Game 30, Phillies at Mariners

marc w · May 9, 2022 at 4:56 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Chris Flexen vs. Ranger Suarez, 6:40pm

George Kirby was absolutely electric. From his first inning through the 6th, he was almost untouchable. It’s a strange thing, given his high exit velocity, but if you saw the ABs, you know that he wasn’t giving up warning-track line drives. They were liners to the outfield, or normal fly balls rendered harmless by the new ball. Even the expected stats yawned at a few balls over 100mph. Crucially, he walked none and still racked up plenty of strikeouts and swinging strikes.

When we saw him in the Spring, I was worried that despite that big fastball, he couldn’t get that many swings and misses on his best secondary: his slider. We’re one game into his MLB career, and, well, that’s still pretty much the case. He got one swing and miss on ten swings against that slider. It’s a low-spin pitch, and generally doesn’t seem to fool batters all that much. But the point isn’t that he’s doomed. It may be a rare case where a so-so breaking ball is helping to make his fastball play up.

Many analysts have talked about the reverse, where a superficially “normal” or “average” fastball helps a pitcher’s secondary stuff. I think Shane Bieber would be the guy who I think exemplifies this best, but Corey Kluber, perhaps Robbie Ray, and now Kevin Gausman might be other examples. Their best pitch *isn’t* their fastball, but in where and how they use it, they keep batters from sitting on their best offering. Well, Kirby’s best offering is clearly his heater, as shown by the fact he got 13 swinging strikes on 27 swings. But by utilizing his slider (and change, and a few curves), he kept batters off balance. If they were guessing, they’d guess wrong. Thus, both his fastball and slider generated called strikes, too.

The thing is: there’s nothing really TO Kirby’s fastball beyond the velo. His extension is good, but it’s not Logan Gilbert-good. It’s got lower-than-average rise, but given his sub-6′ release point and low spin, I don’t know that any batter would expect it to. This is one of those cases, perhaps, where a lot of these traditional markers can help. The artificial intelligence Stuff+ models that Eno Sarris of the Athletic uses, or the one built by Cameron Grove, look at the characteristics of successful fastballs and use them to create “Stuff” grades for MLB pitches. I wondered what they’d think of Kirby’s heater, and, well, Grove’s isn’t terribly impressed *despite* high-octane heat.

Again, I don’t think this is any kind of death knell to Kirby. Batters are going to have to make contact against him before we worry about anything. But I think it highlights the fact that we still have a lot to learn. There’s something going on, something batters aren’t picking up on, with Kirby. I have no idea what it is, and I’m somewhat encouraged by the fact that these machine learning apps can’t quite figure it out either.

I was reminded of that again this morning, when former Mariner Nestor Cortes, Jr. took a no-hitter into the 8th against an admittedly not-exactly-great Texas line-up. Cortes struck out 11 in 7 1/3 brilliant innings, his second game of the year with at least 11 Ks (he struck out 12 Orioles earlier). If you remember him at all from his 7 2/3 IP Mariner career, it’s probably him turning around and watching a ball fly out of T-Mobile; he allowed 13 runs on 6 HRs in those 7 2/3 IP. He was one of the least-successful M’s in recent years, and that, readers, is *Saying Something.* While he varies his release point, wind-up, timing, and mixes pitches, he throws about 89-90, and you can make the case that the game just doesn’t have a place for guys like that anymore. Except that’s clearly wrong, as Cortes made extremely minor changes and now has a sub-2 ERA with 11 K’s per 9 through five starts. We saw it yesterday, with Ryan Yarbrough holding the M’s scoreless despite averaging in the mid-80s with his cutter, and having a fastest pitch a full 10mph slower than Kirby’s.

It doesn’t always work, and there’s less margin for error, perhaps. But despite all we know about the importance of velo, of raw stuff, of swerving, physics-defying pitches, there’s still something about effectively messing with timing. And I’m glad to see it.

Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia’s starter tonight, is an interesting case. He’d been a career reliever without a blazing fastball, but armed with a solid four-pitch mix including four-seam, sinker, slider, and change. He was having his best season yet in 2021 when the Phillies finally made what seems, in hindsight, kind of an obvious move. So, the guy averaging 92-93, but with four pitches, might be better off h- or more valuable to us – as a starter and not a reliever.

So they plopped him into the rotation, and for the last two months of the season, he was a revelation. It culminated with a complete game shutout in his second-to-last outing, and it seemed like he was a key contributor for a Phillies team that wanted to compete in the East. All of his expected stats looked amazing. No, he didn’t have trendy high-spin pitches, but everything seemed to sink, and miss barrels. He had a good K rate, but an even better xBA or xSLG%, thanks to his, uh, ability to avoid hard contact.

2022 has not been kind to Mr. Suarez. All of those expected stats that were in the 95-99th percentile last year? They’re around 20th percentile now. His K rate has gone through an even more dramatic transition, and he’s now officially one of the league’s lowest K pitchers. His walks are up, and despite the general trend in the league, he’s allowing far more home runs. It’s just been a bad, bad year thus far. The AI still likes Suarez’s sinker far more than Kirby’s four-seamer, but I’m not sure that any living batter would agree with that.

Now, let’s be clear: like Kirby, Suarez’s best pitch is his fastball. Er, both of them. His slider hasn’t done a whole lot, but a big part of that is the fact that as a (mostly) reliever, he hasn’t faced a lot of lefties. He’s been lights out against them his whole career. What the move to the rotation was supposed to show was that his change-up was good enough to reliably retire righties, and that part just hasn’t happened yet.

His change has garnered good whiff rates, but when batters hit it, they’ve done some damage. I never like to see change-ups that essentially mirror a pitcher’s sinker, but that’s what Suarez does: it’s got the same horizontal movement, and *nearly* the same vertical movement, just slower. That *can* work, especially if the velocity gap is 10-12 or more mph. But Suarez always had a firmer change, at 84 or so, so only about 8 mph lower. This year, he’s shrunk that gap even more, firing almost Felix-style 86 mph changes. Unfortunately, the results have looked a lot more like late-period Felix rather than the royal/classical Felix of 2010-2014.

1: Toro, 2B
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Winker, LF
6: Torrens, DH
7: Moore, SS
8: Kelenic, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Flexen

The M’s are going to be a bit short with Tom Murphy out with a shoulder injury.

The Rainiers won a slugfest in Albuquerque, knocking 5 homers in a 14-10 win.

Frisco knocked Levi Stoudt around a bit in an 8-2 win.

Everett hit three dingers, but couldn’t stop Vancouver from scoring in a 13-8 loss.

William Fleming struck out only 2 in 5 innings, taking the hard luck loss in Modesto’s 3-2 loss to Fresno.


7 Responses to “Game 30, Phillies at Mariners”

  1. Stevemotivateir on May 9th, 2022 10:36 pm

    Is it too early to start talking about selling at the deadline?

  2. schwingy on May 9th, 2022 10:38 pm

    Fugly, Fugly, Fugly game
    Already time to sigh out all that hope after the last home stand?
    At least seeing JRod getting 3 hits puts him at the second best BA on today’s roster. Maybe we won’t have to wait 2-3 years to see him be the star we are hoping for.
    What are your thoughts on Kelenic?
    Is he going to make it? Are there any hopeful signs or stats? Just such sad lingering at .150…. .150 ….150 …
    Raleigh? Any chance he’s a long term player here? .076…, looks so lost at the plate right now. I want him to just be good so badly.

    I want to see the lineup back with Crawford,, Hanniger, Lewis
    In a perfect world:
    1. Frazier
    2. Hanniger
    3. Crawford
    4. France
    5. Rodriguez
    6. Lewis
    7. Suarez
    8. Winker -DH
    9. Catcher
    Kelenic in OF rotation
    Toro in IF rotation

    I’d ride with that!

    With: Ray, Gilbert, Marco, Flexen, Kirby
    Brash in the wings

    It’s sucks to be 13-17 right now esp the way the last 14 games have gone.

    Someone say something positive please

  3. Sowulo on May 10th, 2022 5:56 am

    I wouldn’t be worried if not for the fact that all four of their minor league affiliates weren’t simultaneously terrible as well……

  4. Stevemotivateir on May 10th, 2022 6:56 am

    ^The affiliates just need to produce MLB players. Anything else is a bonus. There were some slow starts for some of the better known names, but the system is still pretty deep.

  5. eponymous coward on May 10th, 2022 1:08 pm

    Farm system W-L record is a positive or negative leading indicator of major league team quality (researched by Bill James in the 1980s). That’s not to say that you should freak out about Small Sample Size Theatre (still early), but good minor league teams are what produce good minor league players who become good MLB players.

  6. eponymous coward on May 10th, 2022 1:12 pm

    Yes. But if it’s Memorial Day to early June and we’re looking at double digits in the division and a lot of teams on top in the WC, I wouldn’t be surprised by things like a Haniger or Frazier trade.

    At which point we can have yet another round of goalpost moving about when the M’s are supposed to contend.

  7. Stevemotivateir on May 10th, 2022 7:25 pm

    I think you read too deep into my comment.

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