Game 6, White Sox at Mariners – Day Baseball

marc w · April 7, 2021 at 12:04 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justin Dunn vs. Dallas Keuchel, 1:10pm

Last night’s loss was dispiriting. The M’s fought back to tie the game at 3, but things went downhill from there, culminating in a Grand Slam to officially make the game a rout. The great Larry Stone summed it up in a tweet:

I’ve been thinking about the interrelated debates over pace of play and the growth of the three true outcomes a lot, and I think Stone gets at something important: some things may be awful when they happen TO you, but are thrilling and joyous when you’re able to do them yourself. If the M’s struck out 15 White Sox instead of the other way around, we’d be talking about how great Paxton looked, or the bullpen righting the ship or something. Instead, we have to talk about an offense that’s really, really struggling to make contact and another injury to the Big Maple.

The best pitcher to ever put on an M’s uniform was Randy Johnson, and, well, if you liked balls in play, he wasn’t your favorite player. Here’s a random Randy box score from 1993. There are innumerable things that instantly mark it as alien and impossible in the modern game – you can start with Randy’s pitch count of 158 and move on to the fact that Oakland let Jim Slusarski walk *8* to just 1 strikeout in 6 2/3 IP. But the game featured 31 walks/Ks out of its 78 plate appearances. That’s 40%, so less than last night, but not by much. Here’s another box score, this one from 1992. Randy was outdueled by a 45-year old Nolan Ryan, and fully 45% of the PAs ended in a walk or K. Was that boring and unwatchable, or something you’d tell your grandkids you saw?

What’s “bad for the game” and what’s just “bad when it happens to the M’s?” What’s bad all the time, and what’s bad because it happens 5 times a week? I’m asking because as many have pointed out, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t think teams are going to prefer pitch-to-contact pitchers just because fans complain about three true outcome games, and I don’t think teams are going to employ high contact hitters who don’t provide value outside of that contact (Nick Madrigal may want to start showing a hint of gap power). Pitchers throw mid-90s and can manipulate the shape of their ridiculous change-ups the way Lucas Giolito did last night; it took him a long time to figure all of this stuff out and he’s not going to abandon it now.

A part of what we hate, though, is the sheer amount of time this all takes. Those Randy Johnson games from the early 90s? Neither took anywhere near as long as last night’s game. One was 3:10, the other 3:04. Last night’s was 3:45. A big part of that isn’t the three true outcomes, it was the sheer number of batters faced – a number pushed higher, oddly, but the very un-2021 number of base hits. But the real culprit is the number of pitching changes. More pitchers pitch each game, and the workload of each of them continues to go down. This is, of course, changeable, but it’s hard given the way so many relievers have learned their trade: that the entire point is to come out and throw each pitch as hard as you possibly can for 15 pitches, and then the next guy will do the same.

The other culprit here is foul balls. In 2019, fouls represented 28.2% of total strikes (looking, swung at, put in play, etc.). In 2000, it was 27%, and it was under 27% in 1993. These are small changes, but they add up: pitches per plate appearance has moved up inexorably from 3.65 in 1993 to 3.75 in 2000 to 3.92 in 2019. It all adds up to tens of thousands more pitches at the season level. Those extra pitches aren’t ending up as walks; the walk rate used to be higher. They’re becoming K’s.

Another thing that fits into this, and was highlighted in last night’s slog of a loss, is the fact that it felt so inevitable. Rob Mains has written a great series on the three true outcomes penalty – how much worse a pitcher fares the third time in a game they face an opposing hitter. In the most recent one, he mentions that one side-effect of managers learning and reacting to this situation (going to the bullpen more often/earlier in a game) has been a league-wide decline in comebacks. Again, the change isn’t huge – teams trailing after 6 used to win 14.4% of the time (in 1970), but by 2020 it was just 12.6%.

I’m not saying that last night’s game was scintillating, or that the concern over pace and three-true-outcomes isn’t warranted. But in my own mind, I’m still having trouble separating out all of these league wide trends versus some very apparent and specific defects in our beloved Seattle Mariners. Last night’s game felt like it was lost when the M’s trailed the second time. In fact, it might have felt lost when the M’s had runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out and then struck out three consecutive times. Yes, a run scored on one of those K’s, because Baseball!, but the point was made: the M’s are going to squeeze fewer runs out of rallies because the middle of their line-up can’t stop striking out.

No trend or long-term arc in the game forces the M’s to bunch their high-K hitters together, and while the trend of more relievers with the platoon advantage and high-octane stuff doesn’t help, the M’s need to think about how they want to adapt to this reality.

And hey, if you like balls in play and fewer Ks? Today’s game looks like it might be a good one. The M’s face low-velo sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel, and they’ll have Justin Dunn on the mound, a righty with a career 7.4 K/9, which is what passes for a pitch-to-contact guy now that the entire league average is over 9Ks/9.

1: Haniger, DH
2: France, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Moore, LF
6: Murphy, C
7: Trammell, CF
8: Haggerty, RF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Dunn

Dylan Moore got the day off yesterday, as his contact problems have been especially acute in the early going. He leads all of MLB in in-zone fastballs whiffed on, and that’s not what you want to lead baseball in. It’s early, and he’s a better hitter than he’s shown; probably just a timing thing. Taylor Trammell’s contact issues are a bit more concerning, and moving him down in the line-up is probably for the best right now. Glad he’s not facing another Giolito, but he will have to face a lefty after getting the night off when the M’s faced Carlos Rodon.

Moore moves out to LF after Jake Fraley hit the 10 day IL with a hamstring strain last night. And of course, the bigger injury news is that James Paxton will join Fraley on the IL with a forearm strain. Watching Paxton last night, I feared the worst. He wasn’t waving off Scott Servais, he was pissed. He’d winced after 2-3 pitches before looking like his last pitch hurt *bad.* Forearm strains and elbow issues tend to go together, so we’ll have to keep an eye on this, but so much for the idea that the 6-man rotation and slowly increasing his workload would help keep him healthy.


5 Responses to “Game 6, White Sox at Mariners – Day Baseball”

  1. Stevemotivateir on April 7th, 2021 2:48 pm

    The lack of depth may haunt Seattle already.

    But it’s good to see Dunn dealing.

  2. Sportszilla on April 7th, 2021 3:03 pm

    Turns out that adding velo doesn’t help when you have no command

  3. Goob on April 7th, 2021 3:21 pm

    > Oakland let Jim Slusarski walk *8* to just 1 strikeout in 6 2/3 IP.

    Justin Dunn read this, then asked us to hold his beer. 🙂

  4. eponymous coward on April 7th, 2021 3:51 pm

    Holy cow, consecutive singles? Sac flies? Balls in play? Is that even allowed in baseball rules any more?

  5. eponymous coward on April 7th, 2021 4:05 pm

    I guess the M’s have figured out they can occasionally hit a bullpen weak spot (and they are out there).

    I like this better than 30 Ks in two days…

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