Cactus League: Mariners at Brewers – Get Up, Get Down

marc w · March 21, 2021 at 11:31 am · Filed Under Mariners 

James Paxton vs. Freddy Peralta, 1:10pm no tv (!?), M’s radio network

Paxton’s visa issues are sorted, and the M’s are facing an NL team: get the Big Maple out there and let’s see how he’s doing! Opposing him is the enigmatic Freddy Peralta, M’s prospect who got away or trick-pitch guy that the league will figure out, depending on your perspective.

Peralta was packaged with the more polished (and more injured) Daniel Missaki in one of Trader Jerry’s earliest deals: the ill-fated deal for Adam Lind in late 2015. Adam Lind was below replacement level in his one season, Missaki’s elbow never recovered, but Freddy Peralta tore through the minors and reached Milwaukee in 2018 thanks to unreal strikeout rates.

So, did he have a freakish slider? An airbender change-up like his teammate Devin Williams? No, his pitch mix, especially when he initially came up, was *80%* four-seam fastballs. How can a guy who pitched like late-period Bartolo Colon post a career K/9 over 12 and a K% over 30%? What is his internet-marketing-style one weird trick?

Peralta came up throwing in the low-90s, so it wasn’t a case where he was able to simply blow it by overmatched hitters, not that the big leagues supplies a ton of overmatched hitters. Instead, the Brewers found that he was able to combine a couple of things that are typically seen as mutually exclusive: a low 3/4 release point with plenty of ride/rise. The hitter sees an angle that would seem to produce lots of arm-side run and maybe some sink, and what they get is a back-spinning high heater that they simply can’t avoid swinging under. If that sounds familiar, it’s something Brewers fans know pretty well: that’s Josh Hader’s pitch.

Hader, too, throws 75% four-seamers, and while he throws a bit harder, he’s not touching triple digits. What he’s done now for years is avoid barrels on four-seam fastballs that *batters know is coming.* This is supposed to be impossible – when hitters know a fastball is coming, and if that fastball is in the zone, they kill it. That’s why you need to disrupt timing, or mix in breaking balls, and you definitely need a change for opposite-handed hitters. Or, you know, you can just keep throwing heaters until batters show that they can hit it.

Peralta’s thrown a few thousand fastballs in the bigs, and while the results aren’t quite at Hader’s level, he’s proven that batters aren’t exactly getting the hang of things. He showed promise as a starter in 2018, but then collapsed due to BABIP and strand rate in 2019. That said, he put together his best year in 2020 out of the pen, with a K/9 over 14 – that’s getting near Hader/Williams territory. It must be said, the Brewers pitching development group has done a pretty good job of helping their guys develop or hone singular, nasty, ridiculous pitches. Their task now is to help Peralta figure out what to do with men on. Peralta’s still looking for a season strand rate above 70%, and that weakness with men on has killed his overall effectiveness. The Ks give him a gorgeous FIP, but his ERA has never come close to matching it, and it won’t as long as he can’t pitch effectively out of the stretch.

One improvement he made last year was to learn to trust his slider, at least against righties. He’s never really differentiated his approach against lefties/righties, because it’s hard to call “just throw heaters” an approach at all. But he moved his slighter usage vs. righties up from 10-15% to about 40% last year, and the results were great. Against lefties, he’s still pretty much heater first, second, and third, but he’s got a curve that he’ll mix in there occasionally.

Enough about Peralta, a guy I definitely wish was still in the M’s organization. I’d like to talk about two hitters that the M’s will count on to improve their overall offense this year. Evan White simply can’t repeat his horrific 2020 rookie year, or he’ll be sent to the minors, now that the minors exist again. And JP Crawford can hopefully build on what was a strange, but partially successful season at the plate – and this time he won’t face the pressure of batting leadoff.

Crawford’s always had a terrible BABIP for a guy with his speed. Evan White had a terrible BABIP last year to go with that terrifying strikeout rate. Watching them in the spring, it’s clear that the team is helping them take two very different approaches heading in to 2021. White’s hand position is now higher, and he seems to be making more contact (though he didn’t have any problems in the spring before 2020 either), but his batted ball distribution isn’t any different: White essentially never hits the ball on the ground.

This was true last spring, and, to a lesser extent, marked his rookie campaign. It makes sense, too: White had the highest exit velocity on balls hit in the air on the 2020 Mariners. His BABIP on these wasn’t too bad. A ball hit, well, really anywhere by White is an improvement, and a ball hit in the air has to be seen as something of a win. But we’re seeing the flaw here this spring: despite what the announcers and the exit velocities say, White isn’t a huge power hitter. Joey Gallo can often get away with a high-K, high-fly ball, high SLG% approach. I’m not convinced White can come close to that.

The Gallo approach is really hard to replicate without near-80-grade power, and it’s *especially* hard to do if MLB goes and reduces the springiness of the baseball for 2021. What can happen then is, well, it’s what we’re seeing now: a BABIP under .200 because all of those air balls hang up for fielders to catch, and too few of them creep over the wall. I don’t think White will run a BABIP under .150 for the year, but I think it’s going to be hard to get it over the .264 he put up last year, and that’s going to limit his average and overall production *even if* his K% regresses towards the league average quite a bit.

But wait, you say: Ty France is hitting the ball in the air, and he’s neither 1) Joey Gallo or 2) struggling, so why can’t White emulate France and not Gallo? France looks superficially like White: no massive power, but has success on elevated contact, and can put up a decent overall line despite lower-than-.200+ ISOs. The short answer here is that France has done it, and is doing it again this spring. Despite poor exit velos (again perhaps showing the limitation of the metric more than the limitation of the player), France has been a productive hitter, and is even more productive now. I’d suspect he’s hitting the ball harder now this spring..right when we can’t measure it. But again, players will show you what can work. If White wants to hit like France, that would show us all that it can work. Right now, it’s not working.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got JP Crawford, who’s really leaning in to the slap and run style of hitting. As with White, it seems to make sense: Crawford’s exit velocity and barrel rates are terrible, and having a slap hitter hit fly balls is a recipe for disaster. For years, Crawford’s been trying to find an approach that can work at the plate. In his first big test with Philadelphia in 2018, he combined an elevated K rate, a low BABIP, and gap power. The combination of walks and some extra base hits were great, but the low average sapped some of his effectiveness, and he began to change things up. Here’s the thing, though: that 2018 season was his most productive at the plate.

In 2019, he started extremely well. In the first half, he reduced his K rate some, but stung the ball. His line of .277/.347/.466 was amazing, and portended even more as he gained experience. Then he got hurt. He simply wasn’t the same when he returned; he was all batting eye, and no pop. He slumped to a .188/.288/.299 finish. And then he seemed to decide that the path to being a productive hitter at the plate was by taking the second half approach and abandoning the first half approach.

In 2020, any real hint of that gap power was gone, as his ISO continued its slide, dropping below .100. The K rate, too, continued to drop, and his BABIP stopped looking unplayably ugly. The overall results were just shy of that similar, but completely different 2018 campaign, so in some sense Crawford’s decision was rewarded. But where do you go from here? Crawford doesn’t have even average sprint speed, and if he continues to beat the ball into the ground, he could be vulnerable to shifts, even as a switch hitter; like pretty much every other non-Ichiro hitter, he doesn’t hit opposite-field grounders.

So this spring, Crawford’s GB/FB ratio is skyrocketing. It’s the continuation of a trend that began in 2019 and picked up steam in 2019. As with White, I’m just not sure you can get to a good end point using this approach. That’s hard to say after what was a mostly-good…ish 2020 for Crawford, and if he continues to make more contact, he could get even better with some help from the BABIP gods. But as discerning as Crawford’s batting eye is (and it’s great), I’m not sure big league pitchers will allow him to run 10% BB rates if his ISO is still down below .100. I’d like the version of Crawford who was capable of SLG% in the mid-400s, and we’ve just not seen that guy since the injury. I hope the M’s have him on a viable path to being a league-average hitter, even if he got there using 1980s-style approaches. I’m worried, though, that a drop in walk rate could lead to a collapse.

1: Haggerty, 2B
2: France, 3B
3: Torrens, DH
4: Murphy, C
5: Marmolejos, 1B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Rodriguez, RF
8: Fraley, LF
9: Reinheimer, SS

We all thought the utility infielder gig was a fight between Sam Haggerty and Donovan Walton, but Jack Reinheimer’s not going away quietly. Now, the fact that he’s not on the 40-man might doom his chances, but he’s certainly elevated his profile.


One Response to “Cactus League: Mariners at Brewers – Get Up, Get Down”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 21st, 2021 4:14 pm

    Great write-up on Crawford. I’ve been thinking about his future a lot lately. This might sound ridiculous given the date, but I wonder if both he and Evan should get defensive work at other positions if either need to be optioned.

    Great performance by Paxton today.

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