Game 133, Astros at Mariners – At Least the Losses Sting

marc w · August 31, 2021 at 5:41 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Lance McCullers, Jr., 7:10pm

The M’s lost a heartbreaker to the Astros last night, a one run game in which the M’s had a late lead, only to cough it up. It’s a game that reminds us that in a playoff chase, there’s really no such thing as an encouraging loss, and that it’s an odd, perhaps mixed blessing that M’s losses in late August are still capable of inflicting emotional damage.

The M’s got another strangely effective Chris Flexen starts. For the starter with the second-lowest K/9 (among qualified pitchers), Flexen’s been remarkably steady this year thanks to a low HR rate and an extremely low walk rate. Doing one those things is relatively easy to do, even if it’s no guarantee of success. But doing them both simultaneously is pretty hard to do, as Yusei Kikuchi keeps finding out. Is it sustainable? Nobody knows, of course, but he’s one of a handful of pitchers who’ve been able to keep this trick up over 2021. Cole Irwin of the A’s has very similar stats, and is similarly hard to predict given his lack of a big league track record.

But there’s another guy who’s done this for years: Hyun Jin Ryu. Ryu’s K rate is a bit higher, but then, so’s his HR/9 this year. At his peak, Ryu’s simply too good to comp him with Flexen, but even this year in what’s been a comparatively mediocre campaign, Ryu’s keeping his walk rate under 2/9 and a so-so HR rate in a home park (or rather set of home parks) that have played very HR-friendly.

Today, the M’s turn again to the enigmatic Kikuchi. If you sort all qualified starters by K/9, as we kind of already did for the great Flexen content above, you’ll find Yusei Kikuchi at 21st. Looking at pitchers this way is essentially a way to say “show me the best pitchers this year” and thus there’s a huge correlation between strikeout rate and overall production (fWAR in this case). Corbin Burnes is on top of both leaderboards, for example. It’s hard to do, but you can definitely be merely average with a high K rate – there are a couple of players who’ve put up around 2 WAR already, guys like Nick Pivetta and Mike Minor. It’s still August, and 2 WAR isn’t bad, but it does show that K/9 doesn’t guarantee success. Still, there’s only one person in the top 30 with an fWAR of under 1: Kikuchi.

It’s been remarkable to watch the twists and turns of Kikuchi’s career, but at this point it’s no longer a slam dunk that the M’s pick up his option. Trying to replace a guy with his talent is a pretty big lift in an offseason that already has a long list of must-do’s, but the M’s might be considering it.

Lance McCullers has re-invented himself this year with a new slider. He seemingly toyed with one very early in his career, but it wasn’t all that different from his out-pitch, his hard curve. They were similar enough that they may just be mislabeled, but were infrequent enough that it didn’t really matter. But McCullers was noticing something: right-handed batters were beginning to figure out that hard curve. It was always his best pitch, and early in his career, he threw it nearly or even more than 50% of the time. It worked against righties and lefties alike, which helped him post low or even reverse splits. But that curve seemed to be wearing out; from 2018-2021, righties slugged .450 off of his curve, even while lefties remained confused, slugging just .290. Hence, the new pitch – a righty-destroying weapon with more horizontal movement and less vertical drop than the curve.

It was designed to do a job, and it’s done it beautifully. Righties, who’ve touched McCullers for a FIP nearly a full run better than lefties, are hitting below .200 and slugging below .300 off of him in 2021. The only problem? Lefties are doing more damage than ever. It’s not a major issue; he’s still pretty much as effective as ever, but he might need to spend this offseason reinventing his change. That said, it’s not the change that’s plagued him against lefties – it’s his fastball. Years ago, McCullers swapped out his four-seamer for a sinker, and it’s generally been a good pitch. But it’s got higher platoon splits than a four-seam, and this may just be part of the trade-off.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Marmolejos, LF
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Bauers, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Kikuchi

Tacoma’s trying to pull off a six-game sweep tonight against Salt Lake. Per Mike Curto, there’s been only one six-game sweep in AAA-West this year, when Round Rock swept…Salt Lake. Given the way the FO likes to run their affiliates, only one member of MLB’s top 30 M’s prospects is on Tacoma’s roster (Aaron Fletcher), but Taylor Trammell just barely exceeded the MLB playing time cut-off, so he’s the big name still in Tacoma. Trammell swooned a bit in Tacoma after his second demotion, but he’s coming off of a hot week. By the raw numbers, Trammell had a .697 OPS in Amarillo in 2019. This season in Tacoma, he’s at .810. But context is a hell of a thing: by wRC+, which takes league and parks into account, the two seasons are nearly identical, but his Amarillo performance was slightly better, at 98 to this year’s 97. Darren McCaughan starts tonight’s game, and then the Rainiers are off for a big series in Reno, the team just ahead of Tacoma in the top spot in the division.

Arkansas starts a series with Wichita with Tyler Herb on the mound.

Everett hosts Vancouver, with Taylor Dollard pitching. Dollard dominated low-A, but despite a 6-0 record, he’s got a 6 ERA in Everett. He’s still got a gorgeous K:BB ratio of 51:10, though.

Modesto hosts Inland Empire.

Haven’t mentioned them much, but the M’s Arizona Complex league team is dominating the former AZL at 31-13. The story of the season has been the pitching, with the M’s leading the league in ERA in what’s a very, very good hitting environment. They’ve also yielded the fewest HRs.


2 Responses to “Game 133, Astros at Mariners – At Least the Losses Sting”

  1. Stevemotivateir on August 31st, 2021 6:54 pm

    Kikuchi really hasn’t been good for nearly two months, though he faced a lot of good lineups (KC not being one of them).

    He can’t do worse than his last start against Houston, right?

  2. Stevemotivateir on September 1st, 2021 4:31 am

    So, Kikuchi didn’t do worse than his last start and we got a Hollywood ending.

    How many more of these are we going to see this year?

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