Game 136, Mariners at Rangers – Soft-Tossing Lefties and the Statistics that Love Them

marc w · August 30, 2019 at 4:43 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 5:10pm

After Felix’s solid if unspectacular start yesterday produced a decent road win, the M’s look to continue their run with another win in Texas today. Today, the M’s turn to their opening day starter, Marco Gonzales. After his last start, I wrote about how difficult it’s been to describe his season, as the advanced metrics are all over the map in terms of his value. Just yesterday, Craig Edwards wrote about Marco in a post crowning him the King of Soft-Tossing Lefties. Fangraphs’ version of WAR rates Marco very highly, as it omits the one big problem Marco’s had: he’s given up a ton of base hits.

Marco’s made 28 starts, and you can neatly divide his season into two halves. In the first, he allowed 89 hits and 54 runs in 77 1/3 IP, with 9 HRs allowed. He was fairly stingy (especially for 2019) with the long ball, but batters hit the ball hard and thus he always had men on base. Even with a fairly low walk rate, his walks+hits per inning pitched was 1.435. In the second half, he’s allowed 88 hits in 86 2/3 IP, with 8 HRs allowed and a WHIP of 1.246. A lot of this is BABIP related, and the replacement of Tim Beckham with JP Crawford at short, but it’s interesting that even in the “good” half, he’s allowed more hits than innings pitched. For decades, that would be normal, it wouldn’t merit a mention. But we’re now at a point where the entire league allows fewer hits than IP, and racks up more strikeouts than hits. Marco’s a throwback, and does neither. That doesn’t make him bad, I don’t think, but I fear it’s going to make him really streaky, a fact that seems like a fairly obvious thing to point out after his crazy year (April was awesome! May was awful!).

Is this what soft-tossing lefties do? Essentially create a bend but don’t break defense by allowing baserunners, but don’t let them score? Even on that scale, Marco’s strand rate is sub-par, because he can’t rely on strikeouts to help him out of tough spots. But more broadly than that, even soft-tossing lefties don’t have to pitch to contact. When he was at his peak in 2015, Dallas Keuchel had an above-average K rate, and had more IP than hits-allowed. He did that several times, before reverting to a more Marco-like approach in 2018 and now in 2019. There’s no doubt that Gonzales’ defense hasn’t done him many favors this year, but it’s also clear that Ryan Yarbrough’s remarkable 2019 isn’t due solely to his defense in Tampa. Some soft-tossers figure out how to reliably generate weaker contact or to miss bats (or both). Marco hasn’t quite done that yet, but he certainly could.

At one point, it looked like Marco Gonzales’ pathway out of soft-tossing purgatory was just to start throwing harder. When he was acquired, he really did have noticeably higher velocity than he’d shown with the Cardinals. He averaged over 92 MPH in 2017, for example, and so we thought he might matriculate at hard-throwing lefty graduate school. But he’s given all of those gains away, one of those weird things that happen to pitchers from time to time.

Today’s opponent, Kolby Allard, knows all about that. A first-rounder for the Braves out of a Southern California HS, Allard showed solid velocity in the 92-93 range, and paired with great command, he seemed like a good bet to rise through the system quickly. He *did* rise quickly, but at some point, that plus velocity got left behind. When he made his MLB debut with Atlanta he averaged just under 90 MPH with his four-seam fastball, and got annihilated. He didn’t show a ton of life on the pitch in the minors this year, and thus he was a great change-of-scenery pick-up by the Rangers at the break. At the time, I wondered if Texas was the right organization to unlock Allard’s potential given their struggles with once-heralded prospects like Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez. It’s very early yet, and despite a great FIP, he’s still nothing special given his actual runs-allowed. Buuuut, there are signs he’s doing things differently. First, he’s taking the Marco-in-2017 approach of throwing a lot harder. He’s added a full 2+ MPH to his four-seamer, and is up over 92 on average. Second, he’s done the same thing Lance Lynn did upon moving to Texas, and that’s to shift his position on the rubber, moving out towards the edge a bit more. He’s got 23 Ks in his first 21 1/3 in Arlington, which, despite the tiny sample, is a lot more than the projection systems or my personal opinion would’ve predicted. Like Marco, Allard also throws a change-up and curve, though he lacks Marco’s cut fastball. [Edit: Uhhh, he totally has a cut fastball. He didn’t in Atlanta, but picked one up somewhere this year, whether in AAA in the Braves org or in the Rangers org.]

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


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