Game 11, A’s at Mariners

marc w · August 3, 2020 at 5:33 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justus Sheffield vs. Frankie Montas, 6:10pm

After castigating the M’s starting pitching a few days back, the starting pitching has been remarkably good. Annnny time you’re ready to do something Evan White and Dan Vogelbach, we’re ready for it. I joke, but it really is hard to tell what’s going on in such a short season, with this weird, even-more-imbalanced schedule. Are the A’s just not as good of an offense as we thought? Are the Angels just really good at the plate? Did the M’s fix something on the quick? Is this all just meaningless variance? Let’s hope they found something.

One of the things I like best about baseball is watching a pitcher at the top of their game. I’ve essentially blogged through the peak of the Felix Hernandez era, and there’s a reason we all got so giddy watching him. No matter the opponent, no matter the line-up, a great pitcher is one of the most compellingly watchable things in sport. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been excited to see baseball come back despite all of the problems involved with trying to restart a sport during a pandemic. Watching Gerrit Cole, or Jacob de Grom, or Clayton Kershaw, or Shane Bieber, or so many more, transcends rooting interest (ok, I don’t particularly care for watching them carve up the M’s), and seems like an amazing cocktail of physics, competition, training, athleticism, and more. Jacob de Grom just tossed a 94 MPH *slider* tonight. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

And because 2020 sucks *so much*, it’s the kind of thing that’s imperiled now. Shohei Ohtani, just back from TJ surgery, was clearly not himself in two abbreviated starts this year. He walked 8 in 1 2/3 IP, and threw 40+ awful pitches in the second inning yesterday, walking *5* before being lifted. He’s now out with a forearm strain that may keep him from DHing in Seattle tomorrow. When healthy, I’m not sure there’s a more compelling player to watch, and he simply hasn’t been healthy. While writing this, Mike Soroka of Atlanta went down with what may be an achilles injury, and left the field without putting any pressure on his leg. Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber are already down. I’m starting to wonder how many more might follow them.*

I’m not sure what could’ve been done differently, but it’s starting to look like the weird attempt at a second spring training – the “summer camps” – may not have been long enough to get pitchers’ prepared for a real season. Yes, every year pitchers go down with injury, and yes, we don’t yet know if this spate of injuries is worse. But given everything from timing to incentives, I’m not sure that teams have done a lot to prioritize player health or to reduce injury risk. I think the players themselves were probably so eager to get back to games that they may have cut corners on their own processes and routines, too. Playing in 2020 was never going to be easy, and the top 10-20 best ways of doing things simply weren’t possible. But this is getting tough. I’m glad the M’s have a 6-man rotation, and I’m really hoping their youth protects them to a degree, but we have to hope Dunn/Sheffield/Gilbert etc. stay healthy.

Frankie Montas looked like he was breaking out as an ace pitcher for Oakland last year when he tested positive for a banned substance and lost 80 games. The sinkerballer always had really good velocity – he averages 96+ with his fastball – but struggled to put batters away as a starter in 2018, as he didn’t really have a pitch to throw to lefties. His slider was fine, and his fastball not bad, but it didn’t really add up to a lot of strikeouts. Last year, he added a splitter, and was off to the races. In a year, he *doubled* his K rate to lefties, and started striking out over a batter per inning despite a fastball that’s still not exactly a putaway pitch.

There’s so much talk these days (and I’ve done some of it myself) about the importance of high fastballs at generating whiffs, and “high spin” fourseamers with vertical movement. But guys like Montas highlight another way of being really effective: ground balls and strikeouts are a hell of a combo, even if they’re tough to find together. When batters suddenly started elevating low fastballs, baseball started prioritizing high fastballs. But it’s not clear that high fastballs are any sort of way to prevent damage, even if they DO get put in play less often.

That’s why it’s so interesting to watch Justus Sheffield’s development this year. His weird low-spin four-seam wasn’t a great pitch last year, and making it sink *more* won’t turn him into Brandon Wood or Frankie Montas overnight. But trying to shove the round peg of Sheffield’s fastball into the round hole of “elevate the four-seam” wasn’t working, and I’m glad to see the M’s change course. Of course, not all changes will work from the drop, and Sheffield’s sinker wasn’t exactly great in his first outing. The thing that jumps out is that no one swung at it. His command wasn’t quite there, but it has to be odd to adjust to slightly new movement so early in one’s big league career. The move to a sinker has led to a lot more armside movement, for example, along with more sink.

His slider’s still a thing, and he didn’t throw enough change-ups to know much about that, but I hope he has more of an opportunity to showcase the changes he’s made tonight.

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

Evan White’s been a revelation, and JP Crawford has started well, so at least a few of the young M’s should leave their lackluster projections in the dust. But Evan White’s swinging through quite a few fastballs, and Dan Vogelbach’s striking out and hitting a ton of ground balls. Dan: K’s and grounders are good for pitchers, not you. Mallex Smith looks like he’s in his head again, and I’m not sure how long the M’s can wait for him, now that they have their CF of the future in place. It’s the same sort of thing for Vogelbach – with White at 1B, a poor start or poor year leaves his future with this club in doubt. Hope to see some signs of life from both, but both now play positions that prioritize offense, meaning that they can’t really be league-average bats – and being league-average bats would be a shocking improvement at this point.

* James Paxton’s plummeting velocity makes me very, very worried.


4 Responses to “Game 11, A’s at Mariners”

  1. Stevemotivateir on August 3rd, 2020 6:10 pm

    I’m cool with seeing White given 100 or so PA’s to adapt and adjust, but he may need some time in the bubble to work on things.

    Sheffield is a curious case. It’s hard to see him surviving without his 4 seam FB. Doesn’t have to be his go-to pitch, but I hope he doesn’t completely abandon it.

  2. Stevemotivateir on August 3rd, 2020 7:37 pm

    I wonder how long Shaw sticks around.

  3. WTF_Ms on August 3rd, 2020 8:25 pm

    Well that inning got away from them!

  4. Stevemotivateir on August 3rd, 2020 8:55 pm

    Well, that should be it for Lewis’ streak.

    Missed some pitches in the middle in that last at bat.

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