Game 158, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 25, 2019 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Zack Greinke, 7:10pm

Last night’s performance by Gerrit Cole was effortlessly dominant, but it wasn’t as captivating as the *last* time he faced the M’s. This illustrates the weird point of yesterday’s post: by some measures, Cole’s 2019 is the most dominant of all time, and I think baseball fans are split over which pitcher’s the ace of the staff, and the potential Cy Young winner. He tosses 14 Ks and no walks in 7, and we’re all like, “It’s a September line-up” and “yeah, but he gave up a few hits.”

If nothing else, we should recognize that if you’re going up against Verlander/Cole, the only chance – the ONLY chance – is to swing for the fences. In years past, we sabermetric fans knew that on-base percentage was more closely associated with run scoring than either batting average or slugging percentage. It made sense: the important thing is to avoid outs. You can come back from X number of runs down, but you can’t come back from 27 outs. The problem is that the way the game’s evolved, and the way pitching and pitching development has gone, there’s simply no benefit to avoiding outs. Strikeouts are too common to manufacture runs anymore. Some lament this trend, and it IS really changing the feeling of watching a game, but what we can’t do is pretend that it isn’t happening.

This great piece by BP treasure Rob Mains highlights the fact that not only is SLG% much MORE correlated with run scoring in 2019, it’s been true many times in the past. The old collective wisdom just isn’t true, at least not now. It’s only true if you look at all of baseball history aggregated together, and while that’s a useful thing to do in some circumstances, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to add in the deadball era to 20-freaking-19 to get a fuller picture of the impact of home runs. Gerrit Cole’s statistics benefit from this change, as I spelled out yesterday. He gets more strikeouts because more batters are going for broke up at the plate. But those batters are making the right choice.

Cole’s transformation felt nearly instantaneous, and it felt like he moved further than Justin Verlander, though Verlander himself looked like a much-improved version once he donned an Astros jersey. I think between those two examples and this gif taken a few days after Greinke was acquired, everyone just sort of assumed Greinke would dominate right from the start. That hasn’t really happened though; he hasn’t been bad, with an ERA/FIP in the mid-3s and a DRA of 4, but that’s higher than it’d been in Arizona. There’s no big, clear warning sign – his Ks are down a bit, but the walk rate’s still low and he’s getting ground balls. Unlike Cole, there’s no jump in his spin rate, nor in his velocity. He’s almost exactly the same, save for throwing a few more sliders and fewer change-ups, which could just be the result of the handedness of the batters he’s faced. Why isn’t Greinke SuperGreinke by now?

Partly, that’s the result of comically inflated expectations about what PD can do, and do instantly. Part of it is the fatalism of watching the M’s run into the Astros buzzsaw repeatedly this year, and partly it’s the result of watching Cole do what he did last night and not, say, Aaron Sanchez/Joe Biagini, whose transformations have been both manifestly more tangible than anything Greinke’s done and also not all that successful. In any event, as many observers note, this habit of helping pitchers reach their potential isn’t quarantined in Houston anymore, not as Tampa’s success with Tyler Glasnow (and Blake Snell, as if the reigning Cy Young winner is yesterday’s news) and Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger show. And that’s a problem, given that Cleveland and Tampa figure to be perennial contenders for the Wild Card in the coming years. Clevinger in particular seems remarkable; he’s fashioned himself into a poor man’s Gerrit Cole, with a K/9 well over 12. None of this would’ve seemed possible when he debuted way back in 2016, but here we are. The best thing we can say about the Indians, who keep doing this (Corey Kluber was a random trade throw-in, let’s recall), is that they haven’t been great at keeping their pitchers healthy. No pressure, M’s.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, CF
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Murphy, DH
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Lopes, RF
SP: Kikuchi

Not a great defensive OF, but glad to see Kyle Lewis get some looks in CF here and there. That’s what September’s for.

It’s Yusei Kikuchi’s last start of the year, and I think we’re all ready for him to get to work on improvements off the field. He’s still absolutely critical to the M’s 2021 timeline, and he was the most talented starter the M’s threw out there, but there’s no way to sugar coat his 2019 struggles. He should’ve been better, and I’m still kind of flummoxed as to why he didn’t show it. The M’s player development group, and their big league coaches, have had some real wins this year, but this has to go down as the biggest loss. He looked better momentarily after they fixed what they saw as a mechanical flaw, and getting the ball away from his body too early. But since that first success against San Diego, and then the CG shutout of Toronto two starts later, he’s scuffled just as bad as before. In his last 5 starts, he’s given up 18 runs in 20 1/3 IP on *37 hits* and 7 walks against just 9 Ks.

The M’s won’t give up the most hits in the game this year, not with the Rockies/Tigers/Orioles hanging around. But the reason they *won’t* is their bullpen, which, as bullpens are wont to do, is stingier with base hits. Their rotation has hemorrhaged hits, as Kikuchi’s recent struggles show. The M’s seem to notice this, and their rotation in 2021 figures to be much more, uhhh, modern in their orientation. Guys like Logan Gilbert, Justin Dunn, etc. figure to get Ks and limit BA/offense the way great rotations this year do. But I wonder what goes on in turning the org’s orientation so dramatically. For a few years, the M’s relished getting “undervalued” pitchers who didn’t strike people out, but pitched with moxie and grit. With Marco Gonzales, it’s been largely successful, and they’ve seen flashes from Wade LeBlanc and others. I’m sure even Jerry Dipoto would argue they acquired who they did because it’s what they could afford, or more accurately, what they were willing to pay. They’ve had coaches work to get the most out of 89 MPH pitchability guys from Mike Leake to Marco to Tommy Milone, and that’s admirable and all, and I’m sure all of those coaches would RATHER work with a Gerrit Cole/Tyler Glasnow-style talent, but the whole pitching focus will change – and should change – and I wonder how hard that is on player development staff and coaches. Maybe it’s easy, I have no idea. Just keep Logan Gilbert healthy, folks.


One Response to “Game 158, Astros at Mariners”

  1. MKT on September 25th, 2019 9:36 pm

    One of my potential future frustrations is that Felix will be the next pitcher to make a transformation like those others, either with the Astros or elsewhere. He’s not that old, his next team will get him to throw fewer fastballs (shades of Dave Cameron’s famous “Open Letter to Rafael Chaves”, and whatever other adjustment gets made, and voila he averages a dozen or fifteen wins a year for the next five years.

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