Game 61, Twins at Mariners

marc w · June 13, 2022 at 4:50 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Chris Flexen vs. Chris Archer, 7:10pm

The M’s had a chance to win a series against a wild card rival, at home, against a spot starter. It looked like a mismatch. Robbie Ray pitched a gem, and it didn’t matter. The M’s managed a lone hit against Kutter Crawford and a series of relievers, and the M’s limped to perhaps their most uninspired loss of the season. It chipped away at the good feelings from the previous day’s improbable comeback, and it must hurt the team’s morale.

Today, they begin a series with the Central-leading Twins, who’ve bounced back from a disastrous 2021. A huge problem last year was their starting rotation, which seemed to put them in a hole early in every game. As a result, they’ve overhauled the entire thing, with four of their top five starters in 2021 shown the door in 2022. To replace them, the Twins made a series of interesting trades in order to combine their younger prospects like Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober with lower-cost vets and reclamation projects, from Chris Paddack to Dylan Bundy to today’s starter, Chris Archer.

It hasn’t been perfect, but this diversified portfolio has led them to a rotation that’s more middle of the pack rather than “clear bottom 5” like last year. Bundy’s been bad, Paddack needs Tommy John again, and Sonny Gray’s been hurt, but they’re hanging around. In a flashback to the mid-2000s, the Twins have one of the lowest K rates and average fastball velocities in the game, but they’re making it kind of work. Joe Ryan’s been good, and Archer’s been…well, not “Good” exactly, but oddly effective?

All in all, it reminds me a bit of the M’s plan in 2021, when they picked up guys like Chris Flexen to fill in and give time for Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock to emerge. Flexen didn’t – and doesn’t – do anything flashy, but he could pitch a bit, and mix his 92-93mph fastball with a hard cutter, change, and curveball. The velo and shape of his pitches meant that racking up a ton of K’s probably wasn’t in the cards, but limiting walks and hopefully running a low BABIP would make him a perfectly fine middle of the rotation/#4 starter. That’s pretty much exactly what happened, and Flexen turned into the bargain of 2021 for the M’s.

This year, Flexen’s just sliiiightly worse in every respect, and he’s much more of a #5. His K rate dropped about 1 percentage point, while his walk rate rose by 2. His ground ball rate dropped a bit more – from the low 40s to the mid-30s. This has helped produce a pretty large increase in his home run rate. Some of that may have been by design: he’s changed his cutter fairly dramatically.

Last year, the cutter was just 3ish ticks slower than his fastball, and while it didn’t get many whiffs, it helped him get grounders. This year, he’s taken a lot off of it; it comes in 2 mph slower than last year, expanding that gap even though his fastball’s down slightly as well. His fastball shape is straighter, and he’s improved the spin efficiency and thus rise on it. That might play better with his cutter, which sinks compared to the heater. All of that has actually paid off in a way; batters have a lower average off of his cutter, which makes some sense, as they no longer hit on the ground. It’s a perfectly fine trade off to make, but it results in fewer grounders overall. Even with a supposedly draggier ball, that’s something of a dangerous game.

Right now, Flexen has the 5th-lowest K rate of any qualified starter (Marco’s in 4th). You can kind of make this work; there are successful pitchers on that list. Framber Valdez and Paul Blackburn (and Martin Perez) make it work by getting tons of grounders, and thus limit dingers. Jameson Taillon and Blackburn don’t walk many. But you’ve got to do something. Flexen’s given up on trying for even average grounder rates, and now his walk rate is heading towards average. This is a dangerous spot to be in, and he may need to think about how he’s going to attack a line-up that’s been one of the best in the AL.

Of course, the *Mariners* are supposedly one of the better offenses (at least according to Fangraphs), but games like yesterday’s make that tougher to really understand. The M’s biggest problem thus far has been an inability to score any runs. They’re giving them up at essentially league-average rates – nothing crazy either way. But they can’t score. Sure, by BaseRuns, they “should have” scored more – and yes, it’s darkly comic that they’re unlucky by BaseRuns one year after a campaign that essentially broke BaseRuns in the other direction (BaseRuns, sobbing: “You can’t score six runs on two singles and three strikeouts. It doesn’t work like that! 2021 Mariners: “Run machine goes brrrrrrr”)

This is largely the result of park effects, and I get it. T-Mobile’s been a brutal park for run scoring. But in *this* year, I’m just not certain that the M’s get this much of the benefit of the doubt. They’ve certainly enjoyed hitting at home much more than on the newly-humidified road.

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

No Julio tonight, as he gets a day off with a FB/SL righty on the bump for Minnesota.

The Twins have been hit very hard by the injury bug. They’ve already lost more days to the IL than any other team in the AL, but things got worse when they learned they lost #1 prospect Royce Lewis to his second ACL tear. Lots of prospects and high draft picks have gone down, with Walker Buehler on the shelf for months, Casey Mize going for TJ, as summarized in this post.


One Response to “Game 61, Twins at Mariners”

  1. Stevemotivateir on June 14th, 2022 2:57 pm

    Maybe Seattle’s offense looks better in the numbers because their bench has been exceptionally good with RISP.

    With the bases empty it’s another story, and with Winker and Frazier generally struggling…

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