A Not-So-Quick Thought on Tuivailala

Jay Yencich · July 27, 2018 at 2:31 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

As is fairly “known” at this point, the Mariners made a trade to bolster their bullpen corps today in acquiring yet another Cardinal, this time RHP Sam Tuivailala in exchange for Modesto RHP Seth Elledge. Very often, I find myself responding in reflexive ways to these trades, preferring what devils I do know instead of the devils I don’t (even if Tampa is now… nevermind). I know stuff about Seth Elledge. I know that his velocity rebounded and that in the scattered mid-season prospect list updates you can find now at your own peril, some have locked Elledge into the back of the top ten as a guy who might contribute to the bullpen next year, just as Festa did this year. I don’t pay much heed to the rest of baseball and certainly not the NL, so Tuivailala is not a guy I’m familiar with and the unknown is threatening to me. My kneejerk here would be to tell you how bad this is and that we’re giving away a minor leaguer of some potential for a team-controlled upgrade who will yield merely marginal gains.

I have also learned from years of doing this that my initial reactions can be very wrong. I was filled with righteous anger about trading Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales because I loved Tank for his stupid home runs and Gonzales was just some Zag who was coming off TJ and had no options left, just as Tuivailala has no options now. Nevertheless, the front office saw something in there that they were able to work with and I don’t think any one of us would complain about the trade at this moment. In Gonzales, they saw some good, some question marks, and believed that they could get more out of him than the Cardinals had, major injury aside.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m among the more numerically savvy posters out there, but I know what tools are out there and I can usually find some practical use for them. That in mind, let’s pop over to Fangraphs and check out Marco Gonzales for his 30+ innings in 2014, his 30+ innings with the Mariners last year, and now. Immediately, certain things start to pop out to us. Marco’s FB usage was consistently four-seam and above 50%, sometimes approaching 60%, but it’s never been a good offering for him. The 2014 season netted him a -1.7 wFB, and last year, -6.0 while in Seattle. The Mariners this season have had him all but jettison the four-seam as an offering, dropping it to a 10% usage with the other 40+ points of difference being split between cutters and sinkers. The weaker four-seam is barely used whereas the more useful two-seams have taken precedence and effectively changed the x- and y-axes for the batters he faces. Additionally, whereas the Cardinals never had Gonzales throw a curve more than 10% of the time, he’s now using it almost every fourth pitch this season. It had never been even a good pitch before, granted, but he’s throwing it a bit harder now and it’s turned into a plus offering, even as something he really picked up late in his development.

Or let’s consider another formerly variable-but-flashy pitcher in James Paxton, the last two years versus his previous, less ace-y incarnation. One of the things that jumps out immediately is that Pax had been throwing the change-up about 10% of the time despite its being the only pitch in his arsenal with a negative career value. Last year, usage dropped to 2.9% and this season it’s all but disappeared. What risks it presented as a rather perfunctory offering have been minimized. To compensate, those gaps have been filled in by curveballs, sinkers, and cutters, all pitches that have netted positive for him. The distribution doesn’t exactly trend cleanly in one direction or the other as far as preference, but ditching the change-up has been huge for his recent success.

Now, let us consider Sam Tuivailala, honing in on the last two years of 30+ innings since anything before that is trifling to work with. The past couple of years, Tuivailala averaged about 60% on total FB usage, while going a bit back and forth as to whether the slider (18.5% -> 24.9%) or the curveball (19.4% -> 16.4%) was a more preferable breaking ball. The Cardinals have gotten some positive value out of the curve this year, but historically, it’s never previously been a positive contributor. Could the Mariners perhaps get him throwing a better one? Indeed they could, if Gonzales is an indicator. That’s one Possible Option.

Another would be to scrap it and distribute the usage elsewhere. What’s tricky about that approach is that we can look at his 2017 season and it’s apparent that his fastball and slider were good pitches for him and the curve dragged him down. That season, his four-seams were used 46.4% of the time, sinker 15.4%, and the slider 18.5% of the time. None of those pitches has been as valuable on its own this season, while we’ve seen the curve look okay for the first time, but it’s notable that the distribution is completely different. He only uses a straight four-seam about a quarter of the time now, the sinker is now being used a third of the time, and the slider almost a quarter as well. This selection hasn’t worked at all in terms of the results for the fastball and slider. Thus, the second Possible Option would be to go back to that plus-velocity four-seam more often while using the slider and sinker as pitch #2a and pitch #2b, absorbing what had been the curveball’s usage until it’s more of a show-me pitch. In either case, keep him away from left-handers until he figures it out.

What will happen? The Mariners are newly into these types of analysis and it appears that they’ve picked up on something that they like. If you buy into the curve’s development, maybe you trust it a little more and try to refine it, or you could get him to throw four-seams more, or you could do both and keep the sinker as a weapon used more sparingly. In any case, just because the Cardinals used him one way doesn’t lock the Mariners into the same patterns. There’s a chance that some real value could come out of some adjustments of usage, just as we’ve seen from other pitchers of the Dipoto era.


5 Responses to “A Not-So-Quick Thought on Tuivailala”

  1. LongDistance on July 27th, 2018 2:50 pm

    Comment 1: I went and took a look and nothing stands out with Tuivailala other than getting my fingers to type his name. I swear sometimes you’d need an Enigma decoder to figure out the FO. I only see this for the moment as a sort of rubato shuffle in the middle of the rotation. No doubt there’ll be something else. No doubt. No?

    Commet 2: I hate the Yankees. Nothing new there. Just needs to be said from time to time.

  2. Jay Yencich on July 27th, 2018 2:55 pm

    Things didn’t initially stand out with Gonzales either and then oh look, he’s good and I enjoy watching him pitch.

    I have a deep and abiding jealousy of the A’s for their ability to do well in the second half when it starts to really count.

  3. heyoka on July 27th, 2018 4:52 pm

    I did not see this blockbuster coming,

  4. Stevemotivateir on July 27th, 2018 7:09 pm

    It’s a fine line between and adjustment and a major change. It would be weird to see them overhauling anything in the middle of a post season race.

    On that note, I’m as curious as anyone to see what we might see. The price tag was steep, so this is one that could really bite Jerry in the ass if it doesn’t work.

    Lot of solid pitching prospects have been sacrificed for failed returns.

  5. Jay Yencich on July 28th, 2018 3:55 am

    Greg Johns noted that while he was #10 in our system, he slotted to #21 for the Cards.

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