Cactus League Game vs. Colorado, and a Test of the M’s Rebuild: Sheffield vs. Urquidy

marc w · March 2, 2020 at 11:30 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Justus Sheffield vs. Jon Gray, 12:10pm

So, the M’s have another Cactus League game today, as enigmatic Rockies erstwhile ace Jon Gray faces off with Justus Sheffield and the M’s. Gray’s an intriguing story in his own right, but that’s not what I’d like to talk about today. Instead, I’d like to offer up Sheffield as a key test of the success or progress of the M’s step-back/rebuild.

As it’s become clear that the M’s aren’t going to compete in 2020, we need some other metric to gauge the progress of the M’s rebuild. We can’t use wins and losses in the near term, so we’re going to need proxies of some sort. A popular choice has been to focus on farm system rankings, and the M’s rise from #26-28 or so a few years ago to #8-12 or so now. After last year, wishing on Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic became a passion project for many who just wanted to the 2019 season to stop. But as I’ve talked about, in order for Kelenic/Rodriguez to push the M’s into contention, the rest of the roster has to be good enough to make that a realistic possibility. Thus, in a year like this one where neither OF uberprospect will start with the M’s, we need to focus on the progress of the youngsters the M’s are counting on *now*.

We could do this with just about anyone, from JP Crawford to Shed Long to Evan White to Justin Dunn, but 1) Justus Sheffield starts today, and thus I’m making a random early-march Cactus League game topical, and 2) I’d argue Sheffield is more important to the M’s in 2021-2023 than just about any Mariner. Right now, the M’s have young players around the diamond with the possible exception of 3B. Not a ton is expected of them, but that’s arguably OK; it’s conceivable that the likes of Crawford/Long/White can give them league average or better production in a few years. What’s harder to see, at least from looking at the projections, is where a MLB-quality starting rotation will come from. Marco Gonzales, sure. And Logan Gilbert is the best prospect of the bunch, but in order to be where they want to be, they need Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn to make a big leap and take hold of those starting pitcher slots. Sheffield’s got more MLB experience and was the more bally-hooed prospect, so I’d argue he’s the most likely to settle in as a long-term middle-of-the-rotation starter.

So how does that help us evaluate the rebuild? A decent test of the rebuild will be if Justus Sheffield turns in a better season than the Astros’ Jose Urquidy. It’s not fair to ask Sheffield to be better than, say, Justin Verlander or something. It’s also not fair to compare him to a player who has no realistic path to 20 starts or 120 IP or so. Urquidy is likely the Astros #4 starter, and while he had no prospect pedigree before last year, enters 2020 on the back end of Top 100 prospect lists. He’d previously been a command/control guy, but started racking up strikeouts and made his way to some key postseason starts in Houston in 2019. He had a better first go-round in MLB, but neither of them is a finished product, and both pitched only about 40 IP last year in the majors.

While Urquidy is a righty, he and Sheffield have nearly identical fastball velocities: both sit at 93+ with their four-seamers. Sheffield’s lower arm angle and freakishly low spin means his 93 bowling ball produces lower launch angles and many more ground balls. Urquidy throws his fastball higher, and while it’s not some spin-rate or spin-efficiency marvel, it has normal rise. The combination of those things means Urquidy’s FB is an extreme fly-ball pitch. Both throw sliders with comparable break off the fastball, but Sheffield’s angle means his sinks a bit more overall. But here, Sheffield allows more elevated contact, while Urquidy’s is neutral. Both throw developing change-ups, too. Urquidy has a curve that he uses even more than his slider, so he’s got a true four-pitch mix, while Sheffield only has 3 – but you can argue that Sheffield’s slider is the only out-pitch either hurler throws.

It’s easy to see why Sheffield could walk away with this: Urquidy’s flyballing ways could lead to serious HR troubles, a potential hinted at by ZiPS and other projections that show him with a FIP/ERA in the high-4s, thanks to HR rates in the 1.6 range or so (which is very high, even in the modern game). Sheffield’s GB% can help him avoid the long ball, and thus pitch around his much, much higher walk rate. From there, he just needs to be steady, and ZiPS and Steamer have him with a similar projection of a high-4s FIP. Likewise, it’s easy to see why you might favor Urquidy. Sheffield’s walk rates give him less of a margin for error, and Urquidy’s already shown he can run sub-4 FIP/ERAs, albeit over a small sample. In a game where even good pitchers give up tons of HRs, Sheffield’s walk rate makes each HR he allows much more damaging. Urquidy comes out ahead slightly by Fangraphs’s projections, but they’re in the same ballpark.

BaseballProspectus’ PECOTA projections offer a worst-case scenario for M’s fans. In this system, Urquidy’s slightly better than ZiPS/Steamer see him: he’s an above average starter with a DRA/FIP/ERA closer to 4. Meanwhile, Sheffield is a below-average arm, undone by walks AND HRs, with a DRA closer to 6 than 5. It’s a system that was down on Sheffield last year, so while it’s not a shock that it’s not impressed with his skillset, it IS shocking to see the magnitude of the divergence from ZiPS/Steamer/etc. It’s fair to say that if anything like what PECOTA sees comes true, the rebuild will be in a very bad place. If Sheffield’s replacement-level, then the forecasted improvement due to age and experience won’t have materialized, and the M’s pitching staff will likely be worse than Fangraphs’ poor projections thought. The M’s would need to regroup in 2021, and wouldn’t be close to contention.

If Sheffield outpitches Urquidy, though, then it’d be a big sign that the player development overhaul is bearing fruit not just in prospect rankings, but in MLB production. It would beat the projections, and beat the Astros at their own development game. That needs to start happening at a team and organization-wide level, but it’d be great to see it in this microcosm of that org-level battle. Either Sheffield would trim his walks and become something more like a true #3, or maybe Urquidy would hit a wall and have his HR tendencies exploited to the point where he wasn’t really viable anymore. That would seem far-fetched, but then, last year wasn’t great for the Astros’ pitching development, Urquidy aside. Josh James looked ready to become a dominant force with his high-90s velo, but struggled even as a middle reliever. Forrest Whitley suffered through another lost year in the minors, and the team traded away other prospects like JB Bukauskas. Logan Gilbert leapfrogging Whitley would’ve seemed ludicrous last year; it’s not at all ludicrous now. But if the M’s are going to take advantage, they need Sheffield to make some big strides of his own, and I think the Urquidy comparison is an interesting one for both teams.

Today’s line-up:
1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Lewis, LF
6: Gonzalez, RF
7: Fraley, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, SS
SP: Sheffield

White’s back after a minor groin strain kept him out a day or two. Sounds like the M’s won’t start Taijuan Walker in the main Cactus League game on Wednesday, but will have him go in a B game on a back field. In more depressing injury news, RP Matt Festa was diagnosed with a ligament tear, and will undergo Tommy John surgery.


One Response to “Cactus League Game vs. Colorado, and a Test of the M’s Rebuild: Sheffield vs. Urquidy”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 2nd, 2020 1:41 pm

    If the Mariners are going to contend in 2021, yes, they’ll need Sheffield and Dunn to step up. They would need Gilbert even more.

    But success between 2022-2023 isn’t dependent on Sheffield’s ability to hold a place in the rotation. Realistically, they probably need 2 of Sheffield-Dunn-Gilbert-Kirby-Williamson-Kikuchi. They could buy the remaining help they need.

    Good outing today. Three innings pitched with 4 K’s, 2 hits and 0 walks. The early dinger didn’t throw him off track.

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