Mariners Find Themselves in a Starting Pitching Dilemma as they Gear up for Spring Training
A year removed from a season where the Mariners once again fell short of the postseason, finishing third in the West with a 78-84 record, there were a lot of question marks heading into the off-season. The majority of those questions centered around a starting pitching staff that had a very tumultuous 2017 campaign. The M’s finished below the MLB average in quality starts (62, 38% of total starts), runs allowed/game (4.77), and wins (47). There was a lot left to be desired and many people thought that General Manager Jerry Dipoto would focus on this issue specifically in gearing up for the 2018 season. Dipoto, however, did almost the opposite deciding to double down on his acquisitions and starters from the previous year and many of the questions from the start of the off-season remain.
The Mariners led all of baseball in pitchers used (40) last year as injuries played a large role, particularly at the top of Seattle’s pitching staff. Drew Smyly never appeared in a Mariners uniform, Hisashi Iwakuma was absent for the majority of the season, and James Paxton and Felix Hernandez missed significant time as well.
Even when they were on the field, players like Felix Hernandez left a lot to be desired. King Felix continued his struggles from 2016 finishing with a 4.36 ERA. His worst season since his rookie year in 2006. Some of the issues that caused Felix’s tough season can definitely be attributed to the shoulder issues that plagued him and ended up shortening his season. He dealt with shoulder bursitis, (an inflammation of the bursa sac) an injury that can tend to linger in pitchers who don’t have the option to stop using the shoulder. Even if Felix is able to see the field for extended periods of time in 2018, the shoulder might force him to take on a decreased workload.
Outside of injury problems, Felix’s ability to transition from a high-velocity fastball dominant pitcher to one that relies more on the location and off-speed pitches. Felix for the second year in a row, and only the second time in his career, used the changeup more than any other pitch in 2017 (25% of pitches). What really stuck out about Felix’s pitches, however, was the similarity in usage between his four main pitches (four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup). The difference between his most used (changeup) and fourth most used pitch (curveball) was only 3.65% (25.00 vs. 21.35).
As Felix’s changeup has dipped from its high of 31.28% in 2014, curveball usage has greatly increased. This can especially be seen against left-handed hitters where the curveball was his highest used pitch at 29.51 percent. Some of this could be due to the ineffectiveness of Felix’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs against lefties. Left-Handed hitters batted a whopping .410 and. 353 against Felix’s four-seam and two-seam fastball respectively last season. That coupled with left-handed batter’s 0.641 slugging percentage on the four-seam and 0.706 on the two-seam could be contributing to the change in Felix’s approach. Lefty batters hit 0.256 and slugged 0.385 against Felix’s curveball.
The difference in the numbers as well as the curveball being Felix’s highest used pitch against left-handed batters is pretty mind-boggling. In the context of the gradual loss of velocity on his fastball, however, and his difficulty locating his pitches this change in approach really shows Felix’s willingness to do whatever it takes to stay on the mound and in the game.
2018 will once again be interesting year for Felix. The years of guaranteed dominance and Cy Young Awards seem to be shrinking away, but by no means is Felix giving up. He is continually changing his approach on the mound as batters figure him out and his fastball loses its velocity. Felix has been under constant media scrutiny and pressure since his 2007 debut and he has always seemed to deliver. One can’t help but feel that the Mariners a healthy and capable Felix to contend this year.
The Mariners are no longer a team that requires a Cy Young level performance from Felix every night, but stability and consistency would be greatly appreciated by a team that used the most pitchers in all of baseball in 2017. The days of 98 mph fastballs and low 2 ERA seasons might be a thing of the past, but one can’t help but be optimistic that someday somehow all this tinkering will eventually payoff, he is the King after all!
Listed on the depth chart the number two starter, James Paxton took over the ace role from Felix in 2017. Paxton was finally able to live up to the hype that had been placed on him since his debut in 2013. The big lefty had a career year in ERA (2.98), IP (136.0), wins (12), win percentage (0.706%), and SO’s (156). Paxton won a Player of the Month award in July where he became the first pitcher in Mariners history to win six games in a month and added two Player of the Week awards.
Mariners fans should be very excited for the future of the Big Maple, but expectations must be tempered due to injuries once again. Paxton failed to reach 200 IP, while taking 4 trips to the disabled list. A left elbow contusion and strained tendon in his left finger placed him on separate trips to the 15 day DL, while a strained left pectoral muscle and a strained left forearm forced the Mariners to place him on the disabled list on two occasions. Paxton once again looks to be one of the best lefties in baseball heading into the 2018 season. His star can only shine as bright as his health, however if he wants to truly cement himself as a top pitcher in baseball.
Plug the Leake
This season sees a new look at the number three starting position in 2018. As Hisashi Iwakuma still tries to comeback from his injuries, the current roster has Mike Leake as the projected 2018 starter number three. The Mariners acquired Leake in a late August trade from the St. Louis Cardinals for minor league shortstop Rayder Ascanio and international cap space. Leake was a bright spot for the Mariners to end the season. He finished with a 3-1 record and 2.53 ERA in 5 games in a Mariners uniform.
Overall, he played 31 games in 2017 with a 3.92 and 186.0 IP. Leake should provide some of the health and reliability that the Mariners sorely lacked in 2017. Leake is a groundball pitcher that relies mostly on his two-seam fastball (45% of pitches in 2017) and cutter (23.1% of pitches). He also regularly uses a slider (13.1% of pitches), changeup (10.9% of pitches), and curveball (7.3% of pitches). Leake also will rarely throw a Four-seam fastball, but due to the fact he threw sixteen in August and zero for the other fifteen months of the season (0.59% of total pitches) it’s not likely we will see very many Four-seam fastballs from him this season.
Mike Leake is at his best when he is keeping the ball on the ground, and following a 2017 season where flyballs in the MLB tended to fly-fly away, this ability might prove very valuable for the Mariners. Leake’s two-seam fastball averaged just under 90.5 MPH, slightly below league average. Where it shines is in groundball percentage. An incredible 59.70 percent of Leake’s two-seam fastballs hit in play were hit on the ground.
Compare that to someone like Felix Hernandez (45.21%) or James Paxton (47.62%) and it is clear where Leake’s strength lies. The other pitch where Leake’s ability to keep the ball on the ground is highlighted is his changeup. Throwing it at just under 85 MPH his changeup induces ground balls on 66.67% of balls in play. Compare this to the King’s vaunted changeup 61.54% or James Paxton’s (42.11) and once again it is clear how Leake like to control the game. This ability to keep the ball on the ground, especially with players like Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager roaming the infield, should see Leake continuing where he left off at the end of last year.
The wrap up
Felix, Paxton, and Leake on paper this looks like a fairly solid lineup. Mariners fans know that spring training rosters can look much different by August. Following a year where it seemed like everything that could go wrong did, and regularly at that, these 3 will have to produce for the Mariners to have a shot at October baseball. The Mariners trot out one of the more balanced rosters that they have had in the recent playoff drought, but the season’s aspirations might very well hinge on these three pitchers. The Mariners no longer rely on the starting pitchers as much as they have in the past, but as we saw last year they can waste a season because of it.