Game 44, Mariners at Diamondbacks

marc w · September 11, 2020 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Caleb Smith, 6:40pm

I am a product of my Pacific Northwest upbringing. There’s no getting around it. One thing that this produces is a distaste for or outright inability to function in extreme temperatures. For this reason, the thought of going to Phoenix around this time of year makes me uncomfortable. Yes, there’s AC everywhere, I know. But it doesn’t take away the dread of trying to do physical activities in that kind of heat. With this as the backdrop: I wish I was in Phoenix now.

The air quality in my little pocket of the South Sound wasn’t *too* bad until yesterday and today. It’s…it’s real bad now, and it’s *still* somehow better than many places. And of course, this is nothing compared to the thousands and thousands of people dealing with evacuation orders or watching fires march closer. This is a grim time in what’s been a grim, grim year. Go Mariners?

The D-Backs, a team I thought would easily grab a wild card in the expanded playoff format, have been brutally bad this year, thanks to an anemic offense that’s utterly collapsed after last year. Despite a good offensive environment, they’re hitting for no power. Ketel Marte’s ISO last year (when he hit 32 bombs) was .264. It’s now .117, and he’s stuck on just 2 dingers. Former emerging star (and former UW Husky) Jake Lamb was just DFA’d. As a team, the D-Backs have an OBP of .303.

With the club out of contention, they traded off their one position player who was having a decent year – OF Starling Marte to the Marlins (the Marlins buying at the deadline from Arizona; if you predicted THAT, I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter). In return they got today’s starter, Caleb Smith. Smith made it one game in 2020 before contracting Covid-19 along with what seemed like 2/3 of the Marlins roster. He hasn’t pitched since, as he’d been trying to get back into game shape at the Marlins (and the D-Backs) alternate training site. I’m not sure what to expect, or how long they’ll let him go tonight.

Originally a Yankee farmhand, he had a very good first year in Miami in 2018, striking out 88 in 77 1/3 IP. He pitched off of a 92 MPH fastball that had more armside run than you’d expect, given Smith’s normal 3/4 delivery. It paired well with a change with even more armside run, and an interesting gyro-spin slider with above-average drop. Last year, Smith was one of the pitchers most harmed by MLB using a dragless, seemingly-rubber baseball, and that funky fastball was suddenly easier to lift. Batters still struggled, and didn’t hit for average against it, but he gave up 20 HRs on the heater, pushing his overall HR rate to nearly 2 per 9 IP.

With the baseball a little bit more normal, he’d be a good regression bet, but obviously the ‘rona had other plans. His walk rate was never great, but he gave up 6 free passes in 3 IP back in July, so that’s another thing to keep an eye on. The M’s have a number of patient hitters, and they should force Smith back into the zone.

If there’s one pitcher *more* harmed by the weird baseball in 2019, it’s Yusei Kikuchi. The new ball, more velocity, and a transformative cutter have all but eliminated Kikuchi’s serious HR problem. He’s got other problems, of course, but I’m surprised at myself for thinking that Kikuchi in Arizona is a pretty good match-up. That would, uh, not have been the case last year.

Kikuchi’s cutter isn’t just a putaway pitch (though most of his K’s have come on cutters). Instead, it’s a sneaky-effective ground ball machine. His overall ground ball rate has spiked this season, and the cutter’s the reason why. He’s actually getting *fewer* ground balls on his fastball, but then, he’s yielding fewer balls in play of any kind with it.

One interesting thing I’ve seen is that Kikuchi’s throwing his fastball lower than he did last year, and he’s trying to keep it away from right-handers – the batters that hit 28 HRs off of him last year. The lack of grounders is interesting, but the real change is his move from slider to cutter. The average launch angle – the angle the ball takes off of the bat – on his slower slider last year was 10. This year: -3. Despite the fact that they’re hitting it harder, they can’t really do damage, as they keep hitting the ball on the ground. I assume Kikuchi can figure out whatever’s troubling him with men on base, but I like his new approach overall.

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

JP Crawford will miss the next few games on the bereavement list. Donovan Walton is up with the club to give them more SS depth until Crawford returns.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.