Game 45, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 14, 2019 at 6:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Brett Anderson, 7:10pm

The M’s look to build on an exciting comeback win last night and get a mini-sweep of this two-game set with the A’s. Yusei Kikuchi was solid, but gave up 3 solo HRs, and his relievers yielded 2 more solo shots. The M’s were quiet after Mitch Haniger’s leadoff dinger, but tied the game late on a 3-run shot to CF by Daniel Vogelbach. It does not appear that the ball is any less bouncy in May as it was in April, which is frankly not great news for M’s hurlers, but it may help an offense that’s been stuck for a few weeks.

With all of the talk about the seemingly inexorable rise in strikeouts and average velocity in the league, tonight’s game offers a rare glimpse of an old-school clash between pitch-to-contact guys without big fastballs. The national attention will be on Chris Paddack-vs-Clayton Kershaw or Charlie Morton-vs-Caleb Smith, but we get a different kind of drama: two guys desperately trying to hang on. Graph Mike Leake’s average fastball velocity over time and you get just a simple downward slope. If anything, he’s accelerating, and his average sinker is now under 88 MPH. Only Kyle Hendricks has a slower average fastball among qualified pitchers (at least until Wade LeBlanc comes back). Worse, he’s not getting ground balls anymore, as his GB% has gone from 53.7% in 2016 and 2017 to 48.7% last year and all the way down to 44.4% this year. BrooksBaseball thinks he throwing a four-seamer more, but it’s close enough to his sinker it’s hard to be sure. What IS certain is that the batted ball results on the sinker are manifestly different than they once were; it’s simply no longer a reliable ground ball offering. He’s responded by throwing more secondaried: a change that still IS a great GB% pitch, a slider and a cutter that, like his sinker, has become less and less of a grounder-inducing pitch over time.

So: Leake’s throwing slower and batters are elevating it more in a league with a juiced baseball. What could possibly go wro…oh, right. Leake’s HR/9 is over 2, and it’s killing the value of an increased K rate (the product, I guess, of throwing more breaking balls/offspeed pitches?). He’s stranding runners as well; if he paired his raw results with last year’s strand rate, things would get very ugly in a hurry. All of this is true, but there’s something about watching him work, watching him perform the high-wire act of running through a line-up multiple times armed only with an 87 MPH sinker and assorted slower pitches, that’s pretty compelling.

Brett Anderson, tonight’s opponent, is fighting a similar battle. The oft-injured lefty has hung around the past few years by seemingly reinventing himself at each stop. Last year, he was a pitch-to-contact guy with a very low walk rate, a lefty version of Mike Leake, almost – he had a 55% GB%, so he was perhaps more Leake than Leake. He’d walked too many in previous years and had been essentially replacement level, so the focus on strike-throwing helped, even though at this point in his career, he can’t miss bats (meaning it can be dangerous to be around the plate too much). In 2014-15, he was an extreme GB pitcher, and used that to run low HR rates, which again helped overcome low K rates. This year, the walks have returned and his GB rate *and* K rates have dropped. By K:BB, he looks totally cooked. A freakishly low HR rate has kept him around, but it’s hard to count on something like that. He’s responded to the age-related decline in his natural stuff by pulling an anti-Leake. Instead of abandoning his sinker for a flurry of offspeed stuff, he’s throwing it more. When he’s behind, he doesn’t throw a get-me-over pitch – he’ll allow the batter to walk. He walked 5 batters last year (and plunked 2) on sinkers – the entire year. Thus far in 2019, he’s already walked 8 on sinkers. He’s already matched 2018’s number of walks issued on sliders as well. All of this leads to funny splits. By BBREF’s splits, batters have an OBP over .500 against him in PAs that go through counts in which the batter’s ahead – but critically, they’re slugging under .400. Leake is just the opposite, with a lower OBP, but with batters slugging nearly .800 in those counts. Get ahead, and Anderson will just pitch to the next guy. Leake won’t quit in any PA, but he’s paid a price for that doggedness.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Healy, 3B
6: Bruce, RF
7: Beckham, 2B
8: Murphy, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Leake

The Rainiers came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat Las Vegas today. Christian Bergman was bombed for 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning, but Ryan Garton and then Taylor Scott were great in relief to hold the Aviators while the offense woke up. Braden Bishop hit 2 HRs and Austin Nola added another.


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