Game 130, Blue Jays at Mariners – The Invasion Begins

marc w · August 23, 2019 at 5:26 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justus Sheffield vs. Trent Thornton, 7:10pm

Ryan Divish identifies this as one of the more interesting weekend series in a long while in this Times article, and I’m inclined to agree. Jake Fraley’s home debut coincides with the return of Justus Sheffield, whom we saw for a few ineffective innings earlier in the year, in the midst of a concerning slump. A demotion to AA seems to have done wonders for him, though of course you wonder how much switching to the old minor league ball had to do with that. Felix returns tomorrow to face the Jays young line-up, and we’ll get another look at the Jays young pitchers, many of whom are scuffling like their M’s counterparts.

That’s an issue, by the way. Fangraphs allows you to look at WAR generated by players under a certain age cap, and the M’s contributions from pitchers under 26 is the lowest in the league, and is actually slightly negative (sorry, Erik Swanson). Tonight’s game will be vital in how we view a statistic like that going forward. Right now, it’s mostly been accumulated by mid-tier prospects like Swanson and the vast sea of fungible relievers the M’s have picked up and discarded over the course of 2019. Matt Wisler’s looking like a real find, whereas Matt Festa and David McKay struggled. But this year was supposed to be about Sheffield, and watching him take control of a rotation slot. That hasn’t happened, hence the negative WAR total. But if his time in AA Arkansas fixed him, then you can write off the 2019 numbers as just some bad luck from guys who won’t play major roles in 2021. Sheffield *has* to play a role in 2021. The M’s pitching depth has to give them quality innings, if not now, then soon. So this is a big test, and a big opportunity for the young lefty: if his command has improved, then that makes his struggles in 2019 worth it.

Beyond his command and avoiding the base on balls (something that bedeviled him in Tacoma), I’d like to see how the M’s ask Sheffield to attack the Jays line-up. In his brief M’s debut, Sheffield’s four-seam fastball had a spin rate of 1,884 RPM, which puts him near the bottom in that category among everyone who’s thrown a pitch in 2019. There’s Wily Peralta, and then a bunch of position-players below him. This isn’t to say that the pitch is bad because of this; Michael Pineda isn’t TOO far away, as is Mike Montgomery. But it may help explain why the pitch isn’t generating a ton of whiffs. It’s not the only issue, of course – he was all over the place early in the year, so no one swung. It’s hard to whiff if the bat’s on your shoulder, but they didn’t even on the rare occasions when they DID swing. Sheffield’s movement reflects the low spin, too: there’s very little rise, and not a ton of armside movement given his low 3/4 arm slot. I’d be kind of intrigued to see him experiment with a sinker from that slot, though the entire league has suddenly gone off of sinkers.

Whatever he does, his fastball is critical as it sets up his slider, which is actually a HIGH-spin pitch. It’s been his calling card ever since he turned pro, but it’s only going to be effective when he can disguise it and when he gets ahead in the count. Because he was always behind, his slider was essentially neutralized. It’s been a good pitch when he can get to it, with gyro spin and some solid differentiation from the fastball. It certainly LOOKS like it’s been working for him in the minors, but again, this figures to be a great test of his newfound confidence and command. The Jays strike out a lot, just a tad less then the M’s, so if he has any semblance of command, he should miss some bats. There are still questions about how he’ll deal with righties, and the Jays have some good ones. This should be interesting.

On the other side is Trent Thornton, a super high-spin pitcher who came up in the Astros system before making his debut this year with Toronto. He throws average-ish 92-93 MPH fastballs, but tries to set up his ultra-high spin slider and curve. Brooks Baseball has him throwing those two pitches about equally, whereas MLB has it at about 90:10 in favor of the slider. I’m actually on MLBAM’s side here, which is a rarity in pitch classification debates, but the pitch that Brooks is calling a curve looks oddly like his slider. Whatever you call it, it’s thrown around 80 MPH and misses plenty of bats. He will throw a very rare slow curve in the low-mid 70s, and then a hard cutter at 88 or so with about 6″ of vertical movement separating it from his four-seam fastball.

Like Sheffield, he’s got a low arm slot, but his fastball looks quite different – it has more ride and it’s arrow-straight. Their biggest similarity is a struggle with walks. Thornton’s walk rate is approaching 10% this year, after he came up as an extremely low-walk guy in the minors. And like Sheffield, that’s meant that batters just aren’t swinging very much – his swing rate is well below league average. Thornton is a big fly-ball pitcher, and that’s hurt him this year, as the rubber baseball has led to an inflated HR rate.

Sheffield was something of a ground ball pitcher, which makes sense given his sinking fastball, but his GB% dropped markedly in his AA stint. That’s something to watch for tonight: is he throwing up in the zone to try to get whiffs and fly balls? Or is he trying to sink the ball down at or below the bottom of the strike zone?

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Sheffield!

I mentioned before that Kikuchi’s struggles have been a big part of the reason why this year felt so bad to me, like the M’s were failing at their all-important development mission this year. The growth of JP Crawford is another question mark, but the streaky SS seems to be heating up again. As a key piece of the M’s future, I thought being at 2-3 WAR would be enough, especially this year. He’s on track for that now, but we’ve entered another period of absolutely incredible riches at the shortstop position. A 2-3 WAR young player is great, and is clearly contributing to even a good team. But it won’t get you into the top tier of young shortstops, not with Xander Bogaerts, Alex Bregman, Gleyber Torres, Jorge Polanco, Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa….deep breath…Paul DeJong, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager, Amed Rosario, Trea Turner, and now Bo Bichette. You can’t just take a hot streak and forecast a player based on that alone, but maaaaaaan it would be great if Crawford’s hit tool improved just a bit to push his batting average up, which would help push his OBP into the elite realm. It’s a lot to ask, but he’s young and hopefully improving. Still, it’s tough to know what to make of his 2019. Fangraphs gives him a wRC+ (an all-in-one batting stat where 100 is average) of 102, just slightly better than average, thanks to his OBP and park/league factors. BP’s DRC+ is less impressed, with a mark of 91 on the same scale.

Ian McKinney, a signing out of an indy league who opened eyes in Modesto, made his AA debut yesterday opposite Astros uber-prospect Forrest Whitley. McKinney had a bout of wildness, but kept his team in the game through 4 IP, striking out 5. Whitley had 4 walks as well, albeit in 5 IP, but he struck out 9 en route to a 4-2 win. Jarred Kelenic tripled off of the hard-throwing Whitley.
San Jose beat Modesto 6-4 thanks to 2 ninth-inning runs off of Ray Kerr, the Nuts closer who’s showing elite velocity all of the sudden. Julio Rodriguez went 3-4, making him 7-13 in the three games against San Jose. His transition to the Cal League has been as smooth as anyone could’ve hoped for. Braden Bishop is rehabbing with Modesto and went 1-5.
Matt Harvey pitched Las Vegas to an 8-2 win in Tacoma, as Franklin Barreto hit a 3-Run HR off of R’s starter Sean Nolin. Austin Adams was sharp in his own rehab stint, striking out 2 in a perfect inning. Brian Ellington has also looked good since being picked up on waivers from the Red Sox org; the hard-throwing reliever had 2 Ks of his own in the 9th.

Ljay Newsome starts for Arkansas tonight against Amarillo’s Nick Margevicius, a Padres prospect who made 12 lackluster starts in the majors this year. Andrew Moore starts for Tacoma against rehabbing Sean Manaea of Las Vegas. Unlike Seattle, the A’s figure to have a wealth of intriguing September call-ups between injured players and prospects like Sean Murphy and Jorge Mateo.


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