Seattle Mariners vs. Houston Astros: Series 3 Recap

Well, that’s not what we expected, was it? The M’s dropped two-of-three from the Astros and were outscored 24-15. Perhaps there are saving graces in that the Mariners pitched their worst three starters, and that their offense scored five runs per game at home. Minuscule saving graces, though.

We might as well start with the big loss Tuesday night. Though it was only one game, the Astros scored 16 runs on the Mariners in Safeco Field. 16 runs?! In Houston’s first seven games, the Astros only scored 17 runs total, including three shutouts. I would be more than willing to bet that the Astros won’t score 16 again all season. In the series preview I made jokes about Marwin Gonzalez and Ronny Cedeno splitting shortstop duties, and then they went a combined 4-4 with a homerun. Every Mariners pitcher that entered the game gave up at least one run. How did it happen?

Let’s focus on Brandon Maurer’s role, since the game was nearly put out of reach before the first inning was complete. Maurer was allowed to face just 10 batters that night after getting shelled on the scoreboard. Maurer’s “sabermetric line” didn’t look too bad, and he even struck two of those ten batters out—Chris Carter on a slider and Brett Wallace on a four-seamer. Maurer allowed just one walk, no homeruns, and one double. The other six hits were all singles. FIP and xFIP actually liked his start, giving him 1.61 and 3.92 ERA estimates, respectively.

But our eyes obviously saw something different, and we shouldn’t ignore that. FIP and xFIP stabilize faster than ERA, but that doesn’t mean they stabilize in one game. Maurer made mistake pitches, and perhaps Maurer needs his changeup back.

These are pitch locations thrown by Maurer Tuesday night, and then pitches thrown by another pitcher you might know.

Maurer Hernandez InsideOutside

Toward the right of the strike zone would be the batter’s “outside,” so you can see that both pitchers were working away quite a bit, one of them down and one of them up. Both pitchers also left some pitches toward the middle of the plate. Based on these locations, why did the pitcher on the right—Maurer—get blasted in those 36 pitches, when the pitcher on the leftFelix Hernandez—had a perfect game through his 35 pitches??**

Obviously, pitch sequencing and movement also determine the pitch outcomes, and the location is important contextually. The first batter of the game was Jose Altuve, and Maurer got ahead with two seemingly good fastballs away from the middle of the plate. His 0-2 slider, however, left something(s) to be desired. Observe the slider’s location; it’s the yellow one.

Jose  Altuve Single - Astros - April 9

Yeah, that’s not the best place for an 0-2 slider. It sat up, it stayed over the plate, and it turned into a single. There are parallel universes in which Altuve grounds that out, pops it up, or misses it, but on this night, Maurer got burned early on a mistake pitch. Then, Maurer lead off the very next batter, Justin Maxwell, with this pitch:

Justin  Maxwell First Pitch - Astros - April 9

A fastball basically right down the middle. Actually, it’s a little outside-of-middle which—correct me if I’m wrong, baseball fans—actually allowed Maxwell to extend his arms a little more comfortably. Single.

I don’t need to beat a dead horse here. Maurer made some mistakes, and in this case, Maurer paid for them. But now I want to talk about his changeup a little bit more. In the series preview, I mentioned that Maurer had some success with his changeup in a Spring Training start against the Giants. In another spring start against the Reds, Maurer threw that changeup 16% of the time, and though he didn’t generate any whiffs, the pitch did have a effective run value.* But like he did in his last start against the Oakland, again Maurer stayed away from the changeup against Houston, throwing it just three times in 36 pitches. And again, he chose not to throw it on any of his two-strike counts.

While much of the data at this point in the season is just noise, by using PITCHf/x to look at each of his pitches, I found a potentially interesting signal. Observe:

Movement Spring Regular
FF 8.5 7.7
CH 4.6 5.5
Difference 3.9 2.2

PITCHf/x measures the vertical movement of pitches, as induced by the pitcher himself. In other words, gravity is removed from consideration, and only the spin on the ball in combination with air friction is measured. The vertical movements of his changeup and four-seamer have moved closer to together since the regular season began, and this new development has coincided with Maurer throwing significantly less changeups. In fact, Maurer lowered his changeup percentage from 23% in Spring Training to 12% in his first two starts of the regular season—and these changes are all statistically significant ones.

Obviously pitchers work on things during spring training, and the fact that he’s throwing less changeups in the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot by itself. But when we combine his avoidance of changeups with a narrowing gap in vertical drops, maybe we actually have something here. Maybe he lost his confidence in the pitch during his regular season starts because it actually wasn’t coming out of his hand correctly. Just speculation, but maybe.

But despite the poor results, there’s big part of me that wants to say Maurer got at least a little bit screwed. I know it’s hard to watch six runs cross the plate on seven hits and think, “oh, it’s not the pitcher’s fault,” but it’s not like batters take advantage of every single mistake ever thrown. On Tuesday night, it seemed like the Astros did just that. Maurer’s true ability obviously lies somewhere between his 1.61 FIP and his 81.00 ERA. But he can improve his location and sequencing—and if he has indeed lost his changeup momentarily, he can find it—and that’s all on him.

I guess there were two other games played in the series. Without getting into all that detail, the M’s won the first game 3-0, then got hammered 16-9 and 8-3 in the final two games. Here are some highlights and lowlights:

In the first game, the M’s only win, Joe Saunders went 6.1 innings, striking out five and walking just one. He scattered six hits, all singles, and didn’t allow a run. At some point in the future, I’ll get serious with Saunders’ PITCHf/x stuff, as well as for the M’s other pitchers, but today is not that day.

Justin Smoak reached base just twice all series, but he only struck out once. The low strikeout total is peachy, but it would be nice to see some of that spring power, Justin!

Like Smoak, Franklin Gutierrez reached base just twice during the series (in 10 PA), but the one hit he recorded went a long way. He ended a 9-pitch at bat against Brad Peacock last night by hammering a 93-mph four-seamer into the stands. That’s his third dinger on the season, and that’s a positive sign that he isn’t shitting his pants at the dish anymore.

One last piece of news: after going 3-fo-9 in the first two games of the series, Michael Saunders injured himself making a fine catch up against the wall in the first inning of the rubber match. He suffered a sprained right shoulder and will likely head to the 15-day DL.

A new series begins against Texas tonight. Catch Casey’s preview in a couple hours!


*Brooks Baseball measures run value by a linear weights method. Basically, if the pitch had a positive result for the pitcher, like a strike or a popup, then that would be deemed an effective pitch.

**First three innings against the A’s.