Game 142, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 6, 2019 at 4:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Reggie McClain/Tommy Milone vs. Framber Valdez, 5:10pm

Since 2015, fastball usage throughout MLB has been on a steady decline. From about 62.4% in 2015, fastballs of all types have fallen to 58.4% this year. Pitchers throwing more breaking balls, and teams giving more innings to breaking-ball crazed relievers – this is a long-term trend we’ve talked about here for a few years now. But this trend only really impacts one kind of fastball. Four-seamers haven’t gone away; quite the opposite, they’re up slightly compared to recent years. Essentially the entire trend is the result of pitchers throwing fewer sinkers. Gerald Schifman talked about this at BP earlier in the year, but it’s stark to see the data on BaseballSavant, too.

You all know the story: sinkers were great for a while, as they targeted the areas where the strikezone was expanding, helping suppress offense from 2010-2014. The new strikes and the long-term correlation between pitch height and batted ball (lower pitches were more likely to be grounders) meant that sinkers were ideal tools to help pitchers avoid home runs. Then, somewhere along the way, batters changed how they attacked these pitches, and given that sinkers generated whiffs less often than their four-seam cousins, the cost/benefit changed. I wrote about this before 2017, but 2017 and its juiced baseball even the playing field a bit: for a year, batters did even better against high fastballs (and four-seamers are more likely to be thrown higher).

It’s a balance: batters elevate the ball when they make contact on four-seamers, especially high ones, but they’re much more likely to miss. For several years, those whiffs held down the wOBA-against on four-seamers, even as batters turned more fly balls into home runs. Sinkers went for dingers too, but there weren’t many K’s to balance them out. But this year, with run values up on all kinds of fastballs, we’re seeing something that looks a bit irrational. At this point, the wOBA for four-seamers is essentially identical to the wOBA on sinkers. In previous years, the league-wide preference for four-seamers made some sense. Now, I’m not so sure.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Astros. Sure, sure, they got high-spin four-seam mavens Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole anchoring their rotation, and yes, they turned Cole into COLE! by getting him to stop throwing low sinkers and throw four-seamers up in the zone. Yes, but they also picked up Wade Miley, who, if you ignore yesterday, has been decent for them thanks to a sinker/cutter combination. They had Dallas Keuchel as their ace for a while before this year, and now they’ve got rookie Framber Valdez. Valdez throws pretty hard, and technically has a four-seamer, but the Astros are just fine if Valdez continues to use his weird sinker as his primary heater. He’s producing very high ground ball rates which is handy given the number of batters he walks. Those walks are killing his value right now, but he could be intriguing down the road. While his sinker has average to a bit below average spin, he’s got one of the highest spin-rate curveballs in the game, up ahead of Verlander/Cole/Morton/Glasnow/Rich Hill and those guys.It’s been a devastating out-pitch for him, but his control doesn’t allow him to get into out-pitch situations too often. That’ll be important for the M’s tonight.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Mariners. Today’s opener, Reggie McClain, is a sinker-dominant reliever, and his sinker is actually pretty similar to Valdez’s. Reggie’s is thrown at 94, so it’s faster than Framber’s (92-93), and it has more armside run. Their spin rates are 2171 for Valdez and 2169 for McClain, and they’ve got very similar arm slots. All in all, you won’t see too many more similar pitches. McClain’s slider has a lot of gyrospin so it doesn’t feature a ton of movement, and that’s why his strikeout numbers haven’t been that great this year in AAA/MLB, but he’s another guy that can get ground balls and thus hopefully avoid the dinger plague. New reliever Taylor Guilbeau has a hard sinker as well. What about Mike Leake? Yes, he’d been a sinkerballer, but had to stop throwing it as much, as it’s been one of the league’s worst pitches. But the org clearly isn’t going to ignore guys who can reliably get ground balls, not when you keep facing this damnable Astros offense 19 times a year.

1: Moore, SS
2: Smith, RF
3: Nola, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, DH
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bishop, CF
SP: McClain/Milone


2 Responses to “Game 142, Mariners at Astros”

  1. mrakbaseball on September 8th, 2019 12:32 pm

    How charming that some in Mariners world believed the Astros would experience enough free agent defections or get old by 2021 for the M’s to have any shot at competing by then. The talent disparity between the Mariners and Houston is, pardon the pun, astronomical. They are in different universes.

  2. Stevemotivateir on September 8th, 2019 8:11 pm

    ^Nobody said the Astros would get old by 2021, but they had a lot of expiring contracts between 2021-2022 before they extended several players. They still have a few to take care of, and as great as their farm has been, it’s not as stacked as it once was.

    But were you really expecting a lineup featuring 7 minor-leaguers from a year ago (many were minor-leaguers just days ago) to compete with a start-studded Houston team?

    The team/talent that’s expected to compete with this general Houston lineup has yet to arrive. It’s fair to question whether there will be enough by 2021-2022, but you can’t possibly look at what we saw tonight and write off the future based on that. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that zero of the starters we saw today will be regulars in 2022, and possibly only Seager in 2021.

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