Game 2, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · March 20, 2019 at 10:36 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Marco Estrada, 2:30am again, gah. ESPNgoi

The M’s and A’s both went out to the free agent market and picked up new starters this offseason. The stepping-back M’s got Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who figures to be a co-leader of the rotation with Marco Gonzales, and could be the de facto #1 before too long. The A’s, a team coming off a 97 win season and with a wide open playoff picture in front of them…picked up Marco Estrada for 1 year and $4m. He’s coming off a year that every single way we evaluate pitchers, from DRA at the most complicated to runs-allowed-per-9 at the simplest agree was an unmitigated disaster. He sat below replacement-level by DRA (-3+ WAR, almost unthinkably bad), by RA-9 WAR (-0.2), and was somehow just above replacement by FIP despite a FIP in the mid 5’s. That…that’s how you stabilize your contending rotation, Oakland?

The fact that Gio Gonzales just signed a *minor league deal* for less money than Estrada would seem to indicate that the A’s actually screwed up “going bargain shopping,” but maybe the market for bounce-back guys collapsed faster than they thought. There’s nothing really wrong with picking up Estrada: he’s a dinger-prone fly-baller who’ll now pitch in a dinger-suppressing park, and the whole scrap-heap rotation approach worked wonders for them last year. But it’s a symbol of the game’s bizarre competitiveness problem that Marco Estrada is starting the 2nd game of the regular season while, say, Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned. There’s literally no one who would argue that picking up Keuchel would help the A’s a lot more than Estrada. It’s a sad state of affairs where players have to drop *below* a threshold of ability before they become attractive free-agent signings. Wherever that line is, Estrada is firmly on one side of it, and so he’ll try his luck in…heh..the Tokyo Dome tonight.

Mike Fiers gives up a ton of HRs, but could survive in MLB by limiting walks, getting some Ks, and hoping his defense can help. Wade LeBlanc didn’t have Fiers’ high-spin stuff, but a solid change kept him around as a back-of-the-rotation guy, and someone who can also look surprisingly decent in the right context (especially in a HR-suppressing park). Estrada has the under-powered-but-spin-crazy four-seam fastball like Fiers, but pairs it with a LeBlanc-style change-up. This has helped him post solid strikeout numbers, sure, but it’s also made him an extreme, extreme fly-ball pitchers. That’s…not helped his HRs-allowed, with a career HR/9 over 1.4, and over 1.8 last year. But when he was good – and he was good for 3-5 years – it restricted his BABIP. All the fly balls that weren’t quite barreled up ended up as lazy fly balls, and thus Estrada’a *career* BABIP in nearly 1,300 innings is in the low .260s.

All good things come to an end, though. With a subtle loss of command, the ever-changing baseball, or just age, the old trick just isn’t working any more. Estrada’s posted BABIPs of .295 and .285 in the past two years, and he’s walked too many for three years running. Fiers can get away with a ton of HRs if he limited runners through Ks and few walks. Estrada could if he eliminated non-HR base hits. But without those things, he’s been a punching bag. And now he has to try and figure out the Tokyo Dome, which has been playing like a little league field this month. Good luck with that, Marco.

Speaking of good things coming to an end, it’s been refreshing to watch the M’s get a second crack at the whole “sending Ichiro off in style” thing. Last year, they tried to convince everyone that it was a make or break year AND that Ichiro playing LF helped that pursuit. Without the burden of self-imposed deadlines and expectations, we can simply appreciate Ichiro getting to play meaningful, regular-season games in his home country. Ichiro deserves a lot, and while he’s not making this team better, that’s the luxury of a step-back: you can do things because they’re fun, or because honoring a team legend ties the current team to its last, hazy memories of greatness. It reminds the modern game that at least there used to be multiple ways to succeed, including ways that didn’t involve 30 HR seasons. Ichiro isn’t taking the place of anyone right now, unless you’re particularly interested in Jay Bruce playing OF. He’s going out on his own terms, and virtually no one gets to do that. I’m really glad it’s worked out this way, and that we’ll likely be spared the sheer “what do those words mean?” of last season’s not-quite-a-retirement…thing. I’d like to think Felix will get this treatment, but I don’t believe he will.

I’ve been doing this a long time, but it takes a debut like Kikuchi’s to remind me that I’ve never done…whatever this is without pitch tracking data. It’s always been there since I’ve been here, or in other things I’ve written. I guess you could call it a crutch, but it’s just a thing I use to make sense of pitching, because I’m not that good at describing mechanics, nor armchair psycho-analyzing a pitcher’s approach. Others can do these things; I can’t. Yusei Kikuchi is one of the most important players on the team, an absolutely crucial player to the M’s plan to compete in 2021, and…there’s not a whole lot I can say. His player card at Brooks Baseball is literally a blank page, and I felt a mild fight-or-flight response. He had pitch tracking data in Japan, but they use a different ball, and in any event, the one thing everyone says about him is just how variable his velo and mix is. That’s going to be fascinating to watch even as it makes pitch tracking data (when we get it) harder to draw conclusions from. For now, all we can do is watch the hitters tell us how his breaking stuff looks, and if his arsenal makes him a decent #3-4, or a sneaky great #2.

I felt that same pang of not knowing what exactly was going on with each pitch when watching Marco Gonzales…uh, today. The results weren’t great, but he settled in after a while, and I’m not sure what changed, exactly. His change was decent, but is he throwing it differently, or did he just have a good one that night? He gave up a big HR and the RBI single on elevated curves: how did it do overall, and what does its shape look like compared to last year? Piscotty hit a FB out, but it looked like a good pitch. But without knowing the velo, it’s hard to say. I’m not great at this, so I’ll turn it over to you: what did you think of the way Gonzales threw? How hard would you say he was throwing, and does his curve or change look any different to you?

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, CF
3: Bruce, 1B
4: Encarnacion, DH
5: Santana, LF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Beckham, SS
8: Healy, 3B
9: Ichiroooo, RF


5 Responses to “Game 2, Mariners at Athletics”

  1. heyoka on March 21st, 2019 4:21 am

    Come on, Ichiro, get a bunch of hits, make the roster!……
    Or, go Ichir-0 for whatever, still love you.

  2. Nate on March 21st, 2019 8:07 am

    Ichiro’s first career MLB game (2001): Mariners beat A’s, 5-4

    Ichiro’s final career MLB game (2019): Mariners beat A’s, 5-4

  3. Westside guy on March 21st, 2019 11:06 pm

    So long, Ichiro, and thanks for all the fish.

    … I mean memories.

  4. Stevemotivateir on March 22nd, 2019 7:27 am

    Gonzales didn’t seem to have much movement on his fastball and I would be surprised if it was over 90. The curve just looked slow and predictable as soon as he released and it was centered. The change looked consistent and was harder to pick up.

  5. jorax on March 25th, 2019 4:38 pm

    I have to guess this is the longest we’ve been in first place in a long time :).

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