Cactus League Game 10, Rangers at Mariners – Underrated M’s

marc w · March 10, 2021 at 11:19 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Justus Sheffield vs. Jharel Cotton, 12:10pm

The M’s host the rebuilding Rangers today in Peoria, and one-time A’s/Dodgers prospect Jharel “Squeaky” Cotton and his floating, high-70s change-up hopes to secure a job in the wide-open Rangers pitching staff. The M’s counter with Justus Sheffield, looking to build on a successful 2020 behind his new sinker. There’s some skepticism from some corners, given the *way* that Sheffield put together that 2020 campaign, and his very low HR/FB ratio. Sure, his statcast expected slugging wasn’t high either, thanks to the fact he allowed a lot of weak contact, but we’re at a point in baseball where velocity and the ability to miss bats are seen as the gold standard of player development (and rightly so, I’d add). But does that mean we’re overlooking players who don’t necessarily fit that template?

I think we probably are. At the population level, stats like xBA and xSLG or xwOBA don’t show a huge improvement in predictive power over plain old BA or SLG%…stats that are notoriously noisy for pitchers. That’s partially what’s driven up the value of things like velocity and K%: they’re stickier. They point to a real underlying skill, not just a series of results which are in part dependent on teammates and park. So I completely understand the reason why fantasy baseball players might take a run at Kevin Gausman or someone like that. But I think it’s clear that some pitchers might be able to limit contact or limit runs in ways that the entire population can’t.

The M’s certainly hope Sheffield becomes one of them, but they’ve already got one of the poster boys for this phenomenon in Marco Gonzales. I’ve been down on Marco, especially after he lost velocity in 2019 and had a wildly volatile year, going from months where he posted great results to months in which he got knocked around. But something seems to have clicked in 2020, even though that velocity never came back. Despite that, Gonzales has turned his underwhelming stuff into a confusing arsenal for batters. His sinker’s better than ever, and is the key to his repertoire. He’s living inside the zone far more than ever, and yet he’s yielding less loud contact.

In this way, he’s similar to perhaps the sine qua non of these results-over-stuff pitchers, Ryan Yarbrough. Unconcerned with the low reliability of xstats, Yarbrough yielded the lowest percentage of hard-hit balls in 2019, and finished that up by ranking third-lowest in 2020. The former M’s farmhand has an ERA and FIP below 4 despite one of the lowest fastball velocities in the game. At that kind of velo, there’s no wicked movement or freakish break on his pitches. He’s just confusing people by disguising his pitches and filling up the zone. His arm slot may help, but again, there’s just nothing in the raw stats that shows how/why he’s so effective.

Except one, perhaps. Yarbrough’s cutter seems to show some evidence of the “seam shifted wake” or the newly-discovered force that can impact movement. This isn’t based on pure spin, but rather on the intial orientation of the seams when the pitch is thrown. It’s remarkable, and is probably the big stats story of this offseason (well, at least it would be if the league would stop changing the baseball). Yarbrough’s actual movement looks different than you’d guess if you knew just the spin and velocity, and that might help confuse batters. Something similar, though less pronounced, seems to be at play with Gonzales’ sinker, too. That said, it’s not like you can go down the leaderboard for observed/predicted movement and identify undervalued pitchers like these; the whole thing is too new, and the data too noisy at this point.

This isn’t just an M’s specialty. The A’s Chris Bassitt seems perpetually overlooked, too, and there are others throughout the league. The M’s need to take an important step forward this season if they want to compete in 2021, and solidifying Sheffield’s gains, or making Chris Flexen and Ljay Newsome into guys who can beat the eye test will help them do so.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Haggerty, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Marmolejos, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Trammell, CF
7: Crawford, SS
8: Fraley, DH
9: Rodriguez, LF
SP: Sheffield

Soooo, Ty France, eh? France has been a revelation, hitting the ball incredibly hard all spring. Given the M’s need for batting average and, relatedly, SLG%, I think France is the most important member of the M’s everyday line-up. A big year from France takes a lot of pressure off of JP Crawford (who can be perfectly acceptable as a decent OBP, great defense middle infielder) and Mitch Haniger (who can work himself back into game shape without thinking that he has to carry the run production on his own). It gets more out of late-period Kyle Seager, who combines great bat-to-ball skills with perhaps a lower average due to shifting, and it allows a guy like Tom Murphy to hopefully be effective despite a lower BA/OBP.


One Response to “Cactus League Game 10, Rangers at Mariners – Underrated M’s”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 10th, 2021 6:38 pm

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling pretty good about the pitching.

    They have nowhere to go but up.

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