at Angels – The Ball is Different, and It’s Changing the AL West Race”

  1. WTF_Ms on July 10th, 2018 8:07 pm

    Wow. Richards out with a 3-1 count on Nelly. I didn’t see anything obvious, but the catcher did.

  2. Grayfox3d on July 10th, 2018 8:46 pm

    This is getting ugly fast.

    Oakland is on a tear! Angels with Ohtani and Calhoun are better than the Mariners and Houston is Houston… I am still going to hold out hope for a wild card spot but this could get real hairy before it gets better.

  3. mrakbaseball on July 11th, 2018 11:26 am

    Maybe since MLB purchased Rawlings, there will be more consistently with the balls from year to year?

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