Game 122, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · August 15, 2019 at 10:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Matt Wisler/Tommy Milone vs. Spencer Turnbull, 10:10am

Yesterday’s loss was a dispiriting one, as they were held in check by Edwin Jackson, someone who I thought was completely cooked when Toronto let him go a month or so ago. They couldn’t mount a challenge against Detroit’s less-than-stellar bullpen, and while Marco Gonzales battled, giving up 3 early runs on this team isn’t praiseworthy. These is why playing Detroit is tricky: win, and it’s “well, yeah, it’s just Detroit.” Lose and it’s a huge red flag.

Jay Jaffe has a good post at FG today on the Tigers run at history – the kind you really don’t want to run towards. He brought up just how poorly the Tigers drafted and developed players in the early part of this decade. It didn’t matter, because their owner was willing to pay free agents to come in and drive the team’s success, but it meant that once that core aged out or retired, there was nothing in the system to replace it. M’s fans knows the drill, having lived this in 2004 and again now. And like the M’s in 2019, things have improved on the farm, and there are some intriguing prospects coming up, including Seattle University product Tarik Skubal, who’s striking out over *2* batters per inning in his first taste of AA. Casey Mize famously tossed a 9-inning no-hitter in his first AA game, and while he’s scuffled a bit since, he’s MLB’s #2 overall prospect in the game, one slot behind Tampa’s Wander Franco. But for right now, the Tigers can’t really call in reinforcements for, say, Jeimer Candelario or John Hicks, who’s been awful against every non-Seattle team this year.

But today’s starter, Spencer Turnbull, is a rare draft-and-develop success story. Drafted in 2014, he moved up the ranks before pitching at nearly every level the Tigers had and making his MLB debut last season. He gets strikeouts with a sinking four-seam and a slider+curve, but he’s just below-average in Ks in the new K-happy game. He walks a few too many, but has limited home runs fairly effectively. Nothing jumps off the page or the screen, but he’s been a steady middle of the rotation starter for the club, and one who reminds me a little bit of Michael Fulmer, who got less Ks, but limited BABIP and baserunners on his way to about 7 fWAR over 2016-2017. Turnbull isn’t limiting BABIP, but if he can keep the ball in the yard, he can be almost as effective, as his slightly better K% gives him more of a margin for error.

In this era, the fastball – and really the four-seam fastball – has become a critical pitch. Batters essentially tune their swings to beat it, as it remains the game’s most common pitch. After destroying sinkers for a while, pitchers responded by throwing fewer of those and chasing whiffs by throwing high four-seam fastballs. But when the ball turned extra-springy in 2017, that practice wasn’t the panacea many thought. We’ve seen the same thing happen this year with high *spin* fastballs, too.

Spencer Turnbull is succeeding – thus far – with a four-seam fastball, producing solid results with it against lefties and righties alike. And he’s doing it in an unusual way. Turnbull’s got a low arm slot, but even with that, his four-seam has remarkably little ride or vertical rise. It’s got more than 2 standard deviations less rise than the median four-seamer. It also has little horizontal movement. He throws a sinker that moves much more the way you’d expect from a low-ish arm slot – all arm-side run and sink. How does he throw this odd fastball? By cutting it. By spin rate, Turnbull’s four-seamer is easily above average, and far ahead of guys with a lot more movement or more whiffs. It’s now established that cutters increase total fastball spin even as they decrease the effective spin of a pitch. James Paxton did this in one of his final M’s seasons, for example. Perhaps the most famous example is Garrett Richards, the poster boy for spin rates who often had the highest spinning four-seam AND curve…when he could stay healthy. But his four-seamer wasn’t a Verlander-style pitch at all, it was a cutter, and it was weird enough that it could be pretty effective. The same’s happening for Turnbull.

He needs that, because his breaking stuff isn’t as weird, and that’s producing some major platoon splits. His slider and curve are generally good against righties (Turnbull’s a righty), but lefties appear to see them fairly well, and they’ve feasted on the curve in particular. That would lead me to think that there’s some deception in his delivery to righties that just doesn’t work against lefties, who are watching him from a slightly different vantage point. The fastball’s oddities prevent them from destroying that pitch, but if they can recognize curve early, then they can still have a fairly comfortable at-bat.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Broxton, CF
9: Moore, 2B
SP: Wisler, then Milone

All kinds of great pitching in the M’s system today, with first-rounder George Kirby starting for Everett and Justin Dunn for Arkansas. The bigger story is that OF Julio Rodriguez was promoted from West Virginia and is en route to southern California, where Modesto heads to Rancho Cucamonga.


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