Game 41, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · September 7, 2020 at 12:14 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 1:10pm

The M’s have won 5 in a row, and are somehow now on the fringes of a playoff spot thanks to the expanded postseason. The M’s have 20 games to play, 1/3 of the shortened season. Despite both their pitching and position players ranking in the bottom third (per Fangraphs), they’re not as painful to watch as they were early in the season.

Given the short season and extra-imbalanced schedule, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Are the M’s figuring things out, or just playing Texas/Anaheim a lot? Are their starters really developing before our eyes, or is it just a couple of games of BABIP luck? The answer is undoubtedly a mixture. The Rangers really are terrible, and I’m not quite sure where they go from here. They’re going to wait out some bad contracts, hope their pitchers develop and…I’m not exactly sure what they do on the infield. But that’s not all of it. There have been clear, unambiguous signs of development from several Mariners, from Kyle Lewis’ improved K% to Ljay Newsome’s solid initial games. But one of the more improbable, at least to me, has been Marco Gonzales’ remarkable improvement.

Marco Gonzales has been good-goodish for a few years now, but after a solid 2018, things looked worse in 2019 (despite a nice ERA). His velocity dropped, his walk rate climbed, and his strikeouts fell markedly. That lovely ERA was held down by a flurry of unearned runs and some HR/FB luck. He alternated effective months with disastrous ones, but ultimately finished the year fairly strong. Still, the trend in velo and thus strikeouts looked ominous.

If Gonzales was going to rebound and put together a great season, what do you think would change? What, exactly, would be the cause of this breakthrough? I and other M’s-writers have mused on this several times over the years, and we have been wrong every time. I certainly would’ve been wrong this year. A velocity spike, aided by the M’s “Gas Camp” perhaps? No, his velocity is even lower this year, and is among the lowest in the velo-obsessed game. How about an improvement in his change-up, once his best pitch, but an offering whose results have never quite shown up in games? No, if anything, 2020 has pretty clearly demonstrated that the cambio is in fact his worst pitch. Uh, more randomized pitch mix? No, he’s not quiet as random this year, favoring his fastball and cutter a bit more.

It’s thus hard to say exactly what he’s doing, but clearly command is at the center of it. His walk rate is nearly imperceptible, and he’s gotten increasingly good at targeting different zones with different pitches. He’s keeping his four-seam fastball and sinker down, using the former to get in on the hands of righties, and the latter to bore in towards lefties. He’s not abandoning the top of the zone entirely, though – he just uses the cutter up there. Whatever the reason, his average exit velocity has fallen, and it’s fallen for both grounders and fly balls. Batters aren’t driving the ball in the air, and it’s made his underpowered fastball one of the better pitches in the game, looking at pure results. It’s amazing.

Before the year, I worried that the Rangers might overtake the M’s in pursuit of contention if they could coax some improvement and consistency from younger starters like Kolby Allard. The 23 year old lefty has a very low BABIP, an improved K rate…it’s happening, right. No, despite luck on BABIP and HR/FB, he’s got an ERA well over 5, and he’s walking way too many. His woes look a bit like Yusei Kikuchi’s in that he pairs a very solid overall wOBA or batting average against with far too many runs allowed. The key is that he’s been great with no one on, but unable to strand any runners. That’s not a good pattern for someone who walks a lot of batters, too.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Ervin, RF
8: Torrens, C
9: Strange-Gordon, LF
SP: Gonzales

Dee Gordon now goes by Dee Strange-Gordon, as you can see from the line-up.

Happy Labor Day!


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