Game 95, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 12, 2019 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Taylor Cole/Felix Pena, 7:07pm

The M’s open the second half against an Angels club stuck in the doldrums of mediocrity despite the presence of the game’s most transcendent talent. And that should probably be talents, plural, given the way Shohei Ohtani is going about his TJ surgery rehab by beating up on AL pitching. Ohtani’s now 585 PAs into his MLB career, roughly one full season. His slash line in that time is .292/.358/.567. While healthy, he was pushing 11 K/9 as a starter. And in that time, a time in which Mike Trout was worth nearly 16 fWAR and 14 bWARP, the Angels are now a cumulative 3 games below .500.

Baseball is fascinating that way. The A’s have certainly benefitted from the simultaneous emergence of Matts Olson and Chapman, but they’ve somehow figured out a way to get to an astonishing 41 games over .500 since the beginning of April without any consistent pitching (or pitchers). The Angels are a team built on superstars, with the team just needing to assemble some decency around them. The A’s are nothing but decent, somewhat fungible players (the star power they did have has mostly succumbed to pitching injury)…and it’s worked. That’s both unkind to Chapman and Olson AND reductive (you’re welcome, readers!), but it highlights that despite being drafted around the similar spot as Trout, Chapman never broke into the national conversation. He never seriously challenged for the team’s top prospect role,* and Olson was considerably behind *that*. Everyone on the A’s has seemingly overachieved. The Angels continue to get more than anyone believed possible from both Trout and Ohtani, and it’s not been anywhere close to enough.

A similar thing happens on the micro level with pitchers. There are plenty of ways to approach pitching, and many different archetypes. You’ve got the big flamethrowing strikeout artists, but below that, the mere mortals have to figure out how to navigate amazingly tough MLB line-ups while throwing drag-less, seemingly rubber baseballs. There are some pretty clear guidelines about how pitches move and the impacts of release points on them – things that edge closer to physics and aerodynamics. But then there’s everything from deception to pitch mix to tunneling. The raw movement numbers can highlight what a pitcher might do well, but they don’t (on their own) describe how hard it is to hit the pitch.

Let’s use a couple of timely examples. Today’s opener for the Angels, Taylor Cole, throws a remarkably standard four-seam fastball. He throws it from a standard height, and while it’s got a touch more armside run than average, it’s essentially at average rise. He’s also got a change and slider. Looking just at the movement on his fastball (his most frequent pitch), you’d probably guess he’d be neutral-to-more-fly-ball oriented. This would be wrong. Batters indeed hit that fastball in the air, but for whatever reason, they’re putting his secondaries in play *more*. And those pitches get hit on the ground, which means the guy with a fly-ball fastball has 50% GB rates. That’s cool and all, but it’s not quite helping him to actually succeed. He’s not stranding runners, and he’s walking too many, and the M’s should try to get to him, but it’s an odd but potentially interesting approach Cole’s taking. I could see him trading strikeouts for more contact if batters suddenly start hitting his FB for HRs, which hasn’t happened yet this year.

The Angels primary pitcher, Felix Pena, has more of a rising FB, but struggled with both control and HRs as a flyballing member of the Cubs bullpen. Upon his arrival, the Angels got him to throw a sinker, and that’s been his primary fastball in SoCal. It’s got very different movement from his four-seamer, which he’ll mix in occasionally. He also has a good slider and a so-so change. He has all the makings of a decent starter, and he’s been OK with the Angels – racking up solid strikeout numbers in last year’s 1.4 fWAR campaign. But that sinker never materially changed his GB%, and he’s now paying the price in terms of HRs. Specifically, he’s been death to righties thanks to that slider, but he’s been destroyed by lefties thanks to an ineffective change and heater. Pena’s trying a fundamentally standard approach here, but maybe it’s time to get weird.

One thing that jumps out about his change-up is just how similar it is to his sinker. The cambio had solid velo and movement separation from his four-seam, but once he moved to a sinker, he ran the risk of mushing the two pitches together. That’s essentially what’s happened: the velo gap is 7+ MPH, but the vertical gap is less than 1″. It’s simply a slow sinker. As M’s fans, we’ve seen this movie before. In 2012, young righty Erasmo Ramirez came up and befuddled the league with a darting change-up that racked up whiffs on nearly half of the swings against it. His primary FB was a sinking four-seamer, and he also threw a sinker, with something like 3″ more “rise” than the all-important change. That shrunk to less than 2″ the next year, and coupled with increased sinker usage and a persistently subpar slider, he found himself on the outs and traded to Tampa. Tampa didn’t exactly solve that particular issue, but he was successful there. He was back in Seattle last year, where the gap in vertical movement was less than 1″, and he had all but shelved his four-seam fastball. The results were….not good. It’s not enough to have the rudiments of a deep repertoire, you’ve got to use them in a way that maximizes their value, just like a team needs more than a superstar player – they need to put that superstar in a position to do meaningful damage.

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

* In this respect, Chapman’s emergence reminds me a lot of Kyle Seager’s. Dustin Ackley played the role that Franklin Barreto plays for the A’s, the presumptive uberprospect who overshadows the quiet defensive wizard who racks up actual big league production.


One Response to “Game 95, Mariners at Angels”

  1. mrakbaseball on July 12th, 2019 9:21 pm

    RIP Tyler Skaggs. Meanwhile, the Mariners are still enjoying the break. Embarrassing lack of effort and focus.

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