Game 90, Cardinals at Mariners

marc w · July 3, 2019 at 5:26 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Adam Wainwright, 7:10pm

A battle of two ex-teammates, and two archetypal pitchers of a bygone era. When the ball or a new PED testing regime, or [insert conspiracy theory here] changed around 2009-2010, batting tanked, as strikeouts continued their inexorable rise, but slugging and home runs declined. As a result, league-wide ERAs dropped, runs-per-game dropped, and the game entered a five year period I call the little batting ice age. Baseball analytics had taken hold throughout the game, and brought news of the ever-expanding strike zone. The strikezone’s growth didn’t extend in all areas equally, though – it grew most notably down, around the knees and shins of opposing batters. This was one of the reasons for the growth in strikeouts, and it was key to understanding how catcher framing might work and the effects it could have. And importantly, it reinforced a pre-existing belief among sabermetric-inclined folks who read fangraphs or Baseball Prospects or, uh, this place, that ground ball pitchers were worth their weight in gold.

Batters did less damage on low pitches, as ground ball rates were tied neatly to pitch height. Targeting this area thus avoided home runs, AND it was a way to get strikeouts. The classic Ks-and-grounders pitcher of the era was of course King Felix, but Adam Wainwright wasn’t too far behind. He had a breakout year in 2009, and then had a brilliant run from 2010-2014, racking up 24.5 WARP in that time period, or 20 fWAR…despite missing the 2011 season due to injury. Add his 7-win 2009 season, and you had a hall of fame-caliber run, not far from Felix’s magical 32 bWARP run, and just a bit lower than Clayton Kershaw’s nearly 35 bWARP. Wainwright’s signature curve utterly dominated, and he used his sinking four-seamer and sinking, uh, sinker to get grounders and avoid HRs. What could you do against that?

Mike Leake came up in 2010, so his early career spanned this time period. Due to a lack of velocity and swing-and-miss secondaries, he didn’t strike out too many, but he seemed like a classic example of why you’d want a guy who could reliably get grounders. He wasn’t flashy or anything, but he was durable and the grounders helped him eliminate runners through double plays and keep his HRs-allowed in the tolerable range, even if he was never as good at avoiding them as Waino or King Felix. He wasn’t challenging those guys in terms of value, but he had a 4-win season in 2014.

After that wonderful time for pitchers, the game changed. Or rather, the ball changed, beginning half-way through the 2015 season. Suddenly, fly balls that died short of the warning track became HRs. Worse still, batters gradually adjusted to lower pitches, and they’ve done more damage against sinkers in particular. Low pitches no longer produced only ground balls – they produced HRs, too, as batters adjusted their swing path to elevate the ball, and hit pitches out in front of the plate to maximize batspeed and generate pull power. Wainwright missed the early part of this transition due to injury, and in his 30s and with several injuries in his rear-view, it’s hard to separate age-related decline from new-paradigm-related decline. But he’s never been the same. His HR/9 rates from 2012-2019 go like this: 0.678, 0.56, 0.40, [hurt], 1.00, 1.02, 1.12, 1.20. His walk rates have risen and his K numbers are no longer all that special. In that context, it’s kind of remarkable that he’s still a perfectly cromulent back-of-the-rotation starter. The curve is still amazing, with tons of two-plane break, but it’s not enough to make him an ace anymore.

Leake actually had a better adjustment period, likely because he’s much younger. He was fine in 2016-17, maintaining a very high GB rate and avoiding walks like the plague. He was still no one’s idea of an ace, but he was just as effective as he had been during the little batting ice age. The problem was that his margin was so thin – he had to be perfect, given that he’d allowed HRs even when HRs were hard to find. A decline in walk rate, or strand rate, or HR/FB might make him unplayable. It threatened him at times last year, when the HRs piled up and all of the balls in play would result in BABIP-related disaster starts. But to his credit, he turned in a fine year, another remarkably consistent one for a remarkably consistent hurler. This year, though, more cracks are showing. His HR rate has spiked to 1.93 per 9, and his sinker, his bread and butter pitch since college, is now a liability. That’s what makes what he’s doing so remarkable. He’s not exactly succeeding, but FIP and DRA see a clear failure, a replacement-level pitcher. And every once in a while, he’ll oblige with a replacement-level start. But despite a pitch-to-contact approach and a horrible defense, he’s sort of making due. I’m not sure how, though his good slider’s a big part of the reason. But we’re watching a pitcher in the late stages of his career reinvent himself almost on a game-by-game basis, and it’s kind of fascinating to watch. It’s suspenseful, sure, but it’s captivating in its own way. Leake won’t be here long, just as Wainwright may be done after his 1-year, $2M contract expires. But for now, it’ll be fun to watch these two old guys, two throwbacks to the heady days of 2014, face off in a Safeco Field that’s suddenly something of a homer-haven.

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

Jarred Kelenic broke out of a little slump by going 3-3 with a HR, 2B, and a walk in Modesto’s 7-0 win against San Jose. His line for the Nuts isn’t all that great, but that’s just small-sample nothingness. I’d love to see his K:BB ratio look a bit better, or at least the way it did in the Sally League, but that’s quibbling. Kelenic is great. Starter Ian McKinney went 7 shutout, giving up 3 H, 1 BB, and striking out 13. Nice. Ljay Newome starts for Modesto today, as they again host the San Jose Giants.

The Rainiers dropped a double-header to Salt Lake, 9-1 and then 7-6. Jake Fraley hit his 2nd AAA homer in the night cap, and he’s now at .313/.365/.616 in AAA in 11 games. Tonight’s the big July 3rd game in Tacoma, probably the biggest game on the calendar every year. I remember watching the fireworks show from my roof as a kid, and I’ve been to a few of these as an adult. Have fun if you’re headed to Cheney tonight; Jon Niese starts for the Rs

Arkansas is at Northwest Arkansas for another game, after last night’s 13-inning loss. Kelvin Nunez and Everett host Boise.

A name from the AZL to keep an eye on is 19-year old Taiwanese lefty Danny Chang, who’s now struck out 21 against 3 walks in his first 12 professional innings.


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