Felix Hernandez vs. Joe Blanton, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day.
There are many, many reasons why the Royals success this year confuses me. Kendrys Morales is good again? Mike Moustakas *finally* figured something out and is no longer an anchor on their line-up? Lorenzo Cain is sneaky-elite now? But my favorite is this: the Royals rotation sucks, and the Royals have a great team runs-allowed and run differential. Ah, but Marc, isn’t this annoying? The Mariners have all manner of positive attributes, like a *good* rotation and a line-up that includes a core that’s been in KC’s class – the Royals top 5 hitters have produced about 45 batting runs, per Fangraphs. The M’s top 5 have been worth 34, which is better than the Rangers’ top 5, it’s essentially tied with Tampa’s, and it blows Minnesota’s top 5 out of the water. It hasn’t mattered, of course. The M’s are mired in 4th, and the Royals are 39-27 and 3.5 up on the Twins in the AL Central.
One of the great things about baseball is that there’s so much of it, you’re constantly seeing performances that strain credibility – baseball is always showing us 1:1,000,000 type occurrences because baseball is just firehosing occurrences at us. What that means is that there’s always something that seems to violate some pattern or rule – we’re always seeing some assumptions being stretched further than we could’ve imagined, and then we get to watch what happens. For example, Rene Rivera is having a remarkable year as the Rays everyday catcher. His slash line of .165/.203/.264 looks like something ripped from Bill Bergen’s bbref page. The question of how bad a hitter can be and keep his job has a lot of history, and it’s an important one. By wRC+, Rivera’s mark of 31 is about half that of recent “worst hitters in the league” guys like Yuni Betancourt or Rey Ordonez. Every once in a while you get a 2002-Neifi Perez, a 2013 Alcides Escobar or a 2010 Cesar Izturis – something that feels almost heroically incompetent. Rivera blows them all out of the water. If you want to argue that the M’s solid core is essentially counteracted by, say, Mike Zunino’s 50 wRC+, you have to deal with the fact that the AL EAST LEADERS will see your shitty catcher and then raise you. “Oh you think you’re not scoring as many runs as you could because your catcher has an OBP of .230? Check this out.”
That’s a long introduction to an analogy that may or may not work, but hey, tortured analogies are all we’ve got these days. The Royals rotation has a terrible ERA, a terrible FIP, and a walk rate that’s well above league average. They have the absolute WORST strikeout rate in baseball, and they have the WORST xFIP. They don’t really do anything well, though they DO lead all of baseball in the percentage of hard-hit balls they allow. Two members of their rotation enjoyed their best statistical seasons in 2007 (Chris Young and Joe Blanton), one in 2008 (Edinson Volquez), while two enjoyed their best years in 2010 (Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas). They have two hard-throwing young phenoms in Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, but those two have been the worst performers. They have a guy with only a half-season in the majors, but he’s a 31-year-old minor league journeyman (Yohan Pino). This group isn’t young, they’re not missing a ton of bats, and, for the most part, don’t have good velocity. OK, your job is: imagine how you can take a grab bag of late-oughts near-All-Stars, marinade them until they’re 32-37 years old, stick them in the American League and produce a team that’s giving up the 2nd fewest runs per game in the league.
You can probably list a number of factors that would help mitigate the whole “our starters aren’t good” problem. A good defense? Check, the Royals, and especially their outfielders, are among the best defensive units in baseball. Sequencing luck? Yeah, kind of. By base runs, the Royals “should” be 37-29 and not 39-27. A great bullpen? Sure, and the Royals ‘pen has been good, but with a below-average K rate and a FIP that’s good, not great, they can’t be the sole explanation. How about that Chris Young magic stuff? Well, the magical giant’s powers have been even stronger this year, and he’s running an ERA 1.31 below his FIP. But the whole “beating FIP” explanation can’t explain the Royals rotation as a whole, not when their ERA is *higher* than their (bad) FIP. You can mix and match these factors, but the takeaway for me is that there really isn’t a single, twitterable takeaway. Every team has some things it’s good at, some things that’s OK at, and areas of weakness. I feel like the defense is the most important factor, but if that were the case, we’d see a low BABIP and a good ERA despite a bad FIP. It’s possible that penumbras and emanations from the brilliance of Lorenzo Cain and crew filter down in ways we can’t quite account for, or that if you get the elements just right, there’s some positive interaction between defense, sequencing and managing that produce oddly large effects. It’s also possible that this is kind of lucky, and that maybe building a rotation with Guthrie, Volquez and Joe freaking Blanton in *2015* isn’t the new market efficiency, but a shoulder-shrugging contingency plan based on injury and ineffectiveness.
I don’t *care* if it’s lucky. I don’t *care* if this is good result but bad process. I think process is important, and building a sustainable, long-term winner is the goal of every team, and something baseball analytics clearly helps to achieve. But if I had to choose between good process and good results, my long suffering brain will drop good process like a hot rock. Royals fans are still in the afterglow of an improbable pennant run, and now instead of a hangover, their bizarre team has turned the precisely *right* kind of weird, and they’re in a great position again. It looks insane. It may BE insane, but I’ve lamented M’s teams created through even dumber strategies, and I’ve hung my head as M’s teams created with “good” processes have cratered just as bad. If nothing else, the M’s have taught us that there are a lot of different ways to lose in general, and that there are number of ways to post a terrible team offense more specifically. This is dispiriting. Living vicariously through the Royals is most assuredly *not* a solution to the M’s problems, but it IS a proof of concept that, at least for for other teams, you don’t have to have *everything go right* to be a good team. You don’t come here to pray for luck, and I’m not here to abandon sabermetrics for a ouija board with a framed picture of Chris Young next to it, but maaaaaan it looks more fun to be a Royals fan right now. As recently as two years ago, we’d console ourselves by saying that as bad as things were, as dark as the long night of 2010-2011 were, at least we weren’t the Royals/Pirates, mired in a perpetual rebuild that could last 10 years or more. All of this hurts, but reflecting on that little bit of point-in-time schadenfreude hurts the most.
Soooo, Joe Blanton. Really. When last we saw him, his career was imploding in a hail of home run balls. In 2013, he managed 132+ innings before the Angels mercifully pulled the plug. He gave up 29 home runs in that period, and a terrible BABIP pushed his ERA over 6. His record was 2-14, and while saber fans may have pointed to his OK xFIP, most folks who watched him pitch would’ve argued that it was irrelevant – Blanton was no longer good enough to have any component regressed to the MLB mean. He was an EX-big leaguer, not an unlucky big leaguer. After being cut in April of 2014 following a few bad starts in AAA, it really seemed like his career was over. The Royals gave him a minor league contract, and the 34 year old produced about the line you might expect in AAA – an ERA near 4, a so-so K:BB ratio and, yes, too many home runs allowed. Injuries got him a call-up, and he’s been a swing man for a while now, and, because Royals, he’s putting up perfectly good numbers thus far.
What’s interesting about this, beyond the shock of seeing Cupcakes Blanton playing in 2015, is that he’s actually pitching a bit differently. For years, Blanton has pitched off of a good change-up. He’s got a four- and two-seam fastball, a rotating cast of breaking balls, from curve to slider to cutter, but his best pitch was a change. It’s what enabled him to post even splits over his long career and long thousands of innings despite a fastball that averaged about 90mph. A late-career velo spike disappeared in 2013, but it’s back now. I know he’s pitched mostly in relief, but Blanton *averaged* nearly 92mph in his last start. More than that, he’s throwing the ball differently. Here’s a link to his horizontal release point, which was fairly consistent between 0-1′ from the center of the rubber from 2007-2013. Now, it’s 2′ plus towards 3B. It doesn’t look like a shift in position – the ball is spinning differently. In years past, Blanton’s fastball(s) had little horizontal movement, but about 10″ of vertical rise. At this point, he’s getting a bit more horizontal movement and less rise – this would be consistent with a change in his release/mechanics. Beyond how the ball moves, he’s putting it in a different place. Here’s where he put his fastball in 2013 - essentially, he worked left-to-right, keeping the ball in on lefties and away from righties, but essentially the same height as the strike zone. Look at it now - he’s targeting the knees and a bit lower. Coaches and conventional wisdom would tell a pitcher not to be scared out of the strike zone – don’t let bad results chase you out of your own approach. Well, Blanton’s home-run barrage seems to have chased him out of his old approach, and thus far, things are working out OK.
Fundamentally, this is still Joe Blanton. This is as big a pitching match-up as you’re liable to find. You need to win this one, M’s.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Smith, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: El Rey
Tacoma beat Jon Gray and Albuquerque 6-5 yesterday thanks to HRs from Pat Kivlehan, Franklin Gutierrez and Carlos Rivero. Today’s a travel day for Tacoma – they’re heading home for a homestand featuring a rehab appearance by Hisashi Iwakuma.
Jackson was blanked by Birmingham 7-0; the Generals managed just 4 hits. DJ Peterson hit a 2B in the game, but his OPS is still just .614. We’ve reached the AA All-Star break (Seattle prep star Blake Snell starts for the South team), and the Generals have had a rough go. They’re 10 games under .500 thanks to a pitching staff that’s put up the worst line in the Southern league by a mile. Every other club has a team ERA under 4, but the Generals’ ERA is 4.79. Their offense hasn’t been quite so bad, but they’ve been below average as well, headlined by the struggles of DJ Peterson. Soooo, yeah.
In what’s starting to feel like a recurring theme, Bakersfield let a lead slip away in their 3-2 loss to Stockton. Tyler Pike pitched pretty well, but the bats went quiet and the bullpen gave up a run in the 8th. Tyler O’Neill had been out of the line-up in recent games, but returned yesterday, going 0-3 with a walk. It’s the high-A All-Star Break too – the Cal League All-Stars take on the Carolina League’s finest on Tuesday. RP Paul Fry of Bakersfield made the team. Fry’s part of a pretty decent Blaze staff – despite their home park, they’ve got a solid ERA thanks a to good control – they’ve given up the 2nd fewest walks, which helps balance their inability to miss bats. The problem is that their offense has been as bad as Jackson’s pitching staff. By OPS, Bakersfield has been the worst in the Cal League at just .622. It’s not just luck, either, as they lead the league in strikeouts. The rest of the Cal League clubs average 985 total bases. The Blaze have 766. I could go on, but won’t.
Clinton lost to Cedar Rapids 5-2. At the break, Clinton’s 17 games under .500 thanks to a bad (but not as bad as Wisonsin’s! Ha, take THAT ex-affiliate) offense and the second worst pitching staff (thank you, Beloit).
Everett won a slugfest with Eugene, 9-8. Alex Jackson went 3-4, and the AquaSox got HRs from Luis Liberato and Jordan Cowan. OSU star Andrew Moore makes his first professional start tonight in Everett opposite Dominican lefty Andin Diaz.
JA Happ vs. Vincent Velasquez, 1:10pm
Happy Fathers Day to all of the dads out there. A sweep of the Astros would be a really thoughtful gift to all of us, M’s.
Today’s game features another of the Astros’ recent call-ups, hard-throwing righty Vincent Velasquez. I mentioned some of the similarites that Velasquez shares with Lance McCullers a few days ago – both had great arms, but struggled at times in the minors. Teammates for Lancaster in the Cal League last year, both of them struggled with control and HRs, and then both of them made some adjustments and were untouchable in AA early in 2015. Both feature four-seam fastballs in the 95-97 range, and throw curveballs and a change-up. Both have somewhat low release points, with the ball coming out below 6′. However, despite the surface similarities, they’re distinct pitchers with very distinct strengths and weaknesses.
As we talked about, something in McCullers’ motion seems to make it next to impossible for left-handers to pick the ball up out of his hand. Velasquez hasn’t shown that kind of deception in his extremely brief MLB career, as lefties have swung and missed far less often, struck out less (duh), walked more often, etc. In the minors, Velasquez dominated lefties, but any M’s fan has seen that this doesn’t always translate to the majors. A half-decent change-up, especially paired with plus velocity on the fastball, can be a dominant weapon in the minors, only to get crushed in the majors – I call this “Getting Maurered.” That hasn’t happened to McCullers, though, because he hasn’t really needed his change-up – lefties aren’t seeing his fastball and curve. Velasquez is going to need that change, as the few lefties he’s seen to date seem to have been quite comfortable.
The other big difference is spin. Despite a lower arm angle, Velasquez gets an obscene amount of vertical rise on his fastball. While McCullers’ rise is essentially average, Velasquez’ 12″ of rise is nearly 2 standard deviations from the mean. That’s one reason for his intermittent home run issues – a pitch like that should get hit in the air a lot, and Lancaster (specifically) and the Cal League (in general) often punishes fly-ballers. While Velasquez’s fly ball rates weren’t off the charts in the minors (and again, minor league hitters are more likely to hit the ball on the ground), they’ve been quite high through his first two starts. They may settle down somewhat, but the movement on his fastball (and curve!) seem like they’ll push him towards the bottom of the GB% leaderboard.
It’s interesting and probably intentional that Velasquez follows Dallas Keuchel in the rotation. Keuchel is as extreme a ground-ball pitcher as there is. Thus far, Velasquez has been an extreme fly-ball guy. Does that help? Is this like Jamie Moyer getting followed by a reliever with a 96mph fastball? It’s too soon to tell now, but this seems like an interesting question to investigate – is there an advantage to following a GB pitcher with a FB pitcher and vice versa?
JA Happ has quietly put together a very solid year. As we expected, his HR problems have been lessened thanks to his new home park, and that’s reflected in his wide home/road splits. At home, Happ’s been brilliant. On the road, not so much, and while that’s less than ideal overall, today’s game – a crucial one – is at home. Speaking of vertical rise, Happ used to have Velasquez-like rise on his FB thanks in part to a very over-the-top delivery. But Happ dropped his angle noticeably in 2014, and he’s kept it there with the M’s. While he still gets a bit more rise than average, he’s dropped from 2 standard deviations above average to less than 1. It hasn’t hurt him, and his velocity has actually increased over that time, but I’d like to know more about why pitchers make changes like this, and how they evaluate the success or failure of a mechanical change.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Trumbo, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Jones, CF
9: Sucre, C
That’s an interesting line-up.
Interesting/depressing MiLB factoid: As you know, all four of the M’s full-season affiliates are under .500, with a combined record that sits 44 games below the .500 mark. Houston’s affiliates are all *above* .500 – at a combined *68* games over. The Rainiers have been the class of the M’s orgs at 34-36, while Bakersfield is just 26-43. For the Astros, Lancaster is “just” 37-32, but every other full-season club is at least 15 games over, headlined by Quad Cities at 44-23.
Tacoma lost 5-3 yesterday in Albuquerque, blowing a 3-0 lead thanks to another poor bullpen showing. Tyler Olson gave up 5 runs (including 2 HRs) in 3 IP to take the loss; Chris Taylor and Franklin Gutierrez each had two hits. Today, Stephen Landazuri takes on Rockies prospect Jon Gray. The M’s saw the hard-throwing Oklahoman on the 11th – that game was a pitchers duel that ended up going to extras. As we talked about at the time, Gray’s an elite talent who, for whatever reason, has struggled to miss bats in the PCL, and pitching-to-contact-at-altitude is rarely a winning strategy.
Jackson split a doubleheader with Birmingham, winning Game 1 8-7, and dropping the nightcap 3-1. Misael Siverio leads the Generals against the Barons again today.
Stockton beat Bakersfield 4-3 on a walk-off, 2-out double in the 9th yesterday. Blaze starter Dan Altavilla was solid, striking out 7 in 7IP, and the offense worked out of an early 3-0 hole. Carlton Tanabe’s 2nd HR was the big blow. Tyler Pike starts for Bakersfield today against Joel Seddon of Stockton.
Clinton beat Cedar Rapids 7-4, as the L-Kings built a 7-0 lead and held off a late challenge from the Kernels. Arby Fields and James Alfonso had three hits each. Jefferson Medina starts today’s game.
Everett beat Eugene 10-4 in Hisashi Iwakuma’s first live game action since going on the DL. Iwakuma gave up one run – a HR to Cubs’ 1st round Ian Happ – in 3 2/3 IP with 3 Ks and no walks. The AquaSox knocked another 15 hits, giving them 32 over their first 3 games. Luis Liberato had 3, including Everett’s first HR of the year. Alex Jackson singled, but continues to struggle – he’s at 1-12 with 5Ks in the (very) early-going. Lane Ratliff starts for Everett today, and Andrew Moore’s scheduled to take the hill in tomorrow’s game.
Taijuan Walker vs. Dallas Keuchel, 7:10pm
Viewed from one angle, this is a total mismatch. The M’s already sagging offense has cratered in the month of June, and today they face a guy who’s giving up a slugging percentage allowed of *.251* this year. That’s much, much higher than the career SLG% of Brendan Ryan, Rene Rivera or Eric Sogard. It is worse than Eric Sogard’s worst year, and it’s slightly lower than Mike Zunino’s career on-base percentage. 15 years ago, in the height of the long-ball era, players like A-Rod and (especially) Bonds put up numbers that simply beggared belief – you could mentally account for context and all of that, and it STILL just didn’t compute. You have to dig around for similar numbers now, but they’re out there, and Keuchel’s SLG% is an example.
As you’ve heard from Blengino and Jeff Sullivan, Keuchel’s somehow able to do a number of little things extremely well, and when you put them together, it all adds up to a bizarre kind of ace. Keuchel’s ground ball percentage is the highest in the AL, about 5 percentage points higher than Felix’s. But it’s not just that he induces grounders, it’s the KIND of grounders he gets – they all seem to be hit by profoundly sick batsmen. This season, batters are slugging .132 on grounders off of Keuchel. Felix is having a remarkable season, particularly from a GB point of view, but batters are slugging .234 on GBs off the King. How about Tyson Ross, the only guy in Keuchel’s league in terms of GB% the past two years? This year, batters are slugging .364 on grounders off of him.
But it doesn’t stop there. As Jeff mentioned, his motion and pick-off move make it very difficult for batters to steal on him if they make it to first. TWO runners have stolen a base off of Keuchel thus far, and given that he’s running so high a GB rate, keeping runners on first can make a big difference. Another small but real advantage is his defense. By every fielding metric, Keuchel’s the best in baseball.
All of that said, the resurgent Taijuan Walker evens things up a bit. And the M’s have been a better club against ground ball pitchers than fly-ballers (and guys in the middle). That’s not to say they’ve been GOOD against them, but they’re better. Same with lefties – the M’s have a team wRC+ of 100 against lefties, which, while it isn’t setting the world on fire, is much better than their 87 mark against righties.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2b
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
The big news out of Seattle today is that the M’s made a change at hitting coach. They’ve severed ties with Howard Johnson, and have installed M’s legend Edgar Martinez in the job. This was, at least to me, a stunning announcement because if Edgar had been interested in coaching, you’d think the M’s would have enabled that long ago. Hitting coaches probably don’t matter, but I’m not cynical enough not to squeal a little bit about seeing Edgar again. EDDDDGAAARRRRRR.
Jordan Pries, Mosies Hernandez, Jake Zokan, Dan Altavilla, Tyler Herb and a rehabbing Hisashi Iwakuma start for the M’s affiliates today. It’ll be Pries’ first start for Tacoma since May 5th.
Roenis Elias vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm
The last series against the Astros went…very poorly, and after dropping the home-and-home series with the Giants, this clash with the division leaders takes on even more importance. The M’s have languished behind Houston (and Anaheim) for months (staying mostly between 6-10 games back), and the only thing that’s changed over the past month is that Texas (?) suddenly started playing out of their mind and passed the M’s too. The M’s are running out of time. Opportunities like these, to make up a small chunk of the gap quickly, are vital if they want to get back into the race. It just feels odd, though, to talk about opportunities and playoff odds. This team has been unlucky, to be sure, but it’s flawed.
The M’s face fireballer Lance McCullers again today – the young righty held the M’s hitless for 5 innings 5 days ago. McCullers uses a plus fastball – it’s 95+ – and a big curve with two-plane break. He has a change-up that he uses sparingly, but he’s essentially been a two-pitch pitcher thus far, and that limited repertoire has been more than enough. As I mentioned last time, McCullers has shown some odd reverse platoon splits thus far, and he had them (though not as extreme) in the minors as well. His curve in particular has given lefties fits; they’ve come up empty on nearly half of their swings at it, and they’ve taken it for strikes a bunch, too. In all, lefties have put less than 9% of his curveballs in play. In the minors, McCullers big flaw was his control, but he’s been remarkably accurate thus far in the majors. His control lapses 5 days ago are somewhat noteworthy – his 4 walks were the most he’d given up thus far. The M’s need to be patient and make him work the way they did in Houston. Only this time, you know, get some hits too.
The Astros have seen essentially all of their prospects hit the ground running in the big leagues. McCullers has been dominant, Vincent Vasquez looks intriguing, if flawed, and Carlos Correa currently sports a line of .349/.378/.628, which is not too shabby. This week they’ve called up slugger Domingo Santana, a Joey Gallo-like all-or-nothing slugger that had torched the PCL this year. Santana bats righty, so we’ll see him tonight against the left-handed Roenis Elias. Evaluating prospects based on their first 1/2 season – or first month – is a fool’s errand, but it’s harder and harder to escape the conclusion that the M’s player development lags that of their rivals. Carlos Correa was the #1 overall pick, and had been anticipated for a while. But McCullers and Santana offered a mixture of upside and major question marks, but over time, they’ve…what’s that thing that prospects are supposed to do? oh yeah…*improved.* The Rangers were excellent at this until injuries and some down years pushed them to the brink of a wholesale rebuild. But Chi Chi Gonzalez arrived earlier than expected, and Joey Gallo’s prodigious strikeout rate has been balanced by his prodigious power. The M’s simply don’t have the impact prospects that can change their outlook in the near term. Chris Taylor’s a good player, but not someone who can impact the overall team offense. The M’s needed DJ Peterson to take a big step forward, but it simply hasn’t happened yet.
That’s an issue, as the M’s are noteworthy in their reliance on homegrown talent. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that the team led by a former scouting director is a draft-and-hold teambuilder and not a compulsive wheeler-dealer like Billy Beane or the Rays under Friedman and Silverman, but the M’s have given their prospects a very long leash. This isn’t a criticism, by the way – you can develop a team in a number of different ways, and building through the draft is a great way to do it. The Rangers have essentially done this too, making a splash in the trade for Fielder or the signing of Choo, but developing the complementary pieces themselves. But if you’re going to go that route, it’s all the more important that the players you identify and teach produce. Kyle Seager was a home run for the player development group, and Brad Miller is a solid single at this point. But the M’s badly needed to fill out the roster with others, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened enough.
Today’s Star Wars night line-up:
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Smith, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
A week ago, John Lannan of Albuquerque dominated the Rainiers, firing 8 shutout innings at Cheney Stadium. The Rainiers appear to have figured out what went wrong, as they knocked Lannan around on their way to 12 runs on *22* base hits. Sam Gaviglio, who gave up 6 runs in 5 IP 5 days ago, threw 6 shutout innings for Tacoma. Zach Shank and Steve Baron, two recent call-ups from AA, both had four hits in the game. Today, Forrest Snow makes the start opposite Yohan Flande. Mike Curto reports that Justin Ruggiano is expected to join the club in time for the game.
Jackson had their own blowout win, beating Birmingham 10-1 behind another solid start from Edwin Diaz. It looks like Diaz has made some adjustments to AA. In his last three starts, he’s thrown 20 1/3 IP, given up 4 runs on 13 hits with 18 strikeouts. The Generals knocked out Barons starter Tyler Danish (a top-10/top-5 White Sox prospect) out in the 3rd, scoring 9 runs on 9 hits off of him. Today, they’ll face another big Sox prospect, righty Frankie Montas. Moises Hernandez starts for the Generals. [EDIT: This game has been rained out]
Bakersfield lost a pitcher’s duel to Stockton 1-0. Blaze starter Brett Ash was effective in 6 2/3 innings, but Stockton’s Raul Alcantara and a bunch of relievers kept Bakersfield off the scoreboard. Today the Blaze send Eddie Campbell to the mound against Dylan Covey of the Ports.
Clinton lost another tight game 5-4 to Quad Cities. Starter Lukas Schiraldi was solid, but reliever Rohn Pierce coughed up 3 runs late. Pierce, a 19th round pick out of Canisius, has had an up and down year. In late May, over four games, Pierce pitched 9 innings, giving up no runs on 4 hits while striking out *14*. But in his last 3 games, Pierce has thrown 4 innings, giving up *13 runs* on 15 hits while striking out 3. Yikes. Clinton welcomes Cedar Rapids today, and the L-Kings will send Zack Littell to the hill against Zach Tillery of the Kernels.
Everett won their season opener last night, downing the Eugene Emeralds 6-1. The AquaSox got great pitching from starter Luiz Gohara and reliever Spencer Herrman, who gave up 1 run on 3 hits while striking out 13 emeralds. The offense hit 9 singles, with 1B Ryan Uhl going 3-3 and Braden Bishop going 1-2 with a walk. Today, Taylor Byrd starts for Everett against Justin Steele – both were drafted in 2014 in the first 10 rounds – Byrd was a 7th rounder, while the Cubs popped Steele in the 5th.
Mike Montgomery vs. Ryan Vogelsong, 7:10pm
Two great out-of-nowhere stories face off today at Safeco. Montgomery was the ex-prospect, dealt by his 2nd org in a meaningless end-of-spring deal. Vogelsong was the guy who was never a great prospect, and who toiled as one of the worst pitchers in the NL for several years in Pittsburgh before going on to three mediocre years in Japan. After another mediocre year in the minors, he seemed like a guy who’d be selling insurance very quickly, but a new start with the Giants turned into one of the most head-scratching years in recent memory, when he went 13-7 with an ERA under 3 in 2011. Now, that was pretty unsustainable – boosted as it was by a ridiculous strand rate and a so-so K:BB ratio. He regressed in 2012 somewhat, but was still an effective, important hurler for the WS champs. His K:BB ratio even improved thanks to a decline in his walk rate; even in the minors, Vogelsong always had issues with free passes, so that was an encouraging sign. What’s more, he seemed to have a legitimate strikeout pitch – a better-than-average curve ball. He also threw a sneaky fastball at 92 and a cutter that was effective against righties.
Early on in his bizarre renaissance, his change-up seemed to be an effective pitch against lefties, too. He had regular platoon splits, but his change allowed him to battle lefties to a draw, and then his curve/cutter/FB combo made him especially tough on righties. Starting in 2013, though, everything fell apart. The change that had been so good was terrible. Lefties swung and missed less, and put it in play more. And when they did, they were hitting fewer grounders and way more line drives. Overall, Vogelsong got fewer grounders AND gave up HRs on a higher percentage of fly balls – a bad combination for a guy who was no longer missing many bats, and whose velocity had dipped noticeably, perhaps impacted by the broken hand he suffered at the plate in a May contest against the Nats.
Nothing will top the surprise of Vogelsong’s 2011 season, but 2014 was remarkable in its own way. Fully healthy, his velocity ticked up by 1 mph, and he was suddenly effective again. There didn’t seem to be any change in approach or arsenal, it’s just that everything clicked for a while. He posted a career low walk rate, and his K% crept up near 20%. The incredible strand rate was clearly a one-year phenomenon, so he’s clearly a back-of-the-rotation starter, but for a twice-buried journeyman, another effective year – and another WS title – was a hell of a reward for years and years struggling in the baseball wilderness. This year, he’s actually made a significant change in approach. He’s throwing fewer change-ups, and he’s replaced it with more reliance on his four-seam fastball. His curve’s no longer even an average breaker, but he’ll still throw it about 1/5th of the time. It’s still a decent ground-ball pitch, but he tends to hang them. The cutter’s his two-strike pitch to *lefties* these days, while righties get fastballs. His platoon split issue is more acute now, and this is another game – like we saw against Hudson – where the M’s really need to get lefties into the line-up.
Montgomery faces a team that’s worse against lefties – they’re still better than average, but it’s a distinct advantage. The problem is that Montgomery’s an odd kind of lefty. As I mentioned last time, he’s much better against righties than lefties thus far, and that pattern held true in the minors as well. The key to this match-up is how he’s able to control the troika of Joe Panik, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. In Montgomery’s last start, the Astros’ lefties, Colby Rasmus and Jason Castro were 3-6 with 2 BBs, but he kept them in the park, and did enough against the rest of the line-up to be the only Mariner to walk out of Houston with his head held high.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Smith, LF
5: Trumbo, DH
6: Miller, SS
7: Ackley, 2B
8: Bloomquist, 3B
9: Zunino, C
[EDIT] Whoa, sorry, big (late) revision to the line-up with Cano and Seager sitting. When’s the last time Ackley played 2B? Looks like May of 2013 – not sure, though. Did he have the odd game at 2B after shifting to CF back then?
Colin O’Keefe had a good article at LL about an odd paradox: the M’s offense is terrible, despite the fact that the M’s rank highly in the percentage of balls they’ve hit at least 100MPH. The Giants offense has been great, despite the fact that they’re awful at hitting the ball hard. This *is* odd, and since ball exit speed data is so new, we don’t really know how it correlates with hitting stats. But for obvious reasons, there has to be *some* positive correlation there, and it’s probably sizable. One thought is that while the M’s are hitting the ball hard, they’re hitting a number of 100mph smashes on the ground, where they do less damage. Jeff had a great post a month or so ago about Robbie Cano’s poor start, and how he’s hitting the ball hard, but hitting more grounders. The other obvious issue concerns what happens when the M’s don’t make contact at all. The M’s strike out a lot, the Giants don’t. The M’s ISO is great, particularly once you factor in their home ballpark, while the Giants have the 24th-best ISO. The M’s hit the ball hard, but don’t hit it enough. The Giants put it in play, and good things have tended to happen as a result. There’s got to be more to it than that, of course (the M’s platoon splits are another problem, as the M’s are much better against lefties than righties) – but those are a couple of contributing factors, I’d think.
Tacoma beat Reno 9-6 to win their first series there…ever. Franklin Gutierrez extended his hitting streak to 20 games. The Rainiers head to Albuquerque, where Sam Gaviglio faces off with John Lannan.
Jackson got smoked by Birmingham 8-1 yesterday. Jabari Blash had 2 doubles in the contest, and DJ Peterson tripled, but the rest of the Generals couldn’t figure out Barons starter Myles Jaye. Edwin Diaz starts for Jackson against the White Sox #7 prospect, right-hander Tyler Danish. The sinkerballer posted a brilliant ERA last season across two levels, but that hides (as ERA is wont to do) a bunch of hidden un-earned runs. In his minor league career of 225+ innings, Danish has a 2.44 ERA, but a 3.23 RA. Lots and lots of grounders plus low-minors fields and low-minors fielders probably explains a lot of that gap.
Bakersfield beat Inland Empire 7-2 behind a solid start from Dylan Unsworth and 6 hits from the 1-3 hitters in the line-up. Today, the Blaze heads to Stockton to take on the Ports and starter Raul Alcantara, who had been the A’s #3 prospect heading into 2014, but an injury-plagued year pushed him down to #9 this year.
Clinton lost to Quad Cities 2-0 in 10 innings; Jamie Richie hit a 2-r walk-off homer to win it. Pat Peterson was great, but got no run support from the L-Kings. Reliever Hawtin Buchanon, who’d struggled mightily thus far, had an encouraging outing, throwing 1 2/3 hitless IP and getting all 5 outs as Ks. He mixed in 2 walks, but he gave the fielders a nearly 2-IP break, which is considerate of him. Lukas Schiraldi starts for Clinton tonight against Brock Dykxhoorn which is an extremely Dutch name. The Canadian faced Clinton back in May.
And today’s opening day for the Everett AquaSox. You’ve read JY’s preview, and you can listen in to Pat Dillon’s call here, or on AM 1380 in Everett. Luiz Gohara gets the opening day start this year. In his first NWL start of last season, he gave up 5 runs in 2 1/3 IP. Tonight will probably be better than that. He’s actually made one start on the year already – a 5 inning appearance for Clinton, in which the big Brazilian scattered 4 hits and a walk and kept Cedar Rapids off the scoreboard. Alex Jackson will bat 3rd tonight and play RF. DII slugger Ryan Uhl starts at 1B, and bats 8th. UW-product Braden Bishop bats 7th, while local kid Jordan Cowan leads off.
The past several years, I’ve had to deal with a minor conundrum. On one hand, I liked having an extra minor league affiliate in Pulaski because yay baseball but it also provided one more thing to stare at, one more team that I probably wouldn’t preview, and an environment and park factors that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Booo baseball. Then in the offseason, the Yankees snapped up Pulaski and we went back to having effectively two short-season summer affiliates plus two abroad (now both in the Dominican because Venezuela is not safe right now).
The boon of this for fans in this region is that, since there are fewer places for top prospects to go, the Everett team looks like it could be pretty darned talented this year. This will likely place the team in contrast to last year’s last-place squad. Scout/manager Rob Mummau will also be taking over again as manager, so anyone who was anticipating seeing Dave Valle outside of the broadcast booth is not in luck this year.
The areas of intrigue for me are primarily the outfield, which has something interesting at every position, and the rotation which is unusually structured and has at least three pitchers I’m already interested in. The backstops, eh, they’ll probably handle the pitching staff, and the infield’s hitting will likely be limited to the corners if it gets it there. The bullpen, which contained thirteen men on first roster release, is a place one could get lost in and I’m not quite sure what to think of it outside of a few members. Overall, this team should have a good amount of power and enough going on in the rotation to keep them in games. Looks like a competitive squad to me. And with the accelerated signing process and the college-heavy draft, I would expect that this is mostly the team we have, barring some contributors who are filling in elsewhere at the moment. Let’s get to it.
King Felix vs. Madison Bumgarner, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day. It’s a perfect day for anything, really, but *man* is this a good day to watch Felix work. The weird, split home-and-home four game series with the Giants shifts to Seattle, so we won’t have to worry about the King taking a fastball on the finger. Instead, we can take in what feels like the most anticipated pitching match-up of the year so far.* Madison Bumgarner, post-season star and the Giants ace, gets the start for San Francisco. For years now, I’ve used Bumgarner as the template for pitchers who throw slider after slider (or cutter; the border is porous) without regard to the handedness of the batter. Bumgarner’s best pitch is his cutter, and so he’s going to make you hit it. In 2012, he threw about 40% cutters, and threw it more often against *Righties* which goes against the standard assumption as well as research on pitch-type platoon splits. It clearly didn’t hurt him, though. He held righties to a sub-.300 wOBA in 2012, and in his career overall. He’s got the standard platoon splits, but he’s so good against all batters that platoon splits miss the point.
In more recent years, though, Bumgarner’s tweaked his approach slightly. After throwing “only” 1/3 cutters in 2014, he’s dropped again to under 30%. Instead, he’s making more use of his curve ball, a pitch he’s thrown since coming into the league, but kind of got lost behind his cutter and change. His curve has been effective against lefties, and seems at least as good or better to righties. The M’s seem to do well on curves; Brad Miller, for one, waited on a Tim Lincecum curve beautifully for his HR the other day, and they’re 3rd in baseball in pitch type linear weights against them.
If you don’t like this match-up, you…wait, why are you here? Are you lost? For the rest of us, here’s hoping some well-deserved hype and our own high expectations aren’t setting us up for a fall – a scenario that seems pretty common for M’s fans.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Cano, 2B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Trumbo, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Bloomquist, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: FELIX HERNANDEZ
The story about the Cardinals poking around the Astros’ proprietary data keeps getting stranger, with people now focused on what penalties might be forthcoming - first from the Department of Justice, and then from MLB itself. As Nathaniel Grow argues, MLB may not have much discretion at all to levy stiff penalties like a post-season ban. DOJ can issue criminal penalties, but it’s not clear that it will. Both the Computer Fraud and Abuse act of 1984 and the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 seem like they provide easy justification to prosecute, but it’s still not clear exactly what the Cardinals *did* once they broke in. Especially in the case of the CFAA, it doesn’t really matter, but if they just got in and started sending trolling messages, that seems like a different thing than actively mining it for insight, something more like a textbook case of industrial espionage. The problem is that we’ll never really know – some low-level office employee will be found, and I’m sure he/she’ll swear they did it as a joke. But that probably won’t appease Astros fans, and even if it was a joke, disseminating it to Deadspin (if the Cardinals did this – it’s not clear, and probably never will be) seems like escalating that joke pretty far.
Tacoma lost to Reno last night 14-7 after surrendering the game’s final 10 runs. Lucas Luetge got shelled in 2 2/3 IP in relief of Stephen Landazuri, who didn’t have a tidy appearance himself. Shawn O’Malley went 4-5 and Stefen Romero hit two doubles for the Rainiers, while Jamie Romak finished a double away from the cycle (with 5 RBIs) for the Aces. Justin Germano starts today against D-Backs prospect Aaron Blair, the guy I mentioned not too long ago when he faced off with Edwin Diaz and Jackson.
Speaking of Jackson, they face off with Birmingham today with Jimmy Gilheeney on the mound. Myles Jay starts for the Barons.
Bakersfield lost to Inland Empire 9-6, as the Sixty-Sixers put up 7 runs in the 7th inning. Kyle Schepel, the recent indie-league signee, made his Cal League debut in the 7th, and it didn’t go well – he gave up 5 runs without recording an out. Lost in the meltdown was an encouraging start from Tyler Pike, who went 6 solid innings and, more importantly, K’d 5 to just 1 walk.
Clinton snapped a dispiriting 15-game losing streak, beating Quad Cities 6-5 on a walk-off HBP in the 11th inning. Joe DeCarlo got the game-winning plunking, and also homered in the game. Pat Peterson tries to extend the L-Kings winning streak to 2 today against the River Bandits and starter Jorge Perez. Quad Cities is an Astros affiliate, so double-check the locks, and review your IT security protocols, Lumberkings.
* That doesn’t mean it’s the best. The Felix/Chris Archer tilt almost certainly takes that particular baked-good, but I think those of us on the west coast didn’t quite realize that Chris Archer had gone and pulled a Kershaw. We know now.
JA Happ vs. Tim Lincecum, 12:45pm
Yesterday’s game was one of those great games that makes the disappointment of this year and the past several years…well, not “worth it,” but “more tolerable.” The M’s looked like the team we thought we’d get. Taijuan Walker was great again, and it’s easier to see him as a fixture in the rotation now. The M’s got timely hits to take a lead, then added to it late in the game. The bullpen quietly did their job. The cynic in me argues that this was the easiest game for them, facing a pitcher who seemed like a good bet to struggle against the M’s lefty-heavy line-up. But it was a game – just one game, of course – that pushed cynicism out of the way for a couple of hours, and that was refreshing. Please don’t completely overwrite that memory with another ugly, punchless loss like you did in the Houston series, M’s.
Seattle’s prodigal son returns next week, but the M’s pay him a visit today. The right-hander’s glory days of 2008/2009 are long gone, but Lincecum’s enjoying a modest improvement over the ugly 2012 and 2014 campaigns…seasons that ended in World Series wins, of course. His runs allowed and FIP are lower than they’ve been in a while thanks to an improvement in BABIP and HR/FB, which casts some doubt about how “real” this improvement really is. Lincecum’s K rate continues to fall – it’s fallen every year since 2009 – and his walk rate has edged back up over 10% as well. Likewise, his velocity continues its long-term slide. He debuted averaging 95, then sat in the low 90s in recent years. This year, he’s just under 89mph.
That said, he’s clearly still capable of brilliance – he’s tossed no-hitters in two of his worst seasons, after all. It’s consistency that’s eluded him; 95mph and a dominant split/change gives a pitcher a margin of error that 89mph doesn’t, and when he’s not on, he’s gotten roughed up. Since the start of 2014, he’s thrown 6 games of at least 7 IP in which he’s given up no runs. But he’s also thrown 6 games of under 5 IP with at least as many runs allowed as innings pitched, and he lost his starting gig late in 2014 because of it. Interestingly, at least to me, is that he’s never had platoon splits. Over his career, his raw splits are slightly reversed, with lefties faring a bit worse than righties. By FIP, it’s essentially a dead heat.
One of the reasons for that is his splitter/change-up. Lincecum’s fastballs have almost no armside run (his four-seam is cutter-like in that it moves *away* from righties), and the same is true for the split – its break is almost entirely vertical, and it generates lots of whiffs, even as it (and the rest of his arsenel) has lost velocity over the years. Lefties see the pitch a lot – about 40% of the time. To righties, he uses his slider (79mph) and the occasional curve ball (75mph). Lefties see more of his sinker, while he throws his four-seam to right-handers. Since the start of 2012, righties are slugging over .500 on that four-seam fastball while lefties are under .400 against both four-seam and sinker. Given the pitch’s movement and these results, I don’t get why Lincecum wouldn’t reverse things, and throw righties more sinkers, as they’re generally much better against same-handed hitters.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Jones, CF
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
The Rainiers bullpen day started a little slow yesterday, with Reno taking the lead off of Logan Bawcom, but Tyler Olson was great for 4 IP and the bats came alive, leading the Rainiers to a 10-4 win. Chris Taylor doubled and tripled for the Rainiers. Stephen Landazuri starts today against 80s teen-movie villain Parker Frasier.
Jackson, as mentioned yesterday, beat Mobile 6-2, and they’ve got a travel day today before welcoming Birmingham to West Tennessee tomorrow.
Bakersfield beat Inland Empire 9-8 in extra innings. The bats bailed out starter Dan Altavilla, who was knocked out in the 2nd after giving up 6 runs. Despite not having an extra-base hit, the Blaze pieced together 12 singles and 7 walks to get their 9 runs, and won it in the 10th on a walk-off wild pitch. Tyler Pike starts today for Bakersfield.
Clinton was rained out in Fort Wayne, meaning that yesterday was perhaps the first time every affiliate won, or, more accurately, didn’t lose. It’s been a rough year in the M’s minors.
The M’s draft picks have begun signing contracts. Nick Neidert signed a slightly over-slot deal for $1.2m, while Andrew Moore signed for just under-slot at $800,000 even. Moore will report to Everett, who start their campaign on Thursday, with a home series against Eugene. Slugging small-school 1B Ryan Uhl was a senior, and signed for a well-under-slot bonus of $50,000 – he should be in Everett too. Righty Kyle Wilcox, out of tiny Bryant College, signed for just under slot at $225,000. HS righty Cody Mobley, whom the M’s selected in the 8th round, had a commitment to the University of Evansville, but the M’s gave him a bonus equal to the slot value of a pick a few rounds earlier. 10th round pick Darin Gillies, a RHP out of Arizona State, signed for $10,000.
The biggest story in baseball isn’t that the Padres called up Pat Murphy to manage the club, but the investigation into the hack and leak of Houston’s internal trade discussions last year. You may remember when Deadspin published 10 months of internal wrangling and haggling near the trade deadline. Well, the FBI’s been investigating the hack, and they’ve named a suspect: The St. Louis Cardinals. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow came from STL, so maybe he just never changed passwords, but this seems like a pretty big deal. We’d all been wondering what the next analytical insight in baseball might be, and what sorts of problems math/IT genius could apply their skills to. But maybe it’s simpler than all of that: maybe hacking is the next market inefficiency? (Hat Tip: Mike Curto)
Taijuan Walker vs. Tim Hudson, 7:15pm
The M’s begin play today with the fewest runs scored in the AL, rapidly fading playoff hopes, and a system that can’t boost the big league club the way their rivals’ can. Following a depressing series in Houston that saw their already dire run differential worsen, they’ve called up James Jones to bolster the bench. I understand completely that this is a short-term move, and that all of the roster re-jiggering had more to do with a series of really short outings by the starters than anything, but all the context in the world doesn’t make it any easier to explain. The M’s haven’t gotten an immediate boost from trading for Mark Trumbo, and since then, with the team in real danger of falling completely out of the race in a wide-open, no-great-teams AL, they’ve juggled relievers and brought up a pinch-runner. “What else could they do?” asks the sympathetic fan, unwittingly damning the front office even more.
The Giants strong start has petered out, and they enter tonight’s game on a four-game losing streak. They’ve fallen 3.5 games behind the Dodgers, who’ve played .500 ball for a month. Despite the highly anticipated match-up with Madison Bumgarner, it’s been the Giants offense that propelled them to that great start. And that offense is, from the point of view of an M’s fan, absurdly balanced. Buster Posey is consistently great, but they’ve been buoyed by the development of Brandon Crawford, their erstwhile glove-first SS, and his double-play partner, Joe Panik. Their patience with Brandon Belt has been rewarded, and unheralded prospect Matt Duffy has held his own at 3B after Casey McGehee crashed and burned. Thanks to their post-season successes in recent years, they’re an easy team to hate, but we’ve once again reached the point in the year where I just want to learn as much as possible from the teams who seem to be building a better mousetrap than the M’s. Houston’s rebuild looks nothing like the Giants retooling, as you’d expect, but the Giants success is clearly not just about throwing all of that World Series tv revenue at problems. *No one* thought Brandon Crawford was going to hit. The Joe Panik draft pick was almost universally derided. While we in M’s land have to remind ourselves over and over that aging curves describe a population, not a player; that the growth we expected from [Fill in player you are currently most frustrated with] isn’t some kind of birthright, and hey, luck of the draw, right? Other teams seem to be doing a bit better with raw talent – flawed talent – and molding it into roster help. At this point, it’s probably easier to start looking for people who know how to do this than to hope for rapid improvement in the current front office.
Tim Hudson makes his 25th career start against the M’s tonight, and tries to recapture his 2014 form against the struggling M’s offense. A year ago, Hudson continued his late career success with a 2.1 WAR season. His sinker’s lost only a few ticks, and it still allows him to post elite ground ball rates. Coupled with good control and an above-average infield defense, and Hudson can still succeed despite the fact that his K rate continues to fall. His strikeout pitch is a cutter at about 83-84mph that he typically saves for righties. He’s also got a splitter that functions as his change-up, so lefties see a lot more of that. But so far this season, something’s been amiss with that splitter. Last year, he got whiffs on about 16% of his splitters, and batters put it in play about 22% of the time. This season (small sample alert, of course), lefties have swung and missed at just *6%* of splitters, and they’ve put it fully one third of them in play. Without a swing-and-miss pitch to lefties, Hudson can’t strike southpaws out. He’s faced 124 lefties this year, and has struck out all of 7 of them. 2 of those came against Francisco Liriano, a pitcher. While his splits don’t show it this year, this is a good time to set a lefty-heavy line-up.
Taijuan Walker is coming off of three consecutive strong starts, with a K:BB ratio of 21:3 in that span. What’s actually changed for him is somewhat tough to determine. His pitch mix has changed a bit – before this streak he threw his cutter/slider more and his four-seam fastball a bit less, but that doesn’t seem like it could explain this. I don’t think he’s using his high fastball more – if anything, it looks like he’s using it less (compare this picture to this one), and burying some fastballs at or below the knee. Whatever it is, the quality of contact against him has dropped markedly. Sure, some of this is his HR luck regressing a bit, but a lot of this is simple control. He’s throwing both his fastball and splitter for strikes more often, and presumably getting into better counts as a result. He’s also avoiding the center of the plate, though that may be due to the counts he finds himself in as well. Whatever it is, this version of Taijuan is as encouraging as the previous iteration was frustrating.
1: Morrison, 1B
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
Forrest Snow struggled with his command yesterday, but still threw 7 strong innings, yielding just one hit and one run against Albuquerque. Snow has given up exactly one earned run in each of his last 6 starts. Logan Bawcom starts for the Rainiers today, who are going with a bullpen day to open the series against Reno. Danny Farquhar’s arrival can help bail out the bullpen in the rest of the series.
Jackson beat Mobile 8-6 thanks to HRs from DJ Peterson and Dario Pizzano. The latter’s HR came off of rehabbing big leaguer Patrick Corbin. Jackson won an early game today behind a solid outing from Misael Siverio and three hits from SS Tyler Smith. Of note, reliever Brian Moran struck out 4 in 1 2/3 IP in his 2nd outing with the Generals. The righty was once on the cusp of a 40-man spot with the M’s – and a possible active roster spot, but he was picked by the Angels in the Rule 5 draft then blew out his elbow. This was his fourth outing of the year as he rehabs from TJ surgery. The righty with a fastball that sits 87-88 has surprising deception, and has racked up strikeouts throughout the minor leagues.
Bakersfield destroyed Modesto 11-3, getting starter Eddie Campbell his third straight win after his awful start to 2015. Tyler O’Neill and Austin Wilson had 2 hits each, but Jay Baum led the team with 4. Dan Altavilla takes the mound for the Blaze as they face ex-affiliate Inland Empire, who’ll start Victor Alcantara.
Clinton’s slide continued, as they were swept in a doubleheader at Fort Wayne. One was a pitcher’s duel that the Tin Caps won by a score of 2-1; Tyler Herb was the hard-luck loser, throwing 6 IP with 6 Ks and 2 runs allowed. There was no hard luck loser in the other game, as Fort Wayne won 16-1. Osmer Morales started and pitched poorly, but Rohn Pierce followed with a nightmare of an outing. In just 1/3 of an inning, Pierce gave up 8 earned runs on 8 hits, including a 3R-HR. Ouch. Jefferson Medina starts today for the reeling L-Kings.
Roenis Elias vs. Lance McCullers, 11:10am
Well that’s more like it, Mariners. The M’s playoff odds got slightly better, but they’re given less than 1/2 the chance of winning the division as either Houston or LA, and that’s a problem. BP’s odds, which seem to rely less on preseason projections somehow (they regress actual wins/losses less, I’d guess) have Texas with twice the odds of winning the division, whereas Fangraphs still sees them as a bad club that’s played out of its mind for a month.
Texas and Houston are two of the stories of baseball this year, as both clubs seemed to be in rebuilds, but are now fighting for playoff spots. Neither team had a lot of established MLB talent on their opening day roster, especially with Yu Darvish missing the year. There’s Adrian Beltre, sure, and then there’s…Dallas Keuchel? Scott Feldman? Elvis Andrus? They had mostly young rosters, and a wave of talent in the minors – if they struggled, they could presumably sell off whatever vets they had and bolster the ranks of cost-controlled prospects. As it’s happened, they haven’t struggled at all, and thus this wave of talent is entering the league playing meaningful games on good teams. Joey Gallo is filling in for Adrian Beltre, and hitting balls like this. Houston recently brought up a decent chunk of their AA-affiliate’s opening day line-up with SS Carlos Corea, today’s starter Lance McCullers, and Vince Velasquez. The Twins were expected to be going nowhere, but they’ve called up OF Byron Buxton as they fight to re-take the lead in the AL Central from KC. Today, the Indians got into the act, bringing up SS Francisco Lindor. As Jeff mentioned earlier, the AL has completely defied the projections - the Twins are above .500, the M’s aren’t – and thus the teams laden with prospects aren’t playing for next year.
Take McCullers, for example. A year ago, he was in high-A Lancaster’s rotation, where he struggled with control and the long-ball. He struck out more than a batter an inning, but walking 5.4/9IP and giving up 18 HRs in 97 innings pushed his ERA to the mid-5s. He had a live arm (see the K’s), but little idea where it was going. Houston moved him up to AA Corpus Christi, and something clicked. In 29 IP, McCullers struck out *43* while giving up just 15 hits, and posting an ERA safely under 1. When injuries hit Houston’s rotation, the Astros called him directly to the big leagues. Despite the huge K%, McCullers control still wasn’t perfect in AA. And as we’ve heard from high-K sluggers like Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo, the big-league strike zone is actually a bit smaller than the one called in the minors. What would the over/under on McCuller’s walk rate in the majors be, considering these facts? So far, McCuller’s walk rate is just 4.9%, half what it was in AA, and about 8 percentage points lower than his Cal League mark. McCullers is still striking everyone out, and he’s still hard to hit, but he’s finding the zone much more often.
Moreover, he’s continued to dominate opposite-handed hitters. The big league sample is tiny, of course, but lefties haven’t figured him out at all – they’re hitting .143. Kind of like with Mike Montgomery, though, we can see that this isn’t new – he was very tough on lefties through the minors, posting a better K rate against lefties than righties. But unlike Montgomery, McCullers has a low 3/4 arm slot – his release point is more than a foot lower than the big lefty’s. And while Montgomery used a great *pitch* to post reverse splits, I think something else is going on with McCullers. To be fair, McCuller’s change has looked quite good, but he just doesn’t throw it enough to explain why lefties have struggled. Instead, I think his delivery is especially deceptive to lefties. His arm drops down and back during his delivery, and as he turns and strides forward, his body hides the ball, especially to left-handers. He doesn’t hide the ball by throwing across his body (the way Danny Hultzen did, and which made him so effective against righties), but by that point, it’s probably tough for lefties to know where the ball is.
So the first-place Astros have two members of 2014 Lancaster’s rotation, both of whom scuffled in the Cal League, and both of whom then annihilated AA in short stints. If something’s going on with player development here and this isn’t either bad luck in 2014 or great luck in 2015, then this is a remarkable story.
1: Smith, RF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
Mark Trumbo was supposed to start in LF, but he’s been scratched due to back spasms. Rickie Weeks was DFA’d yesterday to make room for Danny Farquhar – we’ll see if anyone picks him up. I thought for sure someone would take a flyer on Justin Ruggiano, but they didn’t, so he’ll get outrighted to Tacoma.
Tacoma rallied late, but couldn’t come back from a 6-0 deficit in yesterday’s 6-3 loss to Albuquerque. Shawn O’Malley and John Hicks had two hits each, and Andrew Kittredge was fantastic in relief of Sam Gaviglio – Kittredge pitched 4 shutout innings, striking out 2 against no walks. Kittredge continues to rack up frequent flyer miles shuttling between AA Jackson and Tacoma. Forrest Snow starts for Tacoma today against the delightfully named Yohan Flande.
Jackson beat Mobile behind a solid start from swingman Moises Hernandez and another good day at the plate by LF/DH Dario Pizzano. Trey Cochran-Gill got a nearly 3-IP save in the 7-2 win. Today, Jake Zokan faces off against Brandon Sinnery.
Bakersfield held on to beat Modesto 5-4, thanks to another big day from Tyler O’Neill, who hit his 14th HR of the year. The Canadian corner OF will turn 20 later this month, and while his OBP is ugly, he’s starting to hold his own in the Cal League. Austin Wilson also homered, but that brought his SLG% – again, in the Cal League – to .299. It’s been a rough season. Eddie Campbell takes the hill today for Bakersfield, while the well-traveled TBD starts for Modesto.
Clinton was rained out yesterday in Fort Wayne, so they’ll play two today. Tyler Herb and Osmer Morales are the starters for Clinton.