The Second Half Begins: White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 20, 2018 at 5:13 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Wade LeBlanc v. James Shields, 7:10pm

Two extremely homer-prone starting pitchers face off in the much more hospitable climate of 2018-in-Seattle. James Shields, one of the originators of Tampa’s “pitch up in the zone” philosophy used a located fastball and a good change to become a reliable #3/occasional #2 for many years. As he lost a tick on his FB, the game changed around him, and thus not only did he allow more balls in play (as his strikeouts dropped), that contact turned more and more damaging. After signing a deal with the go-for-it Padres (this was a thing; it’s easy to forget, as it only last a few months), he collapsed thanks to a barrage of dingers. His FIP crested 6, and the Padres gifted him to the rebuilding White Sox, where he’s been since. Not even Don Cooper could help him last year, as the rabbit ball and close confines in Chicago combined to produce tons more HRs.

In 2018, though, Shields is enjoying a very mild sort of resurgence. He’s not a #3 anymore, or anything close – but he’s also not solidly below replacement level anymore. He’s posting his second straight year with a well below average BABIP, and the newly changed ball has made his stuff playable again. He’s transitioned away from his change-up to cutters and breaking balls (including two species of curve), but keeping lefties from doing damage is still a critical issue. Maybe it’s improved command, maybe it’s the ball, but one night-and-day change for him has been on non-pulled contact. A year ago, Shields had a .417 wOBA-against off of his four-seam and sinker. This year, it’s down to just .216. You can see by his pitch chart that he keeps it away, inviting opposite-field or up-the-middle contact – but it’s essentially unchanged from a year before. His approach isn’t different, but the results are.

One other thing’s different though, too, making it hard to tease these variables apart. Shields has abandoned his old, straight, rising four-seamer and has completely moved his position on the rubber. In, say, 2013, he threw from a 3/4 slot that produced a FB with 10.5″ of vertical rise. His sinker was more a change of pace, as it didn’t really sink much, but had a bit more armside run. So far, so standard for a Rays pitcher equipped with a curve. Last year, his vertical release came down by a half a foot, and he was one foot closer to 3B. He had the same armside run but much less vertical run, implying a bit of cut and gyro spin had infiltrated his four-seamer. Despite getting pounded last year, he doubled down this off-season, moving his release further out, and dropping his arm slot even more. Now, his sinker has very little rise, and his weird cutter/four-seam hybrid thing has over one standard deviation less rise than average. Have batters noticed? Well, *lefties* certainly have. After years of getting destroyed by southpaws, his FB is holding them in check this year. Whatever deception his new mechanics have hasn’t quite carried over to righties, and lefties are still drawing walks off of him, but his old fastball had become unplayable – not MLB quality in any way – and he’s managed to figure out a work-around.

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: LeBlanc

Lots of moves for the M’s as their DL’d players get healthy and as Cano eyes a return to action. First, the M’s have recalled John Andreoli and 1B Dan Vogelbach. That’s interesting, and seems to put some pressure on struggling 1B Ryon Healy and CF Guillermo Heredia, but there’s no news on that front. They’ll need another move in a day or two as Félix Hernández comes off the DL. Mike Zunino is *eligible* to come off the DL, but the M’s are sending him to Tacoma for a while; he’ll start tonight at Cheney. Vogelbach has clearly done all he can at AAA, but still doesn’t quite enjoy the faith of Scott Servais (just signed to an extension, by the way). As hard as it is to understand when the incumbent sports a .270 OBP, Vogelbach has looked lost in the bigs, and needs to show he’s dealt with the weaknesses that MLB pitchers exploited. Of course, to demonstrate that, he’s going to need to actually play. Hard to

Mike Morin was outrighted to Tacoma, removing him from the 40-man for the second time this season. Erasmo Ramirez is throwing again, and Zunino will catch him down in Tacoma tonight.

In a press conference, GM Jerry Dipoto praised Scott Servais in announcing the manager’s extension, noting a great record in one-run games (hat tip, Shannon Drayer). He noted that he’s shying away from rental players at the deadline, especially involving top prospects – ergo, don’t get your hopes up for Cole Hamels. He also mentioned that Robbie Cano’s taking grounders at 1B in the Dominican, and that he could play 1B/DH and some 2B when he comes back, with Dee getting most of the time at 2B, and occasional games in CF. That makes some sense, but puts one/both of Ryon Healy/Dan Vogelbach’s status up in the air. Sure, Robbie can’t play in the postseason, but what will the M’s do with 3 1Bs?

I looked at wOBA-allowed on FBs – Four-, two-seam and sinker this year in three pitchers who’ve previously struggled with HRs – Wade LeBlanc, James Shields, and Marco Gonzales. This year, they’re all essentially tied at .363 (ok, Gonzales is at .364). If we turn that wOBA into delicious, protein-rich wOBACON (exclude Ks/BBs), a big shift occurs: Gonzales and LeBlanc’s results get worse (as we remove their strikeouts), but Shields’ actually get *better* as walks drop out. The FB isn’t a K pitch for Shields – it’s just weird enough to produce bad contact, which is reflect in his wOBA on Contact. But for LeBlanc and Gonzales, those FBs are a key part of their attack, and they sneak backwards Ks and whiffs with their elevated heaters.


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