Cactus League Nights: Mariners at Brewers – The Spin Zone

marc w · March 9, 2020 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Taijuan Walker vs. Corbin Burnes, 7:05pm

After an evening game against the Dodgers, the M’s have a true night game against the Milwaukee Brewers, who’ve been to the playoffs in consecutive years. In many ways, the Brewers are the model the M’s look to for their shortened rebuild. The Brewers had been adrift for several years after a brilliant 2011 run ended in the NLCS. After a couple of years of pretty-good and hanging around .500, they cleaned house in the FO, and had two down years in 2015 and 2016. But the stars aligned in 2017 thanks to an out-of-nowhere pitching staff, headlined by Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jimmy Nelson. Their bullpen had a great closer, and the intriguing set-up man Josh Hader made his debut. KPB import Eric Thames got a lot of attention, but the team was led by that great staff. So, before 2018, they saw their contention window open, and they went for it. In came not only CF Lorenzo Cain, but also Christian Yelich thanks to a trade with the Marlins that now looks like one of the bigger heists in MLB history. Their pitching staff hasn’t recreated the magic that carried them in 2017, but of course it no longer needs to. At this point, it’s their line-up that’s one of the best in the National League, and they enter 2020 with Yelich under a brand new contract extension. They’re one of the better teams – and better stories – in recent years, and I think the M’s are particularly drawn to that out of nowhere rotation, a rotation that didn’t boast big strikeout guys or blistering velocities.

Of course, the M’s have to show that they can actually develop pitchers into effective MLB weapons. It’s all well and good to *say* that pitchers can be effective without big time heaters, but it’s another thing to show that you can coach such arms to sustained big league success. The M’s need to get their staff – projected to be among the game’s worst – to much, much higher levels of performance. With a big shake-up in the big league coaching staff, that’s a possibility, but it’ll take some work.

We got an early example of some of that work the other day, when Justus Sheffield had a great game against the Giants (admittedly, not exactly Murderer’s Row) with his brand new fastball: a sinker. This is a good sign, and something I advocated he try when he came back from his minor league re-set last year. With his freakishly low spin rates AND low spin efficiency, his fastball simply isn’t designed to be a swing and miss pitch. With more arm-side run and more natural sink, he could settle in as a ground ball guy who gets poor contact. I’d be worried – I *am* worried – about platoon splits with that approach, but his slider has been surprisingly effective against righties, which ameliorates those concerns.

Sheffield’s low spin rates highlights my issue with that metric. Sure, Sheffield’s spin rates are terrible. Tonight’s opposing starter, Corbin Burnes had absolutely elite spin rates on his four-seam fastball, which led him to be tabbed as a breakout candidate for the Brewers last year. Burnes has been able to produce very good strikeout totals thanks in part to his high-spin fastball. But it didn’t make him *effective.* He gave up 52 runs in 49 IP last season, and was demoted first to the bullpen and then to the minors. Chris Stratton’s elite spin rate couldn’t save him from being DFA’d. It’s not the spin or movement are immaterial – it’s just that the metric of raw spin rate flattens or ignores context.

One consequence of the race for spin has been the near-abandoning of the sinker. Is it a worry that Sheffield’s going to a pitch everyone’s telling their pitchers to stop throwing? No, not really. At some level, if teams are moving away from a pitch/approach, meaning that batters see more and more of a similar attack pattern, the bigger the impact of teaching that ignored pitch could be. If the league suddenly moves one way, it can sometimes be advantageous to go the other. We saw that last year with the Cincinnati Reds. Among qualified pitchers, only 22 had cumulative (positive) run values with sinkers above 2 runs. Julio Teheran and Mike Soroka led the way with Atlanta, but four of the top 20 played for the Reds: Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, and Anthony DeSclafini. The Reds have been awful in the pitching department for years, but a big change at pitching coach followed by this season’s overhaul of coaching and development (including hiring Driveline founder and friend of the blog Kyle Boddy) has already paid off, and make them one of the most intriguing teams in 2020…along with their rivals in the Central, Milwaukee.

To be fair: the Reds pitchers’ sinkers don’t look a lot like Sheffield’s. Gray in particular throws a particularly high spin variety, and they work more on armside run – in using that spin to generate non-“rise” movement. A low spin sinker will sink, but that may not be enough. By spin, Sheffield’s sinker may look a lot like Texas’ Ariel Jurado’s. So far at least, you do not want a sinker like Ariel Jurado’s. If Sheff can get some improved efficiency or a good combo with his slider, the low spin won’t be too much of a problem, but I think the change-up will be a big pitch for him going forward. They can pair really well with sinkers, as the aforementioned Luis Castillo shows.

This’ll be a great showcase for Taijuan Walker, too. After glowing reports about his work in a “B” game, it’ll be nice to see him on TV and facing a real line-up.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, DH
3: Vogelbach, 1B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: Crawford, SS
7: Nola, C
8: Lopes, 3B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Walker


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