Game 15, Rockies at Mariners

marc w · August 7, 2020 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Antonio Senzatela, 6:40pm

A day after Taijuan Walker wasn’t quite able to recapture the electrifying form that saw his toss 7 IP of 1H, 0R ball, Yusei Kikuchi will try to follow up his own gem. This is the sort of thing that Kikuchi’s found difficult. After some slight tweaks to his mechanics, he fired a brilliant shutout of Toronto last August, allowing 2 hits and striking out 8 to just 1 walk. His next outing, he gave up 5 runs in 4 lackluster innings, with 3 walks and just a single K. This is a new year, though, and he’s got to be confident coming off 6 shutout against Oakland.

The Rockies come in hot, and they’re the surprise early leaders of the NL West at 9-3. This isn’t because their line-up is carrying them, either. Nolan Arenado is showing signs of life after a poor start, but their wRC+ is just 97, the exact same mark as Seattle’s. Ok, ok, their other numbers look better: K:BB ratio, K rate, ISO, batting average, etc. But after accounting for the differences in playing environment between Denver and Seattle, it comes out pretty even.

No, the real reason for their success isn’t hitting a ton of HRs. It’s preventing them. Despite a poor team strikeout rate, the Rockies have allowed far under 1 HR/9, and have a team FIP of 3.51. They have the second lowest HR/FB ratio behind Oakland, which is remarkable for a team playing at altitude. For years now, they’ve run very high GB rates, particularly as a starting rotation. That’s still broadly true, though it’s not as extreme as it was when I was completely stumped by them back in 2017. They *Still* throw more four-seam fastballs than almost anyone else (they’re second in MLB so far behind Houston), and they still get grounders. How?

They throw *weird* four-seamers. Today’s starter, Antonio Senzatela, is a microcosm of the approach. Senzatela’s four-seamer is thrown pretty hard, at 94-95, and when he came up in 2017, he threw it all the time: over 70% of his pitches were heaters. It was arrow-straight, but because of very low spin, it didn’t rise as much as it “should”, and presumably confused some hitters. He didn’t throw it up in the zone per se; he’s always moved it around, but stays close to the middle of the zone, vertically. He mixed in a slider, and was functionally a two-pitch starter, without any real swing-and-miss offerings. It worked, though – at least for a while. He slumped in 2019, with his K rate falling and his walk rate rising along with HRs (the drag-free baseball probably hurt him).

Thus, Senzatela’s made a slight adjustment. His spin rate is up noticeably this year, but his vertical movement is down signficantly. He was always below average, but his “rise” is over 1.5 standard deviations from the mean this year. He’s cutting his fastball, killing its backspin. Interestingly, he’s not the only Rockie to do this. It looks like Jon Gray is doing the same thing. Despite low spin of his own, Gray’s fastball had average rise in 2017. Now, it too is nearly 2 standard deviations below average. While his spin rate hasn’t spiked, just looking at the movement on his pitches shows that he’s added plenty of sidespin and choked off backspin. Will it work? Both struggled in recent years, and both are pitching fairly well in the early going, but it’s too early to say. Gray’s not missing *any* bats, and while that was never really Senzatela’s game, both could use some additional swing-and-miss pitches.

Senzatela’s giving it a go, adding a curve and change to his FB/SL arsenal. Interestingly, Senzatela’s ground ball rate has plummeted in the early going, but he hasn’t yielded any HRs yet. Gray’s GB rate is still high (though not as high as it has been). Another interesting thing to monitor in this short season.

One factor that may be helping them is the ever-changing baseball. Today, Rob Arthur had a great article at BP (it’s free) showing that drag on baseballs has crept back *up* after falling through the floor in 2019, leading to a massive glut of dingers. Less aerodynamic baseballs mean shorter distances given the same speed/angle, and thus, fewer homers. That’s probably good news for Yusei Kikuchi, too.

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

Interesting line-up today, with Dee Gordon moving to shortstop and Dylan Moore playing 1B. Evan White very clearly needed a day off, as he’s got just 6 hits and 24Ks in 56 PAs. His struggles with fastballs weren’t improving, and Dylan Bundy got him out throwing three elevated fastballs at 90 MPH right by the first baseman. He’ll get it going at some point, but it’s a bit ugly right now. That had been true of Vogelbach, but he had his best game at the plate in a while yesterday, with a dinger and some loud contact. Smith and Gordon are still mired in serious slumps, but it’s probably good to get JP Crawford a day off, as he’s cooled in the last week; he’s also made more plate appearances than anyone on the club.

Rob Arthur also notes that MLB’s switched its pitch tracking/ball tracking technology from TrackMan radar to a camera-based system called Hawkeye. There are always data gremlins when shifting from one data source to another, and that changeover seems to be wreaking havoc with the xBA numbers I quoted in yesterday’s piece on BABIP. That said, the BABIP numbers are what the are; that’s not the product of any sort of system, it’s just the product of watching games. It DOES make it harder to know what to make of the lowered exit velocities and launch angles. Intuitively, they make sense: something has to be causing the spike in outs per ground ball. But it’s hard to know what it is yet.


4 Responses to “Game 15, Rockies at Mariners”

  1. Stevemotivateir on August 7th, 2020 5:32 pm

    Dylan Moore is starting to draw attention for his loud contact, but he has yet to draw a walk.

    Still, I was literally asking myself when we would see Moore in place of White after watching White get murdered by Bundy.

    Bad puns aside, it was a legitimate question.

  2. marc w on August 7th, 2020 7:38 pm

    Yeah, Moore’s plate discipline is worrying from that angle, but then, the M’s are really hyping his decision making w/swings (ie. swinging at strikes, NOT swinging at balls).

    Whatever happens with Moore, it’s really not a good sign that White’s struggling quite this much. And no, Moore’s good start doesn’t even things out.

  3. Stevemotivateir on August 8th, 2020 5:16 am

    The good news is that Seattle’s back in the hunt for one of Rocker/Leiter, Seager might be tradable if a team is desperate enough, Nola’s looking like the real deal, and Lewis continues to do something seemingly every game.

  4. Stevemotivateir on August 8th, 2020 12:12 pm

    I wasn’t a fan of White getting the gig with mixed AA results and zero AAA experience. I know he had a better slash line on the road than Lewis, but he seemed to be adjusting more in an attempt to tap into his power and he never really had enough time to see if it could stick long-term and/or if there were any flaws.

    I’d imagine he’ll be given 100 PA’s or so to try to sort things out, but I really hope they exercise patience with his development and give him all the time he needs in the minors if necessary (2021).

    That said, man is he fun to watch in the field.

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