Game 140, Mariners at Cubs

marc w · September 3, 2019 at 5:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

King Felix vs. Jon Lester, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day to you all. Are Felix days weird to any of you? In that they involve our beloved King essentially auditioning to pitch somewhere else next year? Yeah? Me too. I

It’s a big pitching match-up for the Northwest, as the region’s most beloved hurler goes up against a native son. Felix is a changed pitcher this year; he’s gone away from his change-up in favor of his curveball, which he’s throwing more now than he ever has. The change had been his signature pitch for his entire career, and certainly since 2007. It’s produced the best results, but while it’s not exactly getting rocked, the curve has been gaining vis a vis the change, and with his sinker now a legitimate problem, it’s probably good to have a pitch that doesn’t mimic the sinker in movement and velocity. It’s worth remembering that as Felix’s fastball velocity has declined over the years, the change either stayed put or got even faster for a while. In 2007, he threw 98 with the fastball, and 88 with his change – a fairly normal gap between the two. But within a few years, he was sitting 95, and then 94 and 93 with the heater. But over those years, roughly 2009-2012, his change got slightly faster, until it sat at 90. This version of Felix was the best we saw, and he dominated by ignoring every bit of research about how you’re *supposed* to throw a change. He blazed his own path, and then saw guys like Zack Greinke follow. But in recent years, as his fastball sits at or below 90, he’s finally started to open up more of a gap in velocity; his change is now about 4.5 MPH slower than his sinker, down from about 3 MPH slower in 2016, and more akin to the separation he had way back in 2009, when he was still throwing 94-95.

Felix’s fastballs are getting pounded, as he’s given up 10 HRs on them (four-seam and sinker) this year in just 216 plate appearances. He tries to limit fastballs to lefties, as he’ll mix change-ups and curves, but even when they’re comparatively rare, they get blasted. He’s given up 5 HRs on fastballs to lefties in just over 111 *pitches*. Forget training, forget working hard on video study – what Felix needs is a redesigned fastball. He’s needed it now for many years, and I understand he’s been resistant to the M’s entreaties to change things. But I still think someone might get a serviceable starter next year if they can convince him to change that fastball’s shape by changing his armslot or its movement. This is no longer rocket science. He could try the Rangers approach and move on the rubber. He could try the Astros approach and develop a cutter instead. I don’t know what’s the best path forward, but for whatever reason, he never found that path here. Damn it.

I’d take another opportunity to blast the M’s for failing to find that path, but it’s hard to do so a day after Justus Sheffield’s best outing as a major leaguer. He looked like a different pitcher from the guy we saw facing the Blue Jays earlier this month. Since that game, the M’s have clearly decided to alter his pitch mix to be much less fastball-dominant. I think that makes a lot of sense given the…limitations of his fastball, but as we just talked about with Felix, adjusting the mix isn’t enough. Sheffield’s greatly improved his command/control of the pitch in recent weeks. Batters swung at 37% of his fastballs in his first two appearances this year. In the last two, that’s up to around 43%. The reason is that he’s cut his called-ball rate on the pitch by 10 percentage points. That means he’s able to get to his slider in good counts, and when he’s done that, batters haven’t fared well at all. His whiff rate on the pitch is trending way up, and batters are finding it difficult to put the slider in play at all. Before the Yankee game, I said the M’s needed to help him make adjustments, and to be frank, I didn’t think they could. Credit where it’s due: they absolutely have, and it’s turned Sheffield into an MLB-ready starter, something he pretty clearly wasn’t even 2-3 weeks ago.

Jon Lester is, like many pitchers, posting a career-high in HR/9. Righties in particular are doing some damage off of him, but he’s still an effective starter over all. Lester throws almost exactly as hard as Felix does, but has aged gracefully thanks to an interesting mix of three fastballs – a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. He’s always thrown all three, but the balance was once tilted strongly in favor of the four-seam, which paired well with his curve. Now, though, he’s begun using the cutter most of all, and he’s throwing more curves and change-ups, essentially embracing his inner junkballer. Lester, like any lefty who’s stuck around as long as he has, minimizes his platoon splits, presumably through some deception. He’s not having as much success this year with his four-seam and sinker, but he makes up for it with his secondary offerings. This would be a good case study to look into for whichever team signs Felix in the off-season.

1: Smith, RF
2: Moore, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Court, LF
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, CF

That line-up is not going to strike terror in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but hey, it’s September. The M’s recalled IF Shed Long and RP Zac Grotz today; no word on more call-ups following the end of the minor league season.

On that note, yesterday was the official end of the regular season across the minors.
The Rainiers lost to Las Vegas 3-2 despite a HR from Jaycob Brugman. Andrew Moore took the loss despite 5 2/3 IP in a tough place to pitch. Nabil Crismatt pitched 2 scoreless in relief with 6 Ks, which is pretty good. The Rainiers finished up the season at 61-78 and last in their division, but #1 in my heart. They had 41 players come up to the plate, including David Freitas who went on to win the PCL Batting title with San Antonio after just 6 PAs in Tacoma. They used 50 pitchers.
Arkansas is, of course, not done, as we’ll all get to see them in the Texas League playoffs this week, as it’ll be broadcast on Root Sports. They dropped their final game to the Amarillo Sod Poodles 6-5. Cal Raleigh hit his 7th HR with the team, and Jarred Kelenic hit his 6th, giving him 23 across three levels, and capping off a remarkable first full season as a professional. The Travelers finished 81-57, and they’ll take on the Tulsa Drillers beginning tomorrow evening. Ljay Newsome took the loss, but he raised his season strikeout total to 169 in 155 innings, while walking just 17. I talked before the season started that the M’s needed some org guys to develop into prospects, and we’ve seen it happen with guys like Reggie McClain. But Newsome’s transformation stands out, as he addressed his biggest weakness (missing bats) without sacrificing his best skill (avoiding walks). Great season.
Modesto lost to Visalia to finish up the year at 65-75. Their pitching staff set a new Cal League record for strikeouts, only to see Rancho Cucamonga beat it. They upped their strikeouts by 285 over last season, and, not coincidentally, dropped their runs-allowed by over 90. They were better at the plate, too, though that was a low bar, as the 2018 team posted a sub-.700 OPS. They hit for solid power, thanks largely to Cal Raleigh, but had the lowest OBP in the Cal League. A little more time for Julio Rodriguez would’ve likely changed that.
West Virginia blanked Greensboro 2-0 to finish at 69-70. It’s amazing to think the club opened the season with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Logan Gilbert on the roster. Juan Then got his first win at the A ball level, and the teenager ends his season with an ERA just under 3 across a couple of levels. The Power struggled on the mound, giving up the most HRs in the Sally League and the second-most runs. They weren’t great shakes at the plate, either, but it’s a pitcher-friendly league altogether, and the team had wave after wave of players promoted and demoted through their clubhouse.
Everett beat Vancouver 3-1 to finish 37-39. As you’d expect from their record, they were middle-of-the-pack in team batting, though their offense did finish with the second-highest OBP. The pitching staff was a bit shakier, tying for the highest team ERA and giving up more HRs as a team than any other club…by a mile. They were 23 HRs ahead of second-place Vancouver, who only allowed 42 on the year.


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