Game 100, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 25, 2021 at 11:20 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Cole Irwin, 1:10pm

Wow. The M’s won late yet again last night, with a wild pitch again plating the winning run. The M’s bullpen has been the club’s clearest strength, ranking 2nd in fWAR in MLB behind the Rays (who, predictably, have a huge edge in innings pitched). Paul Sewald aside, they’re really not a traditional bullpen, racking up tons and tons of strikeouts. The M’s are actually below average in bullpen K rate despite getting a bit over 1 per inning (that’s a modern baseball stat if ever there was one). Instead, they trade walks for hard contact. Their walk rate is…okay, but they don’t give up many HRs. Obviously, that’s an extremely volatile stat, and could regress, but you see the approach at work. Kendall Graveman is a sinkerballer, so can attack hitters without needing punchouts AND without worrying as much about HRs. He doesn’t need to throw elevated fastballs to chase strikeouts when 97 mph sinkers will swerve and bend and get weak contact if batters can hit them. Paul Sewald *does* throw elevated 93 mph four-seam fastballs, and gets very few ground balls. But, and I cannot stress this enough: he is Paul Sewald, so he gets to do what he wants. A K/9 of nearly 16 and a low HR rate driven, at least in part, by accepting walks as the byproduct of his approach has made him one of the top 20 most valuable relievers in baseball this year, and he’d be higher if he didn’t start the year in Tacoma.

The A’s, on the other hand, have the bullpen that generates the fewest strikeouts in the game. They knew they would have a less outright dominant pen this year when they let Liam Hendriks walk, but I assume they guessed they’d get more out of trade pick-up Adam Kolarek or Jesus Luzardo, once the latter washed out of the rotation.

This bullpen strength is why the M’s have been so much fun to watch: if they can scrape a couple of runs off of a starter, they’re *in* virtually every game. They may not win them all, but it always seems like they have a chance, even if the opposing starter lands a haymaker the way Sean Manaea did in game 1. It’s nice that this effectiveness isn’t concentrated in one dominant closer, too. The M’s depth helps them avoid workload concerns, though I think it remains to be seen how pitchers fare come August/September. But that’s a league-wide issue, not an M’s-specific one, and if anything, the M’s might be better off there than most. But all of that depends on getting enough innings from their starters, and with Logan Gilbert getting knocked out early, they really need some innings from Marco Gonzales today.

The opposing starter in this final game of the series is Cole Irwin, a former Phillies cast-off who’s been a vital cog in the A’s rotation. The lefty out of the University of Oregon mixes 4 pitches (really 5 if you include a rare curve): a four-seam fastball that’s his primary pitch, a sinker, a slider, and a change-up. He’s only 90-91 with the hard stuff, but he throws a very firm change-up at 84-85. It doesn’t have dramatically different movement from his fastball, especially the sinker, so if you guessed that it’s not really a swing-and-miss pitch, you’re right. Like many change-ups, it generates a *ton* of swings, and because it’s not really going to get whiffs, it’s put in play a lot. That’s the idea, and it’s worked. He’s had almost as many batted balls off of the pitch as he’s generated with his four-seam, despite throwing that four-seam nearly twice as often.

League wide, the wOBA-on-contact (wOBACON) overall is .370 this year, down from .378 in the bouncy-ball 2019 season. On four-seam fastballs, it’s .399 this year, down from .409 in 2019. But for change-ups, it’s only .341 (which is actually higher than it was in 2019). That’s the idea here. As it happens, Irvin has produced lower average/wOBA off of his four-seamer this year, but that can be volatile. In general, getting batters to put *anything other than fastballs* in play is a good way to go. If you can just strike everybody out, yeah, go ahead and do that. But if that’s not really possible, a good contingency plan is to induce swings on something else, and change-ups are effective because they generate so many more swings than breaking balls do.

It’s an open question for a guy like Irwin, as it is for Yusei Kikuchi, whether it’s better to throw a change like this that gets so much contact. Kikuchi keeps tweaking his, I think, looking for the best balance of command but also bat-missing power. I think Irwin’s making a different calculation, and it may be the right call for him, but I do wonder what that pitch would look like if he could cut 2 mph off of its velocity.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Kelenic, RF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Bauers, LF
SP: Gonzales

This is the M’s big lefty-killer line-up, but Irvin’s run reverse splits this year. I don’t think he’s a true-talent righty-killer, but it’s a game where I don’t think I’d work hard to find a spot for Jake Bauers. Torrens at DH, though, that’s good stuff.

JP Crawford is back to being mired in a slump after he ended the first half on an absolute tear. I mentioned it on Twitter last night, but I think he’s the spiritual successor to Raul Ibanez. No, his game is nothing like Ibanez’s, the big power/average but no defense stalwart. Crawford’s slick-up-the-middle-defense-plus-walks game is the exact inverse of Raul’s, but both are among the streakiest players I’ve ever seen. A decade or more ago, M’s fans kept freaking out that the end of Raul’s career was nigh because he’d go into a month-or-two long slump and look like a shell of himself. Just when we’d talk ourselves into to trying whatever corner OF was hitting best in Tacoma, he’d have a month where he was the best hitter in baseball. He did the same in Kansas City. Well, JP Crawford reminds me of that. April/May this year he looked lost and absolutely bereft of power. His slugging percentage was under .300 in April, remember. In June, he slugged .530 and had a 158 wRC+. In July, it’s down to 36, far lower than April. He’s nowhere near as bad as he’s looked in the past few weeks, but he’s not the guy he looks like when he’s on fire. DomeandBedlam had a poll that asks: has he taken a step forward this year, a step back, or just the same? I voted that he’s taken a slight step forward, though WAR stats may show a bit of a decline. That’s largely related to defense and baserunning, and those are so noisy in small samples. Yes, his offensive stats are freakishly noisy, too, but I will just say that I would’ve bet money that he couldn’t hit 5 HRs in a season, and he’s done so. Getting a tiny bit of gap power transforms him from a poor man’s Omar Vizquel to a decently valuable piece. He’s not a star, and he’s going to be frustratingly streaky, but hopefully it all adds up to a slight plus overall.


4 Responses to “Game 100, Athletics at Mariners”

  1. Stevemotivateir on July 25th, 2021 2:33 pm

    Last night’s game was fun…

    Until I fell asleep, then fun again once I learned the results in the morning.

    Weird that nearly every journalist covering the Mariners talk about Ryan Weber like he’s new to Seattle. No one mentions his history. I remember being bummed when Seattle cut him loose the first time around.

  2. Stevemotivateir on July 25th, 2021 4:47 pm

    3 of 4 and a slew of rumors that Seattle’s zeroing in on Merrifield.

    Interesting and fun Sunday.

  3. heyoka on July 25th, 2021 5:28 pm

    3 out of 4……

    So are the M’s buying or selling?

  4. mmason0071 on July 25th, 2021 11:14 pm

    Crawford looks like his swing has gotten too long, compared to when he was hitting everything. Probably trying to hit for more power to satisfy those metrics guys, and now he is in that in-between spot where he is late on fast stuff and missing slow stuff.

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