Game 156, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · September 22, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. JA Happ, 4:07pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 17.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 20.7%

Ouch. *Ouch*. The M’s playoff odds were cut in half yesterday, when another poor start from Hisashi Iwakuma coincided with the A’s finally winning a game and the Royals holding off the Tigers. This syzygy of woe has the M’s in dangerous territory with only a week to go. As if things couldn’t get worse, a new team has entered the periphery of the chase: the red-hot Cleveland Indians. While the Yankees and the Jays graciously dropped out of the race around a month ago, the Indians have been buoyed by an incredible run by their starters, including Corey Kluber, coming off his second consecutive game of 14Ks, and Carlos Carrasco who has laid waste to the AL since moving back into the rotation a few months back. Given that the Tribe is playing the Royals the next three days, and given the short amount of time, they’re probably not going to pass the Royals, M’s and A’s for a Wild Card spot. But it shows that even if the Royals, say, completely collapse, the M’s wouldn’t necessarily be the beneficiary.*

Thus, the M’s find themselves in a must-win game, on the road, with rookie starter. All of that said, I think most M’s fans are pretty happy that Paxton’s taking the ball today. The Canadian lefty’s been excellent – when healthy – all year, and is coming off of five consecutive quality starts. As I mentioned last time, his unique fastball has been the key to his success – both in generating ground balls and in disguising/setting up his curve ball. There’s basically no way a four-seam fastball should do what Paxton’s is doing, but when the team absolutely has to have a win, I don’t much care. I just care that he gets 12 ground outs and a handful of Ks and the M’s walk out of Rogers Centre victorious.

Opposing him is JA Happ. The last time the M’s faced him, we talked about his resurgence with the Jays, and how he’d suddenly started throwing harder this year. He also came into that game on a hot streak, striking out 12 Orioles in his previous start, and on a K:BB tear that the heretofore command-impaired Happ wouldn’t have dreamed of in previous years. That all ended in Safeco, as the M’s knocked him around a bit, and Happ hasn’t been able to regain the form he showed in July and early August. That said, he’s been a half-decent middle of the rotation guy for the Jays this year, and he’s been OK each year since 2012. Sure, his RA/9 hasn’t always reflected that thanks to HR problems and problems stranding runners, but his FIP has hinted that he’s had the ability to be a run-of-the-mill #4 starter.

Happ’s bread and butter is a 93-mph fastball. He throws four- and two-seam varieties, and those two combine for about 70% of his total pitches. His primary breaking ball is a curve that he’s started throwing at the expense of his slider/cutter, especially against righties. He’s also got a change-up that he’ll throw to righties, but as you can tell from his fastball usage, it’s not a great one. It generates fewer whiffs and grounders than a league-average change, and as someone who faces overwhelmingly right-handed line-ups, you understand why he’s now throwing more curves instead. In his career he’s got normal platoon splits, but they’ve gone backwards in 2014 (and 2013 too, actually). It’s probably just noise, especially when you see just how few lefties he’s faced; this year, only about 20% of the opposing hitters have batted lefty against him.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: James Paxton

That fastball, man. Paxton’s velocity, movement and deception team up to wreak havoc with hitters’ timing, and the result is a low BABIP. Paxton was the beneficiary of an absurd .203 BABIP in his call-up in 2013, and saber-fans noted that it’d regress. It has, actually. To .254. Normally, this is something that would be concerning – he still hasn’t pitched a full MLB season, and there’s no way to say that his true-talent is anywhere close to that .254 figure (to say nothing of .203). But Paxton’s pretty much sui generis; I have no idea what mean I should regress Paxton towards, given that I really can’t think of many pitchers like him. The Paxton we’ve gotten is so, so different – and so much better – than the Paxton many of us were following on his way up the chain. In the minors, Paxton had velo and that great curve, and thus got a good number of strikeouts. Unfortunately, the raw results were generally worse than you’d expect because his minor league BABIPs were uniformly terrible. The projection systems like ZiPS and Steamer that use minor league data can’t figure him out, because in the minors he walked tons and was incredibly hittable for a guy with a 95mph fastball. I figured he’d eventually improve his control, and that his curve would help him miss big-league bats, but his fastball command has changed to such a degree that he’s unrecognizable from the James Paxton that toiled in the M’s affiliates. I should point out that even this year, in his 10 rehab innings in Tacoma, Paxton gave up a .393 BABIP. The PCL is a hell of a drug.

Speaking of the PCL, the league’s going to look a bit different next year thanks to a raft of affiliation changes. Some long-standing agreements are no more – the A’s have left Sacramento to the Giants, and instead entered into an agreement with Nashville. That meant the Brewers needed a new affiliate, and they picked up Colorado Springs, ending the Rockies 21-year agreement with the Sky Sox. Mike Curto has you covered on who’s going where. Thankfully, the M’s aren’t one of the teams moving affiliations; the Rainiers/M’s partnership’s been a good one since 1995.

One M’s affiliate will be changing, though: the M’s agreement with High-A High Desert is no more. The M’s will move to a slightly less insane offensive environment in 2015 when they start playing in Bakersfield, which had been the Reds affiliate. The M’s had been in High Desert for the past eight seasons after their previous affiliate, Inland Empire, signed a deal with the LA Dodgers (they’re now affiliated with the Angels). Again, Curto’s got some information on a (possible) new home park for the Bakersfield team and why home games often start 15-minutes late at the current park.

* As an aside, I think this season has gone a long ways towards making me feel better about the introduction of the second wild card. I’m still squeamish about anything that appears to diminish baseball’s regular season, but the introduction of the play-in game arguably restores the importance of winning a division, while the 2nd wild card race has captivated baseball fans for months even when the first wild card seemed locked-up, first by the Angels, then the A’s (lolololol).

Game 155, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 21, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 11:10am
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 37.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 42.2%

It’s weird – with the A’s and Royals losing, yesterday’s blowout lost was nowhere near as costly as it could’ve been. On the other hand, the M’s had everything to play for – a chance to tie for the FIRST wildcard – and got blown out by a bad team. This is the perfect test of where a person lies on the optimism-pessimism spectrum.

Yesterday, I mentioned that it took a while for people to warm up to the concept that Dallas Keuchel was actually good. Not “a useful 5th starter” or “solid depth” if he got his HR problem under control, but actually good. That same process played out this season with his teammate, Collin McHugh. McHugh entered the season with a career record of 0-8 and an ERA of about 9. He was a righty with a fairly generic arsenal – a four- and two-seam fastball around 91, a slider, a change and a curve. The curve was actually a decent pitch, but he couldn’t get to it because his fastball was just freakishly hittable. Everything was a small sample of course, but lefties in particular couldn’t help but hit him hard. Coming into 2014, he’d only faced about 100 lefties in total, but their wOBA against him was nearly .500. They had 34 hits and six walks in just 94 plate appearances with a remarkable 17 extra base hits.

When the Astros called him up to make what we all assumed was a spot start in Seattle in April, I’d never heard of him and assumed he’d be sent back down to AAA immediately after the game. He’d been knocked around in AAA, after all, and again, 0-8, 8.94 ERA. Instead, McHugh pitched a gem, with 12 Ks and no walks in 6 2/3 shutout innings. Suddenly, the guy without an out pitch, the guy who couldn’t get lefties out, was an effective big league starter. As I’ve talked about a few times, the Astros made a few adjustments to his delivery and arsenal, getting him to concentrate on his four-seam, slider and curve, and changing where in the zone he throws them. The change in usage wasn’t all that big – he’d always thrown more four-seamers than sinkers. He moved over on the rubber a bit compared to 2013, but it’s quite close to where he was in 2012. His breaking balls have less vertical break than they did, but that’s just because he’s throwing everything a bit faster in 2014. If there’s a change here, it’s in where he’s putting them. He’s been able to keep his fastball away from lefties, and keep his curve down. He’ll sneak called strikes with his slider, which…I mean, it takes guts for a guy who’d been torched by lefties to throw sliders middle-middle to them, but whatever the cause, McHugh’s been excellent against everyone this year. In 143 innings, he’s at 3.3fWAR, with a FIP barely over 3, and an ERA under that.

I wondered if he was getting by on novelty, and about a month after coming up, McHugh had a rough patch – including a loss to the M’s. But looking at his splits, he’s only gotten better in the 2nd half. He’s not getting as many K’s (and that first-half number was likely inflated by that one spectacular 12K game against the M’s), but he’s stopped walking anyone, and he’s limiting HRs as well. This new and improved version may not be his true-talent level going forward (the 8+ K:BB ratio is peak-period Cliff Lee), but the body of work is remarkable. I have no idea how the Astros turned a career minor-leaguer, and a guy who’d been cut by two separate orgs last year into a great pitcher. I really hope the M’s know.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

The BP podcast with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller had a guest for episode 538 – ex BP guy turned political forecaster Nate Silver. Interesting listen.

The Royals/Tigers match-up features Jeremy Guthrie facing off against Rick Porcello. The A’s host Philadelphia, where Scott Kazmir will try and get a win for Oakland against AJ Burnett and the Phillies.

Game 154, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 20, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Dallas Keuchel, 4:10pm
Wildcard Odds- Fangraphs.com: 41.7% Baseballprospectus.com: 48.3%

I swear it was just a few days ago that the M’s wildcard odds dipped under 20%. With each game’s impact so large, and with the AL Central leaders facing each other, we’re going to have to get used to these massive swings in playoff odds. This is pretty cool.

As strange as it is to see a seven-foot righty soft-tosser succeeding by allowing a blizzard of fly balls, it’s taken the AL a while to get used to the idea that Dallas Keuchel‘s actually quite a good pitcher. Lloyd McClendon memorably dismissed Keuchel as “average” and putting the blame on his hitters after Keuchel stymied the M’s in Seattle in early May. But at that point, Keuchel was one of the AL Leaders in FIP/fWAR, thanks to a career low walk rate and an insane GB%. Keuchel throws 88-89, and came into 2014 with an ERA well over 5 over parts of two seasons, so it’s not like McClendon was really going out on a limb, but the fact that the story got so much attention shows just how sharp Keuchel’s first few months were. Instead of a great GB% of 53-55%, he was in the 60s. This helped him address his biggest weakness – the long ball. In his 239 career innings before 2014, he’d given up 34 HRs, easily over 1 per 9IP. This year, in 192 IP, he’s given up just 11, or about 0.5 / 9IP.

While his walk rate’s also better, it’s that HR rate that’s driving his vastly-improved FIP. Sure, it’s hard to give up HRs when no one’s able to hit a fly ball at all, let alone a deep one, but HR/FB rates are variable, and just as his career HR/FB looked extremely unlucky, is it possible he’s just gotten lucky in 2014? Anything’s possible, but his HR/FB looks a lot more like “normal” than “freakish” – for that, you just have to look at Chris Young’s numbers. But it’s not just that he’s giving up fewer flies, he’s changed his approach. He dropped his lousy curve for a slider, and for whatever reason, that pitch has been effective against right-handed hitters; a lefty sinker/slider guy sounds like someone who righties should dominate, but they haven’t managed it this season. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have platoon splits – he does. They’re pretty sizable, really, because he’s not able to miss very many right-handed bats. That’s fine if you can get 62% grounders against them, as Keuchel can. Lefties have had almost no chance against him, as they combine an even higher GB% with a K:BB ratio of 5, so the M’s are going to get as many RHBs as they can in the line-up. I know I’ve said it a million times, but the M’s have struggled this year against extreme GB guys like Keuchel – they’ve got a .604 OPS against them, and are slugging about .300. Some teams, most notably the A’s, have tried to counteract sinkerballers by stocking up on fly-ball hitters. The Angels just have Mike Trout, a guy with preternatural ability to drive low and low-and-in pitches. The M’s don’t really have that, but if it’s any consolation, they’re in a better position to get to Keuchel now than before their deadline deals. Now if only they could get Austin Jackson to hit like himself and not like Abe Almonte.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, LF
7: Hart, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: The Magical Giant

Game 153, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 19, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 34.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 33.7%

The development of Taijuan Walker’s split-change has certainly helped him boost his GB%, but it hasn’t turned him into an ace just yet. He’s struggled at times this year with wildness, with HRs, and, of course, with injury. But I think Paxton’s emergence (and all the time Walker missed, of course) have led people to overlook the top prospect. I’m not saying Walker’s going to be as good as Paxton’s been, but we haven’t seen what Walker can be just yet. His cutter’s intriguing at times, but his command of it hasn’t quite been there thus far, though his control woes of July seem to have subsided.

Brad Peacock…everything I said about him a few weeks ago remains true.

Line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Taijuan Walker

Game 152, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Wade LeBlanc, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds- Fangraphs.com: 24.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 22.9%

Happy Felix Day.

The playoff odds look bleak, as does the gap in the schedule between the M’s and Royals, but if you want to hang on to hope, forget the Mariners – just watch the A’s for a while. Tony Blengino had a fascinating post up at Fangraphs today on the A’s collapse, focusing on the disappearance of first-half stars Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, but they are fun to watch in a cringe-comedy sort of way. Yesterday, it was closer Sean Doolittle imploding against whoever those people are in Texas Rangers uniforms. Today, it was their (good) starting pitcher uncorking another sub-par start against the murderer’s row of Jake Smolinsky, Tomas Telis, and Ryan Rua. The M’s have been running in place right when they needed to be sprinting. This has very likely cost them the ability to chase down whoever finished 2nd in the AL Central. However, running in place is a hell of a lot better than what the A’s are currently undertaking.

Fortune’s bestowed a second gift to the M’s today, too. Jered Weaver’s been scratched and replaced by Wade LeBlanc. This was Weaver’s spot, and it shaped up as a classic pitcher’s duel: a repeat of opening night right when the M’s need a win the most. That’s dramatic and all, but I think we’d all take an easier path to contention as opposed to a “dramatic” one. We’ll get drama in the playoffs, should they get that far. Before that, though, give us your LeBlancs, your Tropeanos, yearning for a big-league paycheck. Yes, yes, the Tropeano thing didn’t work so well, but LeBlanc’s a guy that most of the M’s have faced.*

He’s a classic soft-tossing lefty, a guy with an 87mph fastball, a pretty good change and a not-so-hot cutter. He came up with the Padres in 2008, and faced the M’s here and there for years as a spot-starter/swing-man for our hated interleague rivals. He shuttled between San Diego and AAA for a few years, logging a decent record as a back-end starter in spacious parks, but not really grabbing a permanent job. In 2012, he was traded to Miami, and absent a familiar (if less-than-full-time) role with the team that drafted him, he’s really bounced around since then. The Marlins waived him in 2013, and he headed to Houston. Then he signed with Anaheim, who waived him, and he signed with the Yankees. After a single inning in the Bronx, the Angels re-acquired him on waivers, hence his appearance today. Many, many pitchers are in the position of not knowing who they’ll report to spring training with the following year. In the past two years, LeBlanc really has had no idea which uniform he’d be putting on a week or a month in the future.

The problem is that LeBlanc’s a fairly extreme fly-ball guy with so-so stuff. He’s tried to make that approach work in PETCO PARK and had trouble. Anaheim is a sneaky-tough park to homer in, but LeBlanc’s stuff eases the hitter’s burden a bit. To make matters worse, his control isn’t great. A walk rate over 8% seems like it’s far too high for a guy who doesn’t rack up strikeouts and has a gopher-ball problem. Really, there are only two reasons LeBlanc’s still a major leaguer. 1) He’s left-handed. 2) The change-up really is pretty good. In his career, he’s generated whiffs on about 35% of the swings at his cambio, and when batters put it in play, they’re more likely to hit it on the ground. He’ll still hang a few of them – he’s given 13 HRs on it overall – but it’s been effective overall. It’s also why he’s posted reverse-splits in his career, with righties posting a much lower wOBA and FIP against him than lefties. *LEFTIES* are hitting a combined .315/.372/.540 off of him, or a bit better than Miguel Cabrera’s 2014 line.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: FELIX

* Actually, as a guy who spent most of his time in the NL, and as a swing man, he’s missed more of these guys than you’d think. He’s faced Morales and Seager once, Taylor/Zunino/Jackson/Cano/Ackley zero. Denorfia and Morrison have seen him a few times, but that’s about it. That really surprises me, but there you are. LeBlanc has been around a while, and been in many places, but he has not actually pitched that many innings. He topped 100 back in 2009, when Seager/Ackley/Taylor/Zunino were in college.

Game 151, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:05pm

For four innings, it looked like the M’s season would end at the hands of a random middle reliever making a spot start. The M’s playoff odds had dipped below 20% according to BP, and when the Royals rallied to tie the White Sox, well, that looked like that. A couple of doubles later, the M’s took the lead against the second Angels middle-reliever, and then the White Sox fought back against KC. An Oakland rally in Texas stopped short, and then the M’s poured it on against the dregs of the Angels’ 40-man. Their playoff odds, in serious danger of dropping to somewhere in the 10% range, shot up 15 to 20 percentage points, and are above 1/3 again. Unreal. Everything about it was insane, from how completely hapless they looked against Cory “The Other” Rasmus, to the timing of the White Sox rally, to the actual Mariners posting a six-run inning later on after several days of an almost religious-level of run avoidance.

So, today’s game comes to you with a modicum of drama and stakes attached, and that’s worth celebrating considering that it’s mid-September. Today’s game shows a big reason why – the M’s are in Anaheim, facing the team that’s run away with the AL West, and facing one of that team’s better/highest paid pitchers. And while the Angels clearly have a leg up in terms of their line-up, there’s essentially no way to spin the pitching match-up as anything but a clear M’s advantage. I know, I know: James Paxton’s entire professional career is still a small sample oddity, and CJ Wilson is a big-league veteran with all-star appearances, a massive contract and a Brazilian super-model girlfriend. But Wilson is very clearly not the same guy he was when he signed that big free agent contract, just as Paxton’s clearly not the guy who spent three months of his first AAA season (this was LAST YEAR, not the ancient past) with an ERA over 5.

After coming up as a reliever with the Rangers, Wilson shifted to the rotation thanks to a deep arsenal of pitches (he routinely throws six different pitches) and his ability to keep the ball down and get weak contact. He never quite figured out the strike zone, and walk rates over 4/9IP pepper his fangraphs page, but he generated enough Ks and gave up few HRs, even in Arlington. His change-up allowed him to deal effectively with the legions of right-handers he suddenly had to face, and thus his contract – while large – didn’t seem to be a disaster, particularly considering his excellent 2011 season. Wilson’s strengths seemed to be reinforced by his new home park; if Wilson was good at suppressing his HR/FB ratio, Anaheim was a legend at doing so for just about everyone. If Wilson walked a few too many, a good infield defense and the marine layer would reduce the price he’d need to pay for those baserunners. In his first season in Anaheim, he posted his highest HR/FB since becoming a starter, and saw his ERA and FIP rise markedly (along with his walk rate). 2013 was a bounce-back year, as his HR/FB dropped to his career norms, but his declines against right-handed bats was masked by his incredible success against lefties – a BABIP in the .230s looked like luck, though his K:BB was still excellent. This year, his luck’s evened out, and that’s made him look remarkably hittable. He’s still excellent against lefties, and the M’s are right to do everything they can to get RHBs in today’s line-up, but he’s not as dominant as he was a recently as last year. Against righties, though, he’s continuing to slide – his wOBA-against to righties since 2011: .290, .316, .329, .350.

Worse, those six pitches simply aren’t as deceiving as they once were. Here’s a table of qualified pitchers in 2014, sorted by O-swing, or the percentage of swings each pitcher gets on pitches outside of the strikezone. CJ Wilson’s in last place, with a paltry 22.7% o-swing. A very low o-swing isn’t the kiss of death – Jered Weaver’s just barely ahead of Wilson, and he’s been OK. Lance Lynn’s at #8, and he’s been excellent. Bartolo Colon’s been weirdly effective despite a low o-swing for a while now. Weaver and Lynn both pair good control with well above-average pop-up rates; their game isn’t based on getting hitters to chase, it’s about getting them to mis-hit the ball or swing under a high (but in the zone) fastball. Bartolo Colon throws nothing but fastballs and nothing but strikes, so it’s not a surprise that his o-swing suffers. Wilson, though, has seen his control suffer – again, whether this is age-related or the effect of giving up so many HRs suddenly – as his zone% tumbled from about 51% in 2012 to 44.9% this year. He’s throwing more balls, and no one’s swinging at them. He’s earned every bit of his nearly-11% walk rate. Wilson’s game is now predicated on bad contact, but his stuff isn’t as good at generating it as it was in previous years. CJ Wilson will be paid $38 million for 2015-16.

James Paxton – despite the elite velocity, despite the achingly beautiful curveball – actually pitches in a similar way. He’s just better at it right now. While Paxton’s o-swing isn’t bottom-of-the-league bad like Wilson’s, it’s slightly below average, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it: here’s a lefty throwing 95+, and yet he gives up MORE contact than the league average. His zone% isn’t quite as bad as Wilson’s, but it’s low. But while Wilson’s GB rates are no longer special – and that’s a problem if his HR/FB are likewise trending the wrong way – Paxton is still a GB machine. More importantly, he doesn’t need to rely on secondary offerings like a change or his curve to get grounders. Because it’s his *fastball* that does the heavy lift, he’s able to generate weak contact in just about any count – he doesn’t need to get you to 0-2 or 1-2 to induce a chopper to shortstop. BrooksBaseball has some really cool tabs that you can play around with when looking at each pitcher’s pitch fx numbers. One is the Z Score tab on a few of the tables. Check out Paxton’s fastball here - the numbers are the standard deviations above or, for negative numbers, below the league-wide mean for that pitch type. Paxton’s fastball generates over two full standard deviations more GBs than the mean, and two full standard deviations fewer fly balls. The ratio is over 3 standard deviations higher than the average four-seam fastball. His curve, too, gets far fewer fly balls than average. It is extraordinarily, freakishly hard to hit fly balls off of Paxton. Elite velocity and poor launch angles make Paxton a tough, tough match-up for lefties and righties alike. Paxton is still a pre-arb player.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

* Kind of funny that the bottom two qualified starters in O-Swing are teammates CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver, while the top two, the guys with the BEST o-swing rates, are also AL West teammates: Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Game 150, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 16, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Cory Rasmus, 7:05pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 21.8% Baseballprospectus.com: 19.3% (ouch)

Well, that was no fun at all. Matt Shoemaker is now 2-0 against the M”s, and in 20 1/3 IP, he’s got an 18:2 K:BB ratio and an RA/9 of 1.77. Hisashi Iwakuma’s late season slide was a popular topic on twitter last night, with many pointing to his poor ERA down the stretch. Our fearless leader Dave pointed out that his fielding independent stats have generally been pretty good. Outside of the three-HR game, he’s not been getting shelled, it’s just teams have strung a lot of hits together off of him. I recognize that Iwakuma’s FIP has generally been pretty good (it’s significantly better in the 2nd half than it was in the 1st, actually), but FIP’s always been a tough way to evaluate the guy. For two years, Iwakuma posted ERAs lower than his FIP, because while he’d give up HRs, he tended to do so when there weren’t runners on. His weird FIP-breaking trick wasn’t a freakish HR/FB ratio, like Chris Young, it was posting much better results with men on (and with men in scoring position) than with the bases empty. That’s not normally a skill, but it’s probably that SOME pitchers can reliably do this, especially given that pitchers have an entirely different motion with men on base. Well, in 2014, Iwakuma just hasn’t had that…skill/luck, depending on your POV. This year, he’s been WORSE with runners in scoring position, and thus, while he isn’t necessarily giving up more HRs, his ERA’s now worse than his FIP. To the optimists, this is the ultimate small-sample fluke, and it’ll just bounce back to his career norms next year. The cynics probably never believed Iwakuma’s success with RISP was skill at all, and see this year as regression. So many baseball arguments are really just about what mean to regress someone towards.

Hey, another ballgame against the white-hot Angels. Sigh. Ok, the Angels are going with a bullpen day, though, as middle-reliever Cory Rasmus starts. In his last start, he pitched effectively, but for less than four innings, which means we’ll probably see quite a few Angel hurlers. Rasmus has a fastball around 93 – a rising four-seamer that he’ll throw up in the zone. In terms of movement and how he uses it, it’s actually quite similar to Matt Shoemaker’s, albeit a tick or two faster. That said, he doesn’t have a big-time weapon like Shoemaker’s split. What he DOES have is a pretty good change-up that he throws a lot to lefties, and a slider he throws to righties. He’s got a curve as well, but his best pitches are the slider and change-up. Since he’s got pitches to throw to both, he’s posted good numbers against lefties and righties alike this year – a far cry from his struggles against lefties in 2013. In 2013, lefties teed off on his fastball, slugging over 1.000 in extremely limited duty. After a couple of tweaks, his fastball’s been effective against them this year, which is why he’s been tabbed to make a couple of spot starts with the injury problems plaguing the Halos.

He can miss bats, he throws reasonably hard, and he’s got four pitches. Why’s he normally a reliever? Rasmus has not seen eye to eye with the strike zone in his career, and this isn’t just nerves. In his minor league career, he posted a BB/9 of 4.3. Last year, in his first big league stint, it was over 5. This year, because Angels, his K% has improved markedly while he’s cut his walk rate from 12.6 to 8.2%. He’s still a very far cry from Greg Maddux, but it’s not a crippling problem anymore. And a move to Anaheim helped his HR problems, too. Like Shoemaker and most other Halos, Rasmus has sizable home/road splits, largely driven by home runs – Rasmus has a GB% under 40%, so he’s a fly ball pitcher, and Anaheim’s a great place to ply that particular trade. We’ll see who follows him, but Rasmus will get the first crack at this line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Chavez, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

I’ve actually loved watching Clayton Kershaw pitch this year (thank you, MLB.tv), but Ben Lindbergh’s open letter to Kershaw from Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season is hilarious and spot-on.

Game 149, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 33.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 31.0%

Fangraphs’ odds feature gives the M’s a nearly 70% chance of winning today’s game, based almost entirely on the identity of the starting pitchers. The Angels have the better line-up, and are playing at home, so the fact that the M’s are prohibitive favorite tells you something about how the projection systems see both Iwakuma and Shoemaker going forward. To me, the game doesn’t feel like a cakewalk, and while we’ve been shocked by Shoemaker before, it’s time to give the guy a bit of credit.

At the same time, I can’t really blame ZiPS/Steamer. Look at his minor league record, and you see org depth, a guy who has no business in a big league ballpark without paying to be there. Look at his major league stats, and you see an elite starting pitcher. If this sounds familiar, well, yes, Jeff’s article on Shoemaker at Fangraphs was spot-on. The takeaway, at least for me, was just how similar Shoemaker is in arsenal and results to guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Shoemaker’s splitter is a difference-maker, and it’s carved up the American League in 2014. The big question I have is: why does a guy with a pitch that can torch good big league line-ups struggle so much in the minors?

As Jeff pointed out, and as you can verify at your leisure, Shoemaker’s career AAA ERA – accrued over bits and pieces of five seasons – was 5.38. This isn’t a case where he was awful, then learned the splitter and turned interesting. No, Shoemaker made five starts in the PCL *this year* and was inconsistent, hittable and not terribly noticeable just like always. The righty has always had good control, and that’s been critical to his success in the big leagues. An above-average first strike% and a BB/9 under 2 is a great way to limit damage, but there’s often a trade off in home runs, especially if you’re not a ground-ball guy; with a GB% under 42%, Shoemaker’s clearly in the fly-ball camp. Indeed, home runs were a perennial problem for Shoemaker in the minors. Even in his excellent AA campaign in 2011, he allowed a higher HR/9 than the league average. Again, though, fans of Iwakuma and Tanaka will recognize this pattern – ultra-low walks, high strikeouts, with pretty much all of the damage coming on longballs. It’s not great for FIP/fWAR, but it’s clearly an approach that can work. More interesting to me, though, was that it wasn’t *just* HRs that killed Shoemaker. At nearly every stop, he’s been extremely hittable. In his minor league career, he’s given up about 10 hits per 9 innings. In AAA, that figure rose to over 11 per 9.

This is a minor league journeyman, an undrafted minor college player, who’s pitching like an All-Star. His K-BB% is 20th in baseball, tied with Jonny Cueto, and just a tick behind Iwakuma. He’s got a well-above average contact rate, which is probably how he can be around the plate so much without paying for it in hits and home runs. We’ve seen a few guys with essentially no big-time track record break into the big leagues and post a nice ERA for a year or two (JA Happ, a million relievers), but we haven’t seen guys fluke their way to this kind of fielding-independent success. Here’s a table of the best K-BB% from a rookie starter over the past 10 years. Shoemaker’s in there at #10, and while a place on the list doesn’t guarantee a long, happy MLB career, the most of the guys who haven’t done much after their rookie year have one thing in common: surgery. Corey Luebke’s had two, as has Brandon Beachy. Michael Pineda had one, Matt Harvey’s still on his way back, etc. It’s just not normal to pitch this well for 100 innings and have it not mean anything.

How on earth is he giving up *8* per 9 in the big leagues? How has his K% increased, while his walk rate’s dropped, and his HR rate is stable/a bit lower? It seems like there are a couple of possible answers here. First, while lengthy flukes of this nature are rare, they’re not unheard of. Once big league hitters adjust, Shoemaker may find his stats reverting to his minor league averages (which would still be kind of amazing given that MLB is, you know, BETTER than the minors). The parallels here are Tony Cingrani and one-time sleeper prospect Erasmo Ramirez. It’s both remarkable and painful to see Erasmo on that list of rookie starters – he was 22, didn’t walk anyone, and posted a 5:1 K:BB ratio in 59 innings for the 2012 M’s. Since that time, he’s dealt with serious home run problems and either lost his control or been scared out of the zone. His K:BB ratio since is under 2, and his HR/9 has gone from 0.92 (Shoemaker-esque!) to 1.48 (Shoemaker-in-Salt-Lake-esque!). Personally, I think injuries may have more to do with this sad slide than Erasmo and the team have let on, but whatever the cause, Erasmo was not able to fulfill the promise of that brief call-up. Cingrani’s an interesting case, as he came up through the Reds system with basically one pitch, a fastball. Thanks to a deceptive delivery, Cingrani’s average velocity played up, and he struck out errbody in the minors. The Reds wanted him to develop secondary pitches, because no one can succeed with just a fastball (Bartolo Colon excepted), but that’s what Cingrani did last season, posting a K% near 29% (that’s incredibly good) and an ERA under 3. Unfortunately, the National League seems to have adjusted this year, and Cingrani’s ERA’s in the mid-4s, his K rate is down, and his HR rate is even higher than Erasmo’s. Again, Cingrani’s shoulder injury makes you wonder if he’s been 100% this season, but then again, his velocity wasn’t down, and, I feel like I should repeat this, the guy’s entire game plan was throwing 92mph fastballs.

The other possibility here is that MLB is no longer a bigger, better version of the minor leagues – that the changes that have swept through the big leagues have simply not filtered down the affiliate ladder yet. The big change I’m referring to is how the strike zone’s changed since the 2007 introduction of the pitch-fx system. Among the many culprits people point to for the decline in offense in the bigs, the strike zone changes seems (at least to me) the most plausible. Arming the umpires with much more information about what they were getting right and wrong, the strike zone has increased in size, and it’s done so by growing at the knees. That is, pitches near the bottom edge of the zone are now called strikes more often than they were in 2008. This finding has been corroborated many times, so it’s not likely to be due to pitch fx calibration issues or a botched research design. The question is, has the same change occurred in the minors? Some parks have pitch fx, and many have the TrackMan system, but to my knowledge, they tend to be used by teams for quantitative scouting, not checking the work of minor league umps. If it hasn’t, the effect would be different for different pitchers. A guy like Shoemaker, whose game seems predicated on getting people to chase low splitters and sliders, it could be pretty important. If hitters can know that a splitter isn’t going to be called, they may be able to hold off, even if it initially looks like it’s right down the middle. Since his fastball’s straight and only 91mph, they could sit on them once he fell behind in the count. Is that what happened to Shoemaker? I have no idea. It sounds possible, but then almost no one throws splitters to get *called* strikes – they’re whiff generators. It’s guys with good curves who should *really* notice the difference. But given Shoemaker’s breakout, that spate of awful games PCL umpire call-ups had early this season, and Javier Baez’s frustration about the zone, I do wonder if they’re more dissimilar than they’ve been in a while, and I wonder what that means for everything from Taijuan Walker’s chances of success to stats like major league equivalencies (MLEs) if they are.

A linked, but distinct possibility is that the PCL is especially hard on command guys like Shoemaker because their breaking balls flatten out in the high-altitude parks of Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Reno and Shoemaker’s home park, Salt Lake. With less vertical “rise” on his fastball, less side-spin on his slider, it’s easy to assume that Shoemaker would be a sitting duck, and the hypothesis would seem to explain why Shoemaker could be effective at AA and then implode once he got to AAA. The problem is that his best pitch, the splitter, would seem to be an ideal pitch at altitude, because it relies less on pure spin than a true breaking ball (it doesn’t really need horizontal movement, and some of the apparent “drop” can be the result of *less* backspin than a regular fastball, causing the pitch to appear to sink more). In any case, Shoemaker’s minor league numbers suggest a mid-rotation insurance or medical device salesman, not a guy with a big league ERA of 3 in over 130 innings.

Roenis Elias’s solid season has boggled my mind. Whoever the hell Shane Greene is has stabilized the Yankee rotation. Yusmeiro freaking Petit has a lower contact% than Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. Baseball is weird, and pitchers are engine of entropy at the center of it all. A pitcher like Kluber can suddenly click and pitch like a Cy Young candidate. Or, they can suddenly lose any concept of the strike zone like Erasmo (at the mild end of the spectrum) or Cody Buckel/Mark Wohlers (at the extreme end). But what Shoemaker shows is the possibility that even pitchers who don’t change their approach can look completely different when placed in a new context. That’s thrilling (“wait, could *I* be a big league if I changed my shirt and received just the right series of butt-pats?”), and also disorienting. I love hearing from scouts because I think I learn something new about pitching/hitting and even about *watching* baseball every time. I respect them tremendously. Maybe the Angels pro scouting department knew this was coming, but I can pretty much guarantee that 29 other scouting departments did not. That is, the best scouts in the business can watch a guy pitch in the high minors and have no inkling that he’s about to go 12-5 in the big leagues. Just like 20-some odd teams can pass on Mike Trout, who was essentially the best baseball player on the planet on draft day, and has remained so ever since. To be fair, I’m not picking on scouts here: they were clearly slightly ahead of the statheads, who if they’d had a vote, would’ve told Shoemaker to move to the bullpen or retirement. All of us, except for maybe a couple of people in Anaheim, saw this coming. Personally, I’m glad about that.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Podcast: Thank you, 2014

Matthew Carruth · September 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

The regular season podcast finale. Hopefully the Mariners will still be playing when I return.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner┬áin general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!

Game 148, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 14, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Jon Lester, 1:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 39.6%. Baseballprospectus.com: 35.0%

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Hart, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Young

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