Game 70, Mariners at Twins – A Tale of Two Cities, One of Which Comprises Twin Cities, But For Our Purposes Will Be Referred To As A Sin..

marc w · June 11, 2019 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Martin Perez, 5:10pm

I take a break for work and family obligations, and lo and behold, the Mariners notch a series win! I should avoid talking about them even more! The Mariners head to the Twin Cities to kick off a series against the surprising Twins, owners of the largest divisional lead in the game, and one of baseball’s best records.

Their offense – which is second behind Seattle in HRs, despite 200 fewer PAs – gets a lot of the credit for their start, and deservedly so: they’re slugging .515 as a team, 45 points higher than second-place Houston. But the real shocker has been their pitching staff, which ranks 7th in team fWAR thus far after ranking 20th in last year’s 78-84 season. They were projected to rank 14th by FG’s preseason polls, and somewhere near there by BP’s PECOTA, which saw them giving up slightly more runs than Seattle’s staff. What’s interesting is that they didn’t really make any big additions to the rotation. Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Kyle Gibson all pitched perfectly fine, more or less, last year, and the Twins let Lance Lynn walk, picking up Martin Perez and Micahel Pineda on the cheap. So what’s happened?

A lot, really. But let’s start with the fact that both the M’s and the Twins hired new pitching coaches in the offseason (so did a bunch of other teams, of course). On paper, both teams made outside-the-box, new school hires, with the Twins’ Wes Johnson coming directly from the college ranks, from Arkansas and before that Dallas Baptist. The M’s hired Paul Davis from St. Louis, where he’d been the director of pitching analytics. Now if you know anything about Johnson, or if you’ve ever heard of Dallas Baptist in a baseballing context, you probably know that he places a premium on velocity, and the development of velocity. And from watching the Mariners over the past few years, but *especially* in the post-Paxton era, uh…do NOT place a big premium on velocity. The result is a rotation-wide increase in velo for the Twins, and a drop for the M’s.

But wait, that’s cheating, right? The M’s lost their top velo starter and figure to give more IP to Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone. Sure, but even if we compare the holdovers *to themselves* we still see a drop. It’s most notable with Marco Gonzales, but it’s true for Mike Leake, and it’s true for Wade LeBlanc (barely, but still). Meanwhile, the Twins didn’t exactly get younger. Their rotation is comprised almost solely of well-tenured vets, with the exception of Berrios, who has a track record of his own. Berrios is young, but Odorizzi and Perez are in their late 20s, and Gibson’s 31. Odorizzi’s the holdover whose results have been the most transformed, going from a so-so 2018 to a transcendent 2019 thanks to much better fastball results and a devastating cutter to go along with his old standby splitter. But those changes have been pretty small at the micro level – they’ve all just snowballed (along with luck) to produce massive changes in results. But as I’ve already written about this year, the guy who looks nothing like his previous self is Perez.

Since early May, he’s not only held on to his velocity gains, he’s continued to rely on the cutter he learned from Odorizzi. The combo of better velocity and a new pitch (though it’s not THAT different from old versions of his slider) has made him a completely different pitcher. He and Odorizzi are the primary drivers of a top-tier rotation despite a middling projection. How much praise for these kinds of results do we allocate to Mr. Johnson, and how much to the pitchers themselves (especially if Odorizzi showed his cutter grip to Perez, and not Johnson)? I don’t really know, but I’d be pretty happy about the job Johnson’s done if I was a Twins fan.

I’m not though. I’m trying to figure out who’s to blame for the fact that the M’s rotation – which was projected to be slightly worse than Minnesota’s, but within the margin of error (the gap was less than 3 fWAR) – is slumming it with Baltimore as the league’s worst. We knew the bullpen was completely inexperienced, and could be bad, but the rotation was full of known commodities. Instead, Marco Gonzales has regressed, and Leake and LeBlanc are outpitching some really concerning peripherals. Perhaps most damning has been the performance of Yusei Kikuchi, the one starter who has some velocity to work with, and whose slider should be the kind of outpitch that Leake and Marco just don’t really have. Worse, the depth pieces that they acquired in the offseason have imploded at the big league level as well. Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson were supposed to add over 1 fWAR, but they’re currently closer to negative 1. Velocity’s gone down for the veterans. Results are worse than expected for the rookies. Ooookay.

Again, I’m not sure how to apportion blame, and it probably doesn’t matter. But I’m not sure how to feel good about Davis’ performance. I can say that the front office hasn’t done him any favors with the team they’ve assembled for him to coach. I don’t blame him for the M’s overall poor velo averages: that’s on the FO, who obviously prefers other indicators of success, and that’s their prerogative. I AM concerned with how Kikuchi’s and Gonzales’ seasons have progressed, and I remain concerned that there’s something fundamentally wrong in the strategy – in how they’re taught to attack opposing hitters. I can’t prove any of that, but if I was Davis, I’d think of ways to argue the inverse – that it’s only the strategy that’s saving Seattle from Orioles-style awfulness. I think that’s a hard argument to make, personally.

1: Smith, CF
2: Santana, RF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Murphy, C
7: Williamson, LF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Moore, SS
SP: Leake

Leake was almost traded prior to his last start, so we’ll see if he’s around much longer. After a brutal May, he’s turned it around, and his ERA is looking more and more like the one that he’s produced pretty much without fail for years and years. He’s not flashy, and I think I’ve been too hard on his pitch-to-contact style. You have to tip your cap to someone who can be this consistent given the changes in the game and given the ravages of age.

Welcome back, Dee Gordon. With the 2B’s activation from the IL, RP Matt Festa’s optioned back to Tacoma.

Logan Gilbert took the loss in Modesto’s 3-1 loss to Visalia, giving up 3 runs (2 ER) in 4 IP with 4 Ks. Tacoma beat Nashville by the same score thanks to solid start from Jon Niese and a dominant 9th from Dan Altavilla. Darren McCaughan starts for AA Arkansas tonight, with Vancouver, WA native Damon Casetta-Stubbs taking the mound for West Virginia. Tacoma’s got a travel day.


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